BewildermentBewilderment by Richard Powers
My rating: 4/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

I’d missed something obvious, in over thirty years of reading and two thousand science fiction books: there was no place stranger than here.

powers’ last novel, The Overstory, was met with such across-the-board praise, such reverence, that it’s almost shocking how poorly this one has been received.

i get why people dislike it—the trump/greta thunberg stuff is kludgy, the planetary bedtime stories are distracting, and robin is wicked annoying.

Don’t worry, Dad. We might not figure it out. But Earth will.

oh, brother.

and yet.

the way this book encapsulated all the feels of the nowtimes, distilling the zeitgeist of our collective anxiety over divisive politics and environmental collapse and humanity’s uncertain future into such a compressed narrative, letting loose the whole anguished howl of it—i thought it was magnificent.

quickplot: theo is an astrobiologist and recent widower challenged by his new role as sole caregiver to his nine-year-old son robin; a sensitive precocious child with an undiagnosed (or overdiagnosed) behavioral disorder: …the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD and one possible ADHD.

for his part, robin is coping with his grief over the death of his environmental activist mother aly by embracing her causes, channeling his impotent rage into advocacy for the animals and ecosystems endangered by generations of careless human activity.

it would be facile and cheesy to say that although robin couldn’t save his own mother, he could try to save mother earth, but i’m a facile and cheesy kind of gal. feel free to toss an “oh, brother” eyeroll my way.

after robin has another violent outburst at school, theo ignores the numerous recommendations that he be on medication and instead pulls him out of school altogether.

theo’s a little out of his depth—he had always been a hesitant parent, letting aly take the lead—and robin’s unpredictable mood-swinging grief-rages require a patient and unconventional approach.

theo devotes himself to the task of becoming a father-teacher—putting his own career on the back burner in order to be present for robin, nurturing his passions by tailoring projects and assignments to his particular interests, whipping up a million vegan meals and snacks and cobbling together an educational pupu platter of good intentions, book learning, and life lessons.

a bright, sensitive boy majoring in how effed the planet is—what could go wrong?

it’s a tricky situation, yeah?; educating children about How Things Are—torn between protecting their innocence or telling them the truth. theo always opts for honesty, for scientific facts, never talking down to robin even when the answers are intellectually or emotionally beyond the scope of what a nine-year-old can digest.

in a locked-down 2020 world, where parents were suddenly quarantined with their kids ALL DAY LONG, often thrust unprepared into homeschooling situations, when the news was filled with horrors impossible to explain to young kids, how do you as a parent navigate any of that?

it was a common theme permeating the 2020&etc. experience—hand-wringing anxiety about the hubristic audacity of having children; of bringing a life into this falling-apart world, concerns about children growing up traumatized by media informing them that the future of the planet is all downhill from here.

How did real teachers handle this? How did they manage field trips down that river without faking the data or ignoring the obvious? The world had become something no schoolchild should be allowed to discover.

still, theo and robin are managing, in their father-and-son-and-grief-makes-three way, but when an opportunity to treat robin with an experimental neurofeedback procedure that synthesizes (probably the wrong word, but whatever—science is hard), robin’s brain with recordings made of aly’s brain, theo is intrigued and agrees to give it a shot. robin’s demeanor changes drastically following these training sessions; he is calmer, happier, and more self-possessed. but also—maybe—a little bit possessed by aly’s brain-essence infusion, bringing her back to life, in a way, by exhibiting some eerily familiar mannerisms, by saying things—knowing things—he couldn’t possibly know. it’s a beautiful, painful, and spooky situation.

and then a lot of other stuff happens and some of it is great and some of it is cloying. it’s a relatively short, fast-paced book, and when it’s on, it’s a wonder: joy and hope and awe and grief and rage and betrayal and dread, the whole mess of life experienced by and passed between a father and a son against the incomprehensible world. (for a thematic bleakfest, double-bill this one with The Road).

the ending is effective, equal parts shocking and inevitable. EDIT: i just read sarah pinsker’s short story A Better Way of Saying: A Original (read it for yourself here), which references that strange moment in a disaster where everything feels at once preventable and inevitable, and that description is a pretty apt summation of what transpires.

it’s not a perfect book, but there’s a lot to admire, and months after reading it, i am still sitting here admiring it.


heart and brain too overloaded by this right now. will review when i’m down to a simmer.

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