Review: A family deals with grief in the face of environmental and political upheavals in a dystopian future

Richard Powers’s new novel, Bewilderment, is a story of great love and the lengths one will go for it, but it is also a profile of grief and loss—grief for a person, a nation and a planet; personal, political and existential loss.

The book is set in near-future America, where climate change has intensified, the president keeps postponing the election, but life goes on as usual. It explores Theo’s relationship with Robin, his emotionally disturbed, precocious 9-year old son. The story takes place in the aftermath of the death of Alyssa, Robin’s mother and Theo’s wife of a dozen years, in a car crash.

Bewilderment The question of how we train our minds through what we read and watch as viewers and readers raises questions.

Robin is reported to have A.D.H.D.O.C.D. or Asperger’s, and his father is resolutely against medicating him. Robin grieves for animals dying and for the planet. Robin even organized a one-person protest at Washington’s capitol. Alyssa, an animal activist lawyer, is also grieving. It is possible to see the larger picture of flooding in summer, border-crossing immigration crisis and a president declaring a national emergency. The book’s central experiment will be familiar, however.

Moved to action after Robin gets into an altercation at school and cracks a friend’s cheekbone, Theo agrees to let Robin study a brain scan left behind by Alyssa, Robin’s mother, in an experiment conducted while she was alive. Robin will be able to learn from his mother’s neural patterns the patterns and emotions that Robin experienced. “Scanning AI would compare the patterns of connectivity inside Robin’s brain—his spontaneous brain activity—to a prerecorded template,” Powers writes. Visual and auditory cues shape Robin’s responses, rendering them more and more similar to the neural responses of his mother’s brain template.

The treatment has profoundly changed Robin’s life. It not only calms his tempers, but also swings him towards the beatific. Of the people whose brains he is training on before he begins training on his mother, Robin says, “I feel like they’re coming over to my house to hang out or something. Like we’re doing stuff together, in my head.”

Robin is made moderately popular, and his image is used for the promotion of neurofeedback. However, the experiment is stopped by regulators, denying him the sensory experiences that allow him to achieve his peaceful, blissful state. Also, he loses his neural connection with his mother which seems to allow him to tap into the memories and knowledge of her. Predictably, Robin begins to slide back into his old, disgruntled self: “Enthusiasm and distress had become the same thing.”

Theo takes Robin to the Smoky Mountains in a desperate attempt to regain calm and tranquility. It is the Smoky Mountains where Theo honeymooned and where father-son enjoyed an adventurous trip together before the experiment began. Theo promises that Robin will be taken to the doctor when he returns. The trip takes place in the glorious shadow of the galaxy’s four hundred billion stars.

The book asks how we train ourselves through the things we read and watch. It also raises questions regarding the current treatments available for children like Robin. And it raises the question as to why Theo is so opposed to them, even going to extremes with the neurofeedback. Are there any risks? And are they worth the potential benefits? This area is overlooked by the book, as it assumes Robin requires medication. It seems to be demonized.

Bewildered is to be confused and perplexed. The book is filled with many mysteries, including how Robin and Theo can live without Alyssa, why democracy has become authoritarian, and why the world hasn’t woken up to the need to save the planet. This state of confusion is punctuated by moments of happiness and excitement when Theo and Robin explore imaginary planets, lyrically described by the landscapes’ relationship to the life forms that live on them. The book is filled with fascinating explorations about how life should relate and communicate with other life.

Powers’s language is taut and spare, rendering what is sometimes devastating into something beautiful. In a meta moment, the book proclaims, “Brain science knew that even imagination could change our cells for real.”

In BewildermentIt is clear that the vastness and complexity of the universe contrasts with the humanity’s desire to understand and explore it.

Pondering the extent of these changes and how they affect our identity as well as our relationships with others is part of the author’s meditative work in this novel. Robin’s so-called success in the experiment leads to unintended consequences in his behavior with everyone he interacts with, including strangers who recognize him once his identity is revealed. It is worth sacrificing what it takes to be a shining example of the possible. Surely every opportunity should be considered an advance? Can a change in the life of one person affect the trajectory and growth of a species?

The urgency of the novel propels you through it. We turn the pages to discover what Robin is experiencing as he develops on a dying planet. Robin is passionate about endangered species and is fascinated by their survival. While homeschooling Robin, Theo muses: “He’d discovered, on his own, what formal education tries to deny. We wanted something from Life. And time was running out.” Through Robin’s eyes, we see the tragedy of climate change and species loss for what it truly is: a betrayal of the future of the next generations, but also a threat to the singular beauty and value of creation for its own sake.

It is easy to see how vast the universe is compared with the humanity’s small ambition to discover and explore it. Powers envisions a world where we can connect to the brain patterns and measure them through functional magnetic resonance imaging. He also imagines being tuned into the natural world. “Someday we’ll learn how to train on this living place and holding still will be like flying,” Robin’s father thinks in Bewilderment.

Maybe one day, we will stop destroying the planet and start living in harmony with it. In the opening line of the book, Robin asks his father about extraterrestrials: “But we might never find them?” A sense of yearning permeates the novel. We long to be connected with people we haven’t met before, but particularly with those we have lost. Is science able to reunite us with them or can the afterlife do that?