Review: Richard Powers amazes again with ‘Bewilderment’

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“Perplexity”, new novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers, hailed as “urgent and profound”, by Associated Press critic Rob Merrill

“Perplexity”, by Richard Powers (WW Norton & Company)

Here are two words so ingrained in Richard Powers’ astonishing new novel that they are almost useless: Autism and Trump.

The book tells the story of Theo Byrne and his son Robin, Robbie in short. Theo is an astrobiologist, which sounds very cool work for his son. He searches the cosmos for life on other planets! Robin is a pre-adolescent “on the spectrum,” as Powers writes (the word “autism” only appears twice, both times as a diagnosis, not as an adjective). A more clinical diagnosis, and the psychotropic drugs that would surely follow, do not interest Theo.

The events of the novel take place in something very similar to the present. Climate change is wreaking havoc around the world and an unnamed authoritarian US president is consolidating his power and trampling the human rights of millions of people. But the focus of the story is much more granular – a father trying to raise his only son after the tragic death of the woman they both adored.

Powers’ sentences are dazzling. Here he describes Theo’s first impression of his late wife: “Her mouth was wrinkling in almost permanent interruption, halfway between a- and being-museum … She held her small figure like an athlete before the blow of fire: challenges everywhere. It felt like a prediction, something on the way here. As in Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Overstory” (2018), the power of Powers with words shines even brighter when focused on the natural world. Here is the father and son, crabbing in a creek in Great Smoky Mountain: “The creek was almost warm now, warmed by the force of the current and our own adrenaline. But the water coiled up like something wild. Downstream, the rapids fell under orange trees which arched on both banks. From behind us, upstream, the future flowed over our backs into the sun-splashed past.

The plot hinges on an actual scientific element, called decoded neurofeedback, or DecNef for short. It is like training the human brain to recognize patterns from other brains. A person lacking empathy might “train” on a pre-recorded brain scan of a very empathetic individual, for example. Theo doesn’t want to commit his son to taking medication for life, so to dampen his emotional outbursts, he enrolls him in DecNef.

And that’s when things get really crazy. It’s a must-read novel for anyone who loves novels, a nominee on the National Book Awards long list of fiction. It’s urgent and deep and takes readers on a unique journey that will make them wonder what we are doing to the only planet we have.

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