After the epic scope and arboreal passion of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Overstory,” Richard Powers’ “Bewilderment” feels lean, modest, almost hermetic.
Instead of the sprawling cast of visionaries, revolutionaries, tree-hugging eco-warriors and the tree species that inspire with them in “The Overstory,” the new novel is populated by just three primary characters: astrobiologist Theo Byrne, his late wife Aly and their troubled and troubling 9-year-old son Robin.
The scenes and settings are mostly unspectacular: a house and lab in Madison, Wisconsin; camping trips to the Great Smoky Mountains; messages and memes chirped by devices much like those in our pockets. The language is spare; the first-person narration conventional; the near future only a shade darker than the dire present.
And yet, at 275 brisk pages, “Bewilderment” is a big book about what matters most: our place in the cosmos, the relation between inner and outer space, the endurance of love in the face of catastrophe.
As the novel opens, Robin is spinning into crisis. Always “in trouble with this world,” a hypersensitive loner who “melted down and exploded over nothing,” Robin is increasingly horrified by the multiple disasters his species inflicts on the planet. Like his late mother, who devoted her brief life to saving endangered animals, this boy can only live with himself by fighting for other, nonhuman lives.
The son is fiercely earthbound, but the father has his eye fixed on the sky, scanning distant galaxies for the faintest “biosignatures” emitted by other life-forms. In Powers’ projection of the future, astrobiology — the search for life on other planets — is an established discipline but an endangered one. Under the iron fist of a reactionary, Trump-style regime that condemns the search for extraterrestrials as a violation of the sanctity of human life, Theo’s work is stymied at every turn. Funding dries up, labs are shuttered and a new dark age descends even as the planet incandesces with heat and pollution.
“Dad? With all those places to live? How come nobody’s anywhere?” Robin asks his father as the two of them gaze at the seeming infinity of the night sky. Later, the disillusioned boy proffers his own answer: The universe is silent because “everyone’s hiding. All the smart ones, anyway.”
How can the same species — ours — be at once so brilliant and so awful? Human science is breathtaking, and human cruelty fathomless. Why? This question haunts “Bewilderment” as it haunted Powers’ previous novels, particularly “The Overstory” and “The Echo Maker.” In a twist as disturbing as anything in this disturbing work, Robin starts on an experimental neurofeedback program that propels him swiftly, almost miraculously toward emotional equilibrium. But the neuroscientist who pioneers and administers the program turns out to be a manipulative creep who peddles his prize patient to the press. “This late in the world’s story, everything was marketing,” Theo reflects bitterly when he learns that video clips of his son have gone viral online.
No wonder all the smart ones are hiding from us.
“It’s not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book,” Margaret Atwood remarked — and “Bewilderment” does not alter that judgment. It’s a brilliant, engrossing and ultimately heartbreaking book — but also, perhaps deliberately and appropriately, a bewildering one.
The sections in which Theo conjures up imaginary planets and their life forms as bedtime stories for his excitable son are bravura flights of scientific and literary fancy. But they also end up unbalancing the novel’s rather fragile framework. These fabricated planets — Chromat with its nine moons and two suns, water-covered Pelagos where immense kelp strands spell messages in rippling colors — swarm with a myriad of dazzlingly bizarre creatures. But back on Earth, Powers rarely strays from the orbit of one overprotective father and his erratic son. Their relationship, poignant as it is, ends up feeling static and claustrophobic.
Readers ravished by “The Overstory” may come away discouraged by the bleakness and sadness of “Bewilderment.” And maybe that’s as it should be. After a long hot summer of drought, plague, smoke and fire, this is a book that hymns our planet’s terrible moment — not a wake-up call but the first grim chords of a requiem.