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Bewilderment: A Novel Hardcover – September 21, 2021
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AN OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB SELECTION
An Instant New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book of 2021
Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize and Longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction
A Best Book/Best Novel of 2021 at NPR, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Audible, Goodreads, Christian Science Monitor, Library Journal, Garden & Gun Magazine, and many more
A heartrending new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning and #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Overstory.
The astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life throughout the cosmos while single-handedly raising his unusual nine-year-old, Robin, following the death of his wife. Robin is a warm, kind boy who spends hours painting elaborate pictures of endangered animals. He’s also about to be expelled from third grade for smashing his friend in the face. As his son grows more troubled, Theo hopes to keep him off psychoactive drugs. He learns of an experimental neurofeedback treatment to bolster Robin’s emotional control, one that involves training the boy on the recorded patterns of his mother’s brain…
With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing vision of life beyond, and its account of a father and son’s ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Richard Powers’s most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?
― Oprah Winfrey
"Extraordinary.…Powers’s insightful, often poetic prose draws us at once more deeply toward the infinitude of the imagination and more vigorously toward the urgencies of the real and familiar stakes rattling our persons and our planet."
― Tracy K. Smith, New York Times Book Review (cover review)
"A heartrending tale of loss.…Powers continues to raise bold questions about the state of our world and the cumulative effects of our mistakes."
― Heller McAlpin, NPR
"Nothing short of transportive."
"[A]stounding.…a must-read novel.…It’s urgent and profound and takes readers on a unique journey that will leave them questioning what we’re doing to the only planet we have."
― Rob Merrill, Associated Press
"As in The Overstory, Powers seamlessly yet indelibly melds science and humanity, hope and despair."
― Dale Singer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Bewilderment is a big book about what matters most.…a brilliant, engrossing, and ultimately heartbreaking book."
― David Laskin, Seattle Times
"[P]oignant…Bewilderment is a cri de coeur.…this is a hauntingly intimate story set within the privacy of one family trapped in the penumbra of mourning."
― Ron Charles, Washington Post
"You could think of it as ‘The Innerstory’: It is about how and whether we see the world we inhabit.... It is enchanting, and it is devastating."
― Ezra Klein, The Ezra Klein Show
"Immersive and astonishing.…Powers captures the tragedy of a species that could, but perhaps won’t, become a lasting part of a cosmic menagerie. But in this absorbing and effortlessly readable tale he seems to have also found uplifting poetry in our despair."
― Caleb Scharf, Nautilus
"A moving depiction of filial love, as father and son confront a world of ‘invisible suffering on unimaginable scales."
― The New Yorker
"In Bewilderment, [Powers's] mastery strikes a new vein.…it raises goosebumps and breaks our hearts."
― John Domini, The Brooklyn Rail
"Achingly current and wise."
― Bethanne Patrick, Washington Post
"[Powers] wants to challenge our innate anthropocentrism, both in literature and how we live."
― Alexandra Alter, New York Times
"Remarkable....Bewilderment channels both the cosmic sublime and that of the vast American outdoors, resting confidently in a lineage with Thoreau and Whitman, Dillard and Kerouac."
― Rob Doyle, The Guardian
"One of America’s most ambitious and imaginative novelists.... In a year of unprecedented worldwide drought, fire, and flooding, [Bewilderment] couldn’t be timelier.... Whether concerning family or nature, this heart-rending tale warns us to take nothing for granted."
― Alexander C. Kafka, Boston Globe
"The tenderness between father and son seem[s] so real and heartfelt that the novel becomes its own empathy machine. What’s more powerful, though, is how the emotions Bewilderment evokes expand far beyond the bond of father and son to embrace the living world."
― Ellen Atkins, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Powers [has] an emotional core to everything he writes, and this sets him apart from nearly everyone."
― David Yaffe, Air Mail
"An unabashed tearjerker....The most moving and inspiring of all Powers’s books."
― Gish Jen, The New Republic
"Intimate.…Powers is an essential member of the pantheon of writers who are using fiction to address climate change."
― Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
"Powers succeeds in engaging both head and heart. And through its central story of bereavement, this novel of parenting and the environment becomes a multifaceted exploration of mortality."
