Devastating and essential are the two words I would use to describe this novel from Richard Powers, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of “The Overstory,” another novel I loved.
In “Bewilderment,” Astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life in the cosmos while single-parenting his nine-year-old son, Robin, who is on the spectrum and about to get kicked out of third grade for bashing a fellow classmate. Robin’s mother and Theo’s wife died in an accident a year ago. Now, father and son must contend with their grief and with a world that’s falling apart due to climate change and predatory capitalism.
To keep Robin off psychoactive drugs, Theo has him try an experimental neurofeedback theory in which he tries to mind-map to the template of his dead mother’s brain, who was an environmental activist and possessed a primary operating mentality described as one of ecstasy. It’s fascinating stuff and Robin shows enormous progress. He begins drawing fauna and flora, plans his own campaign to save endangered species, and engages with others on a new level.
But soon the experiment is shut down and Robin regresses again. Theo’s own project for a space telescope gets shut down, too, because science is no longer a priority as the country turns authoritarian. Our planet is clearly in peril and Robin’s father can’t protect him from that fact.
Composed of short vignettes and a number of beautifully rendered imaginations between Theo and Robin of other potential life-sustaining planets, this father-and-son tale is right up there with another story of a father and son, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”
If you can take a dose of painful reality while fostering wonderment at the infinite vastness of the universe, this novel is for you.