"Bewilderment," | Reviewed by Bill Winkler
Richard Powers’ 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Overstory” was a vast work with a multitude of characters and twining story arcs. Powers’ most recent novel, “Bewilderment,” is more intimate and limited in scope, but emotionally more stirring and, sadly, more pessimistic.
“Bewilderment” tells the story of Theo Byrne, a recently widowed University of Wisconsin astrobiologist, and his son, Robin. Theo writes software to detect evidence, in the spectral lines of light emitted from vastly distant exoplanets, of conditions conducive to life.
Nine-year-old Robin is intellectually gifted but socially challenged. Theo is frequently called to Robin’s school to deal with increasingly intense outbursts, culminating in his determination to home-school the child, even though that will mean limiting his ability to teach and pursue his research.
A colleague of Theo’s approaches him asking permission to enroll Robin in a research study involving the use of a highly modified MRI scanner to map and modify brainwave patterns. Theo, initially skeptical, eventually agrees. In the past he has rejected recommendations to place Robin on medications, and he feels that this might be a reasonable and less invasive approach.
What Theo is not told is that his research colleague will be using brain patterns archived from his late wife, Robin’s mother, to modify the child’s behavior. As the sessions proceed Robin makes encouraging progress, but Theo gradually grows aware that his son is showing traits that had been unique to his mother.
Theo’s work, and that of many of his university colleagues, is heavily dependent on funding from a federal government increasingly disparaging of scientific research that appears to have no immediate practical use. Ultimately Theo and many of his fellow researchers find their grants have been discontinued. Robin’s sessions in the scanner come to an end, and he shows signs of regression to his former state, leading to a predictably disastrous outcome.
Richard Powers’ novels are constructed of a blend of human interactions and scientific descriptions, much of them factual, some of them speculative. He never permits the science to overwhelm the human elements but employs it to build emotional tension but not always resolution.
Readers who enjoyed “The Overstory” will be likely to appreciate this most recent work with its skillful use of descriptive prose, although some may find its description of an increasingly authoritarian state to be too close to reality.