― The Economist
From the Back Cover
Praise for The Overstory by Richard Powers
"It changed how I thought about the Earth and our place in it….It changed how I see things and that’s always, for me, a mark of a book worth reading."
― Barack Obama
"Monumental…A gigantic fable of genuine truths."
― Barbara Kingsolver, The New York Times Book Review, cover review
"Should be mandatory reading the world over."
― Emilia Clarke
"Extraordinary…What was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down."
― Benjamin Markovits, The Guardian
"Transformative and wise."
― Naomi Klein
"Dazzlingly written…Powers is as brilliant on trees and arborescence as he has been in past novels on music, AI, and neuroscience."
― Robert Macfarlane
"The best book I’ve read in ten years…It’s a mind-opening fiction, and it connects us all in a very positive way to the things that we have to do if we want to regain our planet."
― Emma Thompson
- Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company; 1st Edition (September 21, 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0393881148
- ISBN-13 : 978-0393881141
- Item Weight : 1.15 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.3 x 1 x 9.3 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #17,197 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on September 27, 2022
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Introducing all these topics with depth and meaning can be rewarding for the reader but it’s also overwhelming and sometimes demoralizing. The plot can be subsumed by the the table pounding that things are not right and the amount of information shared is over abundant.
I love so many aspects of his books - the cutting edge mental health studies or the depth of planetary talks between father and son. It rewards the curious. Overall he’s always worth the effort. It just feels a bit condescending to be reading about the dismal future of the world without much room for an individual reader to do much about it.
However, this is a book about devastating loss, both of the natural world and of loved ones. That sense of loss permeates every page, and the connection between the loss of a wife and the destruction of our planet is clear, particularly as expressed through Theo's son Robin. Through an intriguing process based on biofeedback, Robin is able to connect with his deceased mother and see the world through her eyes, giving the reader an alternative and more forgiving way to engage with those around us. When the funding for this research disappears--which is blamed on a President modeled explicitly on Trump--Robin experiences his own "Flowers for Algernon" moment, leading to a conclusion that should be heartbreaking but is instead simply too much.
What a book so explicitly centered on loss needs is hope, usually through providing the reader insight into how one can continue to live--and perhaps even thrive--in unbearable circumstances. Powers doesn't provide this. Instead, he piles on the despair: unanswered questions about whether Theo's wife Alyssa was faithful to him and whether Robin is even his son on the personal side; a US President who succeeds in his January 6 coup and becomes essentially an authoritarian dictator, a police force and local-level bureaucrats who function as his secret police, and a complete dismantling of funding for the sciences on the political side (those of a certain political persuasion will HATE this book); and mad-cow disease transferring to humans, a disease spreading to wheat plants across the world, toxins and wildfires running rampant throughout our environment, and more on the national side. All of this becomes unbearably painful in such a short book and there's not even a lack of resolution, but a lack of belief that healing is possible.
The book is interspersed with scenes of Theo and Robin visiting different planets, and contemplating how changes in orbits, proximity to other bodies, size, atmosphere, and so on would impact life on those planets is intriguing. My impression is Powers wanted to show that life is possible far beyond what we can know and we have choices for how we want our world to look. However, everyone who takes this point of view in Bewilderment--Aly, Robin, the Greta Thunberg stand-in--fails. Powers therefore gives the impression that he believes our world is doomed. Because he writes so well and I care so deeply about his characters--even in such a short book--I became increasingly anxious and agitated the further I read. By the end, I was devastated and depressed. Not every book should make you feel good, but I at least want a sense of hope or encouragement. The idea that "everyone is always all around us" doesn't serve this function like Powers may want it to.
Powers is one of my favorite current authors. I just wish he had provided some sliver of hope for our current situation.
Top reviews from other countries
This book had me in floods of tears containing as it does a mixture of neurodiversity ,astrophysics and the beauty and variety of nature on our home planet Earth
I was so engrossed in the book from the very start that I lost track of what was real and what was an alternate reality .
