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.


The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall

“That was why it was so weird when she left, out of all the adults. Most of them taking off wouldn’t have been that strange in the grand scheme of things. But my mom, Juniper, she was the one who knew about the world and seemed to care about our well-being the most. Why would the one who was the most invested drop off the face of the earth and never come back, or call, or write, or somehow check in to see if we were okay? Didn’t she ever wonder how we turned out?

Sometimes I fantasized that she had hit her head and had amnesia, like on the soaps I watched with Granny after school in grade eight. Or she had a brain worm and it made her crazy and she thought her name was Brenda and she worked in a shoe store somewhere in Alabama. Maybe she got lost in the woods and became feral.

Then one day in my first year of university I was on the subway, and a kid was screaming and throwing his food on everyone and the mom was shushing uselessly at him, and I thought Oh, oh, this is why. Being a parent is actually a black hole of never-ending sorrow and boredom and maybe that’s why she left.

Forthcoming release “The Spectacular” by Zoe Whittall is a brutal, rock and roll kind of a book. Missy, born on a commune and abandoned by her mother when she is a tween, is a bit of a dirt-bag rockstar, unable to truly connect or commit to anyone or anything in her life. She is a Riot Grrrl, a Carrie Brownstein-esque character who is simultaneously hard to love and hard to resist.

Summed up in one word, “The Spectacular” is a novel about wanting. In fact, want is likely the most ubiquitous word in the book. Missy bares her wanting shamelessly, achingly, and with a rawness that almost hurts.

“At twenty-one, I wanted the richness of the present moment, and that was all. Why not be loud about it? Being demure is for suckers.”

“I want to cross the country with the freedom of any man my age. I want to experience every spectacular, vivid detail of life on the road, to play our best songs, to jump out into the crowds, to fly on top of their outstretched fingers, to kick one leg in the air during the endless final solos, to be grabbed and kissed by the life of it all, to have a great time.”

“I want to look like a girl, but I want the freedom to act like a guy. This makes me unlikable, but have you ever remembered a likable person? Especially likable, easygoing women. Women who say things like whatever you want is fine and agree with everything men say. They’re a dime a faceless dozen. They blur together.”

Zoe Whittall writes with a brutal rawness and a simplicity of language that pulls no punches and has little patience for poetic embellishments or rose-colored glasses. If the punk scene, struggles with identity, or the rockstar life are motifs that call your name, this book is for you.

Thank you to Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, for providing an Advanced Readers Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review.