There is a throwaway detail in Richard Powers’ Bewilderment that made me laugh aloud. It comes midway through the novel, when nine-year-old Robin Byrne is suffering through a Thanksgiving dinner thrown by his grandparents, who are baffled by his fussy eating. On his plate sit “militantly gravy-free potatoes”. My amusement was simply because my youngest son detests gravy, and the poor lad had the misfortune to grow up in a household where everyone else ladled it on like soup. The adverb ‘militantly’, like so much in Bewilderment, was pitch perfect.
That small plot thickening moment is just part of why Booker Prize contender Bewilderment, a fascinating, moving portrait of the love between neurodivergent Robin and his astrophysicist father Theo, struck a chord with me. The novel has an emotional truth that is heart-wrenching. The pair are grieving the loss of Alyssa – Theo’s wife, Robin’s mother – and when Robin attacks a classmate with a metal Thermos flask, Theo takes him on a calming camping trip to the Southern Appalachians, to explore nature, to talk and stargaze. He is desperate to avoid having to medicate his child.
For a novel to have an emotional impact on a reader (well, this reader at least), the characters need to behave, discuss and think through their lives in ways that resonate as true. In this case, it is the exploration of parenthood by Powers – winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Overstory – that reverberates so loudly. It is a testament to his powers of fiction writing that 64-year-old Powers is without children of his own. He shows great skill in imagining the feelings and anxieties of a 21st-century child, drawing on what he admits was his own “strangeness” as a young boy.
The opening chapters are set in the Great Smoky Mountains (where Powers lives) and they are the most rewarding. Powers has a gift for capturing nature’s glories, in this case the autumn delights of a place with mossy boulders, thousands of flowering plants, more tree species than in all of Europe, thirty kinds of salamander and the most elaborate mushrooms imaginable, ones, in Theo’s words, that are “mounded up in a cream-colored hemisphere bigger than my two hands”.
Being out in the wild with your kids is one of the most magical aspects of parenthood. Powers captures this splendidly and I enjoyed the descriptions of these nature-exploring exploits, especially the sense he conveyed of being in your own universe when you are alone with your child. Although my adventures were less derring-do than sleeping under the stars in the Smoky Mountains, I still smile at the memory of taking cover in a tent on a rugged British beach, eating snacks and talking nonsense with my middle son while the wind raged outside. It remains one of the happiest hours of my life. Perhaps, like Robin and Theo, we talked of imaginary planets.
However, parenthood, is no continuous picnic. There are fraught, complicated emotions at play – think of John Updike’s Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom and his son Nelson – and Powers explores the problems of a closely-knit father-son pair who are struggling to cope with profound loss.
Theo admits that everything about parenting terrified him, and that “the ways of going wrong never failed to stun me.” He jokes that “children have a high tolerance for mistakes,” as he remembers the blunder of reading his then six-year-old son The Velveteen Rabbit: Or How Toys Become Real. Only years later does he learn that the creepy storyline gave Robin searing night terrors. Confession time: that passage brought to mind when, long ago, I allowed my eldest son, then only a couple of years older than Robin’s age, to watch the Jack Nicholson film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Years later, I learned it had given him horrid nightmares. That is one of the most powerful things about Bewilderment: like all good fiction, it makes you ponder on your own life.
As a reader, you are meant to empathise with Robin, an unusual child shattered by the death of both his mother and his “crippled old beast of a dog, Chester”. Robin has been diagnosed with possible autism spectrum disorder; his father notes drolly that “the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD and one possible ADHD”. Theo resists the calls to use medications on a young brain that is still developing, arguing that, “if eight million children are taking psychoactive drugs, something isn’t working.” His scientific view is that life itself is a spectrum disorder, “where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow”. The late Alyssa’s view was more straightforward. She lived in dread that “the world is going to take this child apart”.
The volatile nature of Robin’s moods is rendered with a deft sensitivity. At the heart of the novel is the ability of this neurodivergent child to be direct and candid in calling out adult dishonesty, a trait that rings unerringly true from my experience of spending two years working in the ‘special educational needs’ departments of state schools.
Bewilderment is, in part, a new take on Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, a science fiction story about a laboratory mouse who undergoes surgery to increase his intelligence. In Bewilderment, Robin reconnects with his dead mother through a neurofeedback study of brain patterns. During the experiment, Robin’s anger subsides and he becomes obsessed with helping endangered animals and plants – he is inspired by a young environmental activist, a fictional version of Greta Thunberg – allowing Powers the opportunity to explore the reality of being a parent in an era of climate change, in a world run by political leaders who “test the outermost limits of public gullibility”.
Powers pinpoints one of the hardest things about being a 21st-century parent (the novel is set in what the author calls a “near-term future”): the battle to maintain hope in what the future will bring your children – all children – when all you desperately want for them is the best. Bewilderment is explicit that this is a failing world, “a Ponzi scheme of a planet,” one in which despicable men such as Donald Trump can be elected President. It is hard not to wince at Robin’s plangent cry, “Dad. Everything’s going backward,” a comment that prompts Theo to muse on his own response to all the craziness going on: “I’d sit in the evenings doom-scrolling, while Robbie painted endangered species at the dining room table.”
Bewilderment spells out that even a nine-year-old child can see that humans threaten the survival of the very planet on which we depend for life. If only all the leaders at Cop26 reacted with the same visceral panic as Robin to the prospect of mass extinction. My children take refuge in gallows humour, joking about looking forward to a time when they will have to fight over the last tin of spam in a storm-ravaged country.
Yet it’s wrong to make parenting sound too anxiety-ridden and bleak. It’s not. It’s also full of joy and wonder. All you can do is pass on little scraps of wisdom, do your best to help them acquire sufficient survival skills and then learn to accept their ultimate separateness from you. In Bewilderment Powers avoids pretending he has all the answers. “Life is something we need to stop correcting,” says Theo. “My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom. Every one of us is an experiment, and we don’t even know what the experiment is testing.”
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