BOOK CLUB: BEWILDERMENT BY RICHARD POWERS

This week Hannah Whittaker is looking at the extraordinary new release Bewilderment by the multi-award-winning American novelist Richard Powers.

As the world has continued to readjust from the effects of COVID-19 we have been inundated with amazing novels from some incredible authors who, luckily for us readers, spent their quarantine time writing some absolute masterpieces. One particular book that has stood out to me, which I read at the beginning of October, is Bewilderment by Richard Powers.

Powers is known for his focus on modern science, technology, and dystopian futures which have been core themes in his most successful novels such as The Overstory, The Time of Our Singing, and of course Bewilderment. Bewilderment could be defined as a science fiction book, but I think that there is so much more that to it than just that. The novel covers such a range of themes from family, grief and behavioural problems through to nature, the environment, and extra-terrestrial life. I think that it was this broad range of ideas which drew me into the book so quickly. Twenty pages in and I couldn’t put the book down, which is immediately a good sign!

The books storyline follows the lives of Theo, the narrator, and his son Robin, who we soon learn suffers from behavioural problems. Theo’s wife and Robin’s mother Aly passed away in a car crash a few years prior to when the book is set. The first few chapters of the book set up the overall storyline of how Robin’s behavioural challenges are affecting his school life as well as Theo’s life and career. We learn that Robin is fascinated by nature, taking after his mother who was an environmental activist. Theo continues to refuse using drugs to help monitor Robin’s behaviour – “He’s nine years old! His brain is still developing”. But Robin’s behaviour soon becomes too erratic for school, and Theo is forced to find a solution.

It is at this point that the reader is introduced to a former friend of Aly’s, Marty Currier, who suggested enrolling Robin in his neurofeedback experiment to help his behaviour, an experiment that Theo and Aly had also taken part in when she was alive. This experiment used AI to monitor neural activity, and by using the data from Aly’s mind, the reader sees Robin get closer to his mother and watches his behaviour significantly improve. Now I am definitely no scientist, but the way I understood this was that Robin’s patterns of connectivity were mapped and then shaped through visual and auditory cues. It sounds a bit confusing, but Power’s manages to communicate the experiment in an effective way so that everyone can understand it. Robin ultimately learns his mother’s recorded neural patterns, and this neurological connection between a son and a lost mother holds so much poignancy throughout the whole book.

Another element that gripped me to this book was the way that Powers used his language and vocabulary to further every aspect of his writing. The first quarter or so of the book places Theo and Robin on a camping trip, and every word Powers used is as evocative as the last. We walk every step of the way with the characters, taking in the beauty that the nature around them provides and beginning to understand how it is exactly this that brings both Robin and Theo happiness, serenity, and peace in their lives. “Six different kinds of forest all around us. Seventeen hundred flowering plants. More tree species than in all of Europe.”

Arguably my favourite aspect of this book has to be Theo’s stories of extra-terrestrial worlds that he uses as bedtime stories for Robin. Each planet has its own chapter to have its story told, and Powers’ use of language, which is similar to poetic prose, makes his imaginative stories come to life for the reader. “I took him to planet Dvau, about the size and warmth of ours”; “What else Dad? Where else? Show me another one”. These stories continue to represent Robin’s connection to nature, he yearns for more to learn and experience. Robin’s dedication to saving the planet reflects the dire situation our Earth is currently in. What the readers begins to see is that although this novel is based in a dystopian future, it shares significant similarities with our own world.

The themes which bring this novel together as a whole are tragedy and loss. The tragedy of losing a mother and wife, the loss of nature, of Theo’s career and Robin’s grip on reality.

But what we can learn from Powers’ writing and exploration of loss, however melancholic it may be, is that there is so much importance in seeing the beauty in the small things, whether that be nature, time with family, or simply Theo’s extra-terrestrial stories, which certainly brought me a lot of joy throughout the novel.

Page-turner – ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Complexity – ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Storyline – ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Overall review – ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

You can read more of Hannah’s work by following @the.goodbooknook on Instagram.

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