The book is beautiful,tender a hymn to the dangers to the planet of neglecting nature
The characters are natural and yet somehow more than that ,they are exaggerations of human variety but such subtle exaggerations that behavioural traits are instantly recognisable in people you know
The book had me in soggy blubbery bits but was totally unputdownable
THE STORY concerns a widower and his son, both consumed with grief for their recently dead wife and mother. It begins with father and son on a camping holiday in the hills, celebrating his son’s ninth birthday. The boy is full of hurt and anger and his father has problems coping with his son’s behaviour. She had worked in animal rights and her ideas had deeply affected both of them. The father was under pressure from his boy’s school and the doctors to medicate his son, but he resisted. This pressure greatly increased after his son’s act of extreme violence on another pupil. Searching for a solution, his father turns to a psychologist in the local university who uses an experimental method called DecNef (2). They have recordings of earlier DecNef sessions undertaken by the boy’s mother and he is trained on these. The effects of this treatment on the boy form the main part of the book.
THE BOOK does not have chapters. These are replaced by short untitled scenes of between a half-page to several pages in length. Each scene is flagged by starting on a new page, with part of the first sentence in uppercase. The scenes are punctuated by the father’s stories to his son of alien planets and their different eco-systems. There are also two background threads. The first has scenes about climate change events. The second has scenes about the political climate caused by the US President. This structure seems to drag you along in the story. The sentences are also short and accessible. It is the ideas that are complex.
FOR SOME READERS this book is too didactic, too scientific and too preachy. They will like the characterisation of a bereaved father and son, the long shadow of the deceased mother, the lost wife and nurturer. They will like how the father tries his best to help and protect his disturbed child. They will not like the technological psychology, the astrobiology and the environmental gloom. For others, all of these things will come together and give a thoughtful and positive read.
(1) The father works as an astrobiologist. He spends his time creating simulations of alien planets and their biospheres. He uses these simulations, and his collection of two thousand science fiction paperbacks, as a basis for the stories he tells his son. For example, the planet Chromat “had nine moons and two suns, one small and red, the other large and blue. That made for three kinds of day of different lengths, four kinds of sunset and sunrise, scores of different eclipses, and countless flavors of dusk and night. Dusk in the atmosphere turned the two kinds of sunlight into swirling watercolors.” (page 161)
(2) DecNef is short for Decoded Neuralfeedback. It involves the use of functional MRI (fMRI), neurofeedback and Artificial Intelligence (AI) software. The science fiction book Flowers for Algernon is mentioned on page 41 and this may have been an inspiration for this book.
Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning ‘The Overstory’ was one of my favourite reads of 2018 and so I was very keen to read ‘Bewilderment’. While ‘The Overstory’ was an epic, the focus of ‘Bewilderment’ is primarily upon the relationship between a widowed father and his troubled son; though themes linked to ecology and the Anthropocene are also found within its narrative. It is set in a slightly alternative USA, as indicated by chilling events playing out in the background.
Theo Byrne is a promising young astrobiologist engaged in the search for conditions suitable for life on other planets light years away. His nine-year-old son, Robin is an imaginative child, who feels deeply about nature and animals. He is also artistically gifted, quite capable of spending hours painting elaborate pictures of endangered species.
Yet Robin is also behaving erratically at school and is being threatened with expulsion from the third grade following a violent incident with a classmate. Robin is grieving the loss of his mother, Alyssa, killed in a car accident two years previously. Theo, too, is struggling to come to terms with her sudden death.
Theo encourages Robin’s art and his interest in the global campaign to address climate change. Theo also utilises his experience of mapping theoretical worlds to create scenarios of new planets for Robin to explore. This helps some though Theo is being pressured to put Robin on psychoactive drugs or risk social services stepping in.
Then Robin is referred to a radical experimental program that uses mind mapping for behaviour modification. Will this be successful and what are its ramifications?
‘Bewilderment’ is a work of literary science fiction that aptly demonstrates to those that continue to disparage the genre that it is capable of exploring serious, wide-ranging themes. Theo’s lifelong interest in other worlds, both in actuality and in his reading of science fiction, is highlighted, including mentions of ‘Flowers for Algernon’, a novel that has a poignant resonance with aspects of the story.
Overall, I found this an intelligent, thought provoking novel that explores the relationship between a father and son and encompasses themes of loss and bereavement as well as the possibilities inherent in human consciousness. It also made me weep. That’s a rare combination.
