I must have read everything by Richard Powers and every time I am blown away by his work. This novel is no exception, even though Bewilderment is not a typical Powers. Usually the writer abounds in intricate story lines with several perspectives that come together perfectly towards the end. Bewilderment restricts itself to one story line. A story line that had you by the throat from the very start. Powers has added a hitherto unknown element: a play with emotion.
Theo Byrne and his son Robin are the main protagonists of Bewilderment. Wife and mother Aly, who crashed her car whilst trying to avoid a possum, is omni-present in their heads and hearts. Bewilderment is told from the perspective of Theo. Robin is the one asking questions, making remarks, in italics – typographically distinguishable.
After an almost blissful start with father and son spending quality time together watching stars somewhere in the mountains, page four starts with the elephant in the room. Robin is a child who has been labelled, a diagnosis has been made. He cannot control his temper, can be out of control. His school wants him on medication, Theo refuses. He does not agree with the diagnoses, recognizes his son’s anger attacks, struggles to find a solution that will not have his child dazed.
The alternative turns out to be an experimental computer treatment that kind of combines EMDR, mindfulness and ZEN. Robin profits from the treatments and this becomes even more obvious when he is given access to his mother’s energy waves (recorded in a previous experiment) and is told to follow those (sorry, it is kind of difficult to describe this treatment correctly). Robin changes from a difficult child into one who controls his emotions and deals with life in an almost grow-up way.
Robin nevertheless is not your typical child. He demands to be home schooled, is fascinated by nature and is extremely distraught by global warming leading to animals and plants becoming extinct. Influence by his mother and Greta Thunberg he becomes an activist. An activist that is still a child that does not comprehend the way social media or the powers to be work. He is sorely disappointed every time people find him cute whilst not taking him seriously.
I suspect Theo might have been labelled too. He is a scientist who searches for life forms in the universe, working together with like-minded scientists. He seems not to grasp the demands of modern times completely. Theo provides the planets they discover with a history and a story. I never really understood how he did this, I do know the stories about alien life on far away planets had me as fascinated as Robin. It is not completely surprising he does not quite fit the curriculum at his school.
The story line is straight-forward: Powers takes us along in the lives of Theo and Robin. He larders their time line with scientific elements from Theo’s career. As the novel proceeds the number of critical comments on the political climate increases. Powers turns out to be a bit of an activitist himself. It is quite clear he is not a fan of the previous president of the United States, without mentioning his name once. In his novel Powers has the liberty to show us things could have turned out even worse..
Bewilderment is saturated with despair. Powers does not achieve this by giving in to exuberant descriptions. He subtly adds words expressing doubt and fear into Theo’s thoughts. The entire novel oozes Theo’s fear that he cannot cope with Robin on his own, the growing certainty that Robin is a special child, the desperation of not being able to prevent Robins’ specialness in negativity. Controllable only by medication that takes away his highs and his lows.
Bewilderment is a cleverly written novel in which Powers shows once again he can perfectly manage structure (only short chapters in this novel), style of writing (beautifully constructed long sentences) and content. Focussing on Theo’s attempts to keep Robin as perfect as he is. Bewilderment turns out to be the novel in which Powers transforms Theo’s despair into a compelling second story line. Emotions and facts lead to a heartbreaking conclusion you feel coming right from the start.
I was under the spell of Bewilderment from the first moment on. Powers yet again proves he is one of the best writers of this day and age. Bewilderment deserves the spot on the shortlist, I rate his chances of winning this year high. I suspect I will be rooting for Powers.