October 2021

Noted

‘Bewilderment’ by Richard Powers

By Adam Rivett
Image of ‘Bewilderment’
The Pulitzer winner’s open-hearted reworking of ‘Flowers for Algernon’, updated for modern times

Nearly 500 pages into Richard Powers’ previous novel, the Pulitzer-winning The Overstory, the reader lands upon these two short sentences: “Species clog every surface, reviving that dead metaphor at the heart of the word bewilderment. All is fringe and braid and pleat, scales and spines.” As an evocation of the frenzied connectivity at the heart of Powers’ work, this description could hardly be bettered. His novels are dense, knotted and ambitious, populated with large casts moving across grand stretches of time, wrestling with intricate intellectual concepts, making the personal historical and vice versa. It’s with some irony then that Bewilderment (William Heinemann), his newest novel, might be the simplest and most elegant he’s published in over 35 years of writing. Something of an unofficial sequel to The Overstory, it returns to that book’s environmental concerns with a streamlined cast and a narrower, more personal focus. In place of the braid there is a single, simple strand.

At the centre of the book stand a father and son. Theo Byrne, a young astrobiologist, is recently widowed. Robin, his nine-year-old son, is smart but short-tempered, and possibly undiagnosed with Asperger’s. At night, the father and son dream of trips to invented planets, but these escapes are tinged with melancholic desperation. All around them an America of the unspecified near-future teeters on the brink of collapse, with an openly fascistic government blithely overseeing accelerating environmental catastrophe. With Robin growing more unmanageable, Theo moves beyond accepted medicine and, via a colleague, enrols his son in a course of neurofeedback, an experimental science based around brainwave activity and mood alteration, which almost immediately improves Robin’s ability to deal with the world.

What Powers has fashioned in Bewilderment is an explicit reworking of Daniel Keyes’s classic Flowers for Algernon, updated for modern times. His depictions of complicated science and technology have always possessed both depth and readability – artificial intelligence in Galatea 2.2, chemistry in Gain – and here his sci-fi imaginings are again convincingly grounded in real scientific advancements. Both Robin’s lengthy neurofeedback sessions and his trips to imaginary worlds feel persuasively furnished and detailed. It’s rare to so successfully harness both the sciences and humanities to such fictional ends, and this remains Powers’ most remarkable, and inimitable, talent.

As with his previous novels, there can be moments of didacticism and heavy-handedness – the recent turn in his books towards a moral urgency can at times leave him doubling and tripling already proven points. Yet he is an exceptional prose writer and an adept narrative architect, and in Bewilderment his sense of structure and voice remains superb. For all the potentially obtuse material handled in his books, Powers has over time become a pleasingly old-fashioned writer, committed to readability without oversimplification.

This novel’s highest achievement might be its emotional heft. Despite his earlier work’s impressive architecture and erudition, moments of pathos often felt unconvincing, the result, perhaps, of their diffuse sprawl. Not here, however, where the writing at times borders on sentimental in the most forgivable way – this reads like the work of an ageing author, and, more precisely, a worried parent. Not so much a “way we live now” as a “way we’ll live soon” novel, Bewilderment juggles the human and the polemical with a deft hand and an open heart.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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