As I know that this is a novel that I shall want to return to and think upon, I had preordered its hardback edition.
I was pleased to see ‘Bewilderment’ shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize for Fiction.
Very highly recommended.
Bewilderment is a story about a father, Theo Byrne, his son, Robin, and their grief for a wife and mother, Alyssa, who died in a car accident. The story is narrated by Theo from the perspectives of himself and son. Theo is an astrobiologist who searches for life on other planets and Robin is a troubled nine-year old. Both father and son while grieving for the loss of Alyssa are also profoundly concerned about what is happening to planet earth. Theo raises Robin as a single parent and has concerns for his troubled son who has some form of mental health disability. Theo avoids allowing his son to be treated with psychoactive drugs opting instead for a futuristic treatment know as Decoded Neurofeedback where certain aspects of the thoughts of someone else is mapped into his son’s thoughts – in this case his mother’s. The aim of the treatment is to achieve: “a world where one person’s anger is soothed by another’s calm, where your private fears are assuaged by a stranger’s courage, and where pain can be trained away, as easily as taking piano lessons.”
Father and son take time out and venture on a camping trip into the woods called the Smokies. During this trip we begin to learn about the family’s background and the concerns of the two protagonists. To bring to life the concerns of the protagonists, Powers combines a realistic story about how we humans are treating the planet along with science fiction about imaginary planets and the development of new technologies that might enhance our lives.
This is not the first novel in which Powers has used digression as a means of presenting vignettes of other stories. In his brilliant novel, Operation Wandering Souls, which tells the story of traumatised children in a hospital ward, in order to place the children’s experience in historical context, Powers interrupts the main narrative with classic stories of mistreated children. In Bewilderment in could be said that the digression to stories about life on other planets is a call for us to imagine other life forms and ways of living.
Through Robin’s mental health disability, Powers explores an area he has broached before in his novel The Echo Maker – namely the study of the brain and the nerve system. The novel peeks into the future by speculating about alternative therapies other than psychoactive treatment for mental health disability. So Robin undergoes treatment by means of using an fMRI scanner to address his mental health issue. He practices mindfulness a kind of meditation which along with Decoded Neurofeedback is said to “steer him toward the desired emotional state”.
In Bewilderment, Powers continues with an approach that combines the arts and science. Robin’s curiosity leads Theo to explain many scientific issues – for example the relationship between electrons and atoms. Also, in a lecture on the origins of life he reminds us that: “Here on earth it was archaea and bacteria and nothing but archaea and bacteria for two billion years. Then came something as mysterious as the origin of life itself”.
Ultimately the narrative drifts towards environmental politics. We have an unnamed president who corruptly orders the arrest of a journalist on the pretext that she published leaked information. This is an allusion to Trump. Also, a young fourteen-year-old protester is given credence for organising a cyclist protest – an allusion to Greta Thunberg. Robin finds her inspiring. This jarred with the overall narrative and lacked conviction.
The politics of the novel is one of pessimism. There is scepticism from politicians about founding a project that would search for extra-terrestrial life. But the scepticism is not just about financial cost it is also driven by a view that humans are the only conscious sentient beings in the universe worth bothering about. The novel sums up this position by stating that: “if we academic elites found life arose all over, it wouldn’t say much for humanity’s Special Relationship with God”. It is also a political place in which the separation of key state institutions has become at best blurred and worst lost. So, “Congress itself now took orders from the White House, and the appointed judges had fallen in line. A steady destruction of norms favoured by less than half the country had united the branches of government under the president’s vision.
The story is rendered partly in a style that is opaque. Powers has a way of making the familiar unfamiliar as in poetry. This gives pause for thought about what is being conveyed. Nonetheless, Powers overall style is absorbing. In one section the rhetorical style gave the impression of a great orator impassioned about the issues being conveyed.
This is a novel, as its title suggests, that ask the reader to think of other ways of being and living. What detracts from this otherwise timely and worthwhile novel is that the protagonists are overly driven by a narrow cause which in turn gives the novel a feel of didacticism. In the context in which we live one asks the question does this matter? The answer lies in this line from the novel: “But ten thousand children with Robin’s new eyes might teach us how to live on Earth”.