Bewilderment by Richard Powers

“The pages turned; we traveled easily, everywhere.”

If you’re like me, the words “Richard Powers has a new book out” might be all you need to hear to know that something beautiful is about to happen. Powers is a stunningly gifted writer, a shaper of words and ideas, a master of literary fiction. He has the ability to go so deep in his research, to imbue his characters with such expertise and easy intelligence, that it seems impossible that all of his books are written by only one man. Whether it is the exploration of neurology and memory, music and race, trees and ecology, or climate change and grief, Powers’s books take the reader on a journey that leaves them with a deeper understanding of science AND humanity.

In Richard Powers’s newest novel, Bewilderment, out in the US 9/21/21 and already shortlisted for the Booker Prize, an astrobiologist is raising a neuroatypical, exceptional son on his own after the death of his wife.

“The suggestions were plentiful, including syndromes linked to the billion pounds of toxins sprayed on the country’s food supply each year. His second pediatrician was keen to put Robin ‘on the spectrum.’ I wanted to tell the man that everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is. I wanted to tell the man that life itself is a spectrum disorder, where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow. Then I wanted to punch him. I suppose there’s a name for that, too.

Oddly enough, there’s no name in the DSM for the compulsion to diagnose people.”

Theo Byrne is brilliant, tender-hearted, and heartbroken. As an astrobiologist, he is constantly imagining limitless new worlds; as a parent, he is constantly faced with the limits of ours.

They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.”

Much of existence presents itself in one of three flavors: none, one, or infinite. One-offs were everywhere, at every step of the story. We knew of only one kind of life, arising once on one world, in one liquid medium, using one form of energy storage and one genetic code. But my worlds didn’t need to be like Earth. Their versions of life didn’t require surface water or Goldilocks zones or even carbon for their core element. I tried to free myself from bias and assume nothing, the way a child worked, as if our single instance proved the possibilities were endless.”

The tenderness Theo shows his son Robin throughout Bewilderment is daunting and profound. Robin is obsessed with climate change; his knowledge and his worries are fueled by the voracious consumption of facts about the world around him, facts which fuel a righteous rage.

“‘People are lonely because we’re jerk-faces. We stole everything from them, Dad.’…

He saw it now: We humans were dying for company. Our species had grown so desperate for alien contact that traffic could back up for miles at the fleeting glimpse of anything smart and wild.

‘No one wants to be alone, Robbie.’

Compassion struggled with righteousness and lost. They used to be everywhere, Dad. Before we got to them. We took over everything! We deserve to be alone.”

Like many of Richard Powers’s works, this novel will wrap itself quickly around your brain and feed your curiosity, all the while coiling slyly around your heart, slowly constricting until the heartache is almost too much. Bewilderment is everything one may rightfully expect from a Richard Powers novel; it is poetry on scientific stilts, an aerial landscape painted with a Dutch Masters’s brush. A MacArthur genius, Powers’s last novel, The Overstory, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and this latest masterpiece may well win the Booker Prize. Powers, in my opinion, deserves all of the accolades.

Thank you to W.W. Norton for providing an Advance Readers Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.

1 thought on “Bewilderment by Richard Powers”

  1. Exceptionally well written review, which encourages me to rethink my personal ban on books whose covers feature the inherent egotism and maddening marketing of printing the author’s name larger than the title.


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