“Otherworldly”: Richard Powers, Bewilderment

bewildermentI twitched in my sleeping bag trying not to wake Robin. A chorus of invertebrates swelled and ebbed. Two barred owls traded their call-and-response: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? Who would ever cook for this boy, aside from me? I couldn’t imagine Robin toughening up enough to survive this Ponzi scheme of a planet. Maybe I didn’t want him to. I liked him otherworldly. I liked having a son so ingenuous that it rattled his smug classmates. I enjoyed being the father of a kid whose favorite animal for three straight years had been the nudibranch. Nudibranchs are underappreciated.

Bewilderment is a heart-rending novel. It is about two failures, or two catastrophes. One is the failure of a father, Theo, to save his beloved, brilliant, difficult son Robin; the other is our collective failure to save our planet and the other creatures for whom it is also the only precious, fragile home. These failures are related: one source of Robin’s baffled fury—his terrifying, exhausting, destructive outbursts of rage—is the devastation he sees around him as some species are driven to extinction and others suffer needlessly because of human greed, selfishness, and callousness.

Theo is a single parent; he and Robin are still grieving for the death of his wife, Robin’s mother, Alyssa in an (apparent) accident, and that emotional struggle gives their close but fraught relationship additional pathos. Theo tries everything to help Robin learn to live in the world, to help him find his balance—everything, that is, except the one thing almost every other authority figure or expert involved in Robin’s life wants Theo to do, which is to medicate him. One source of Theo’s resistance is that he doubts their diagnoses:

When a condition gets three different names over as many decades, when it requires two subcategories to account for completely contradictory symptoms, when it goes from nonexistent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation, when two different physicians want to prescribe three different medications, there’s something wrong.

powers2“So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probably OCD, and one possible ADHD,” he tells Martin, a neuroscientist friend of Alyssa’s to whom he eventually turns for help. “Most of the common meds are pretty normalized,” Martin comments, but when Theo insists that he wants “some treatment short of drugs,” Martin proposes that Robbie enter his ongoing trial of a therapy called Decoded Neurofeedback, or DecNef, in which “subjects enter emotional states in response to external prompts,” generating scans that are then used to guide another set of subjects to follow in their mental footsteps. (I don’t pretend to grasp either the nuances or the feasibility of this intervention, or to know how realistic Powers’ evocation of it is.) This is Martin’s explanation of the approach they go on to take with Robin:

The scanning AI would compare the patterns of connectivity inside Robin’s brain—his spontaneous brain activity—to a prerecorded template. “Then we’ll shape that spontaneous activity through visual and auditory cues. We’ll start him on the composite patterns of people who have achieved high levels of composure through years of meditation. Then the AI will coax him with feedback—tell him when he’s close and when he’s farther away.

The treatments are successful from the start (“Brain Boy,” the researchers admiringly nickname Robbie) but they become remarkably so once Martin’s team connect Robin specifically with recordings of his mother’s brain activity from an earlier experiment she and Theo both participated in. Is Robin really reconnecting with his dead mother when he follows her thoughts and feelings in this way? It certainly seems like it, to him and to Theo: ‘It was her, Dad, Robin reports after one of the first of these sessions, and then, hauntingly, Your wife loves you. You know that, right?’

Theo’s hope is that the treatment will enable Robin to stay in and survive at school. It doesn’t work out that way, and so Theo begins home schooling him, with some costs to his own career as an academic astrobiologist. Robin flourishes under their new system:

He had no trouble keeping up with the public curriculum. He polished off his online self-exams with glee. We traveled everywhere that reading, math, science, social studies, and health let us travel. We studied at home, in the car, over meals, and on long walks through the woods. Even shooting penalty kicks against each other in the park became a lesson in physics and statistics.

Every success is precarious, though—the gains of the treatment wear off, even as Robbie becomes something of a celebrity as a case study, and the world around them continues to cause him distress Theo is increasingly unable to mitigate. Robbie finds meaning and motivation in activism, only to be crushed at its inefficacy, and at other people’s indifference (one of many ways in which his struggles reminded me of Owen’s). News of a devastating outbreak of bovine encephalitis necessitating mass killing of the “demented cows” causes a meltdown so self-destructive a worried neighbor calls child services.

powersTheo’s tense, beautiful, heartbreaking account of his life with Robin is intercut with their “visits” to other planets: part of Theo’s work is running simulations of what kind of life might emerge under wildly varying conditions which he and Robbie “explore” with exhilarating curiosity and awe. These sections are weird and wonderful, visions of possible worlds completely unlike our own and yet always imagined as possible points of connection. On the planet Pelagos, for instance,

Life spread through its latitudes from steamy to frozen. Hosts of creatures turned the ocean bottoms into underwater forests. Giant blimps migrated from pole to pole, never stopping, each half of their brains taking turns to sleep. Intelligent kelp hundreds of meters long spelled messages in colors that rippled up the length of their stocks. Annelids practiced agriculture and crustaceans built high-rise cities. . . . Dozens of dispersed intelligent species spoke millions of languages.

‘No telescopes, Dad,’ says Robbie; ‘No rocket ships. No computers. No radios.  . . How many planets are like this one?’ “There might be none,” replies Theo; “They might be everywhere.” ‘Well, we’ll never hear from any of them,’ Robbie concludes, not so much regretfully as with wonder. The planetary excursions reflect Theo and Robbie’s moods and needs: when their own world is too inhospitable—especially for Robbie, who is too sensitive to endure its sorrows, and too intelligent to be placated or distracted from them—they leave it behind. There is no escaping reality, however, and the last planet Theo conjures up is one “that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness. That happened billions of times in our galaxy alone.” His desolation is complete.

powers3I was initially drawn to Bewilderment because of its description as the story of a father and his “rare and troubled boy.” I had a son like that, and while his specific passions and hardships were not the same as Robbie’s, Powers captures a lot of what it was like to try and to fail to know what was right for someone whose gifts and whose difficulties were equally extraordinary, excessive, sometimes exhausting, especially but not only for him. I too liked my son “otherworldly”; his ingenuousness was so precious, even as it made him, sometimes, so vulnerable. “His pronouncements were off-the-wall mysteries to everyone except me,” Theo says of Robin;

He could quote whole scenes from movies, even after a single viewing. He rehearsed memories endlessly, and every repetition of the details made him happier. When he finished a book he liked, he’d start it again immediately, from page one. He melted down and exploded over nothing. But he could just as easily be overcome by joy. . . . Tell me what deficit matched up with that? What disorder explained him?

I think Bewilderment is, in part, about the limits of explanations, which are not, after all, instructions. What lies beyond them, as deep and vast and mysterious as space, is love.

5 thoughts on ““Otherworldly”: Richard Powers, Bewilderment

  1. Dorian December 10, 2022 / 2:05 am

    Beautiful, Rohan. Makes me much more interested in this book. I’ve never read Powers, even though, predictably, I own a few of his titles.

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    • Rohan Maitzen December 10, 2022 / 8:22 am

      It’s the only one of his I’ve read. I’ve been curious about The Overstory but am now a bit wary of it, as this one (though it moved me deeply) is borderline didactic – some reviewers, I now know, felt it went much too far in that direction, though I think it may make a difference whether you approach it primarily as a novel about ‘issues’ or primarily as a novel about parenting, as I did.

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  2. Jeanne December 10, 2022 / 1:30 pm

    This sounds interesting. I’m one of the–I’m going to say millions–of parents who were urged to medicate a little boy because he couldn’t sit still in first grade. The teacher told us that he had trouble paying attention, which we knew wasn’t true in any real sense, although it was true in the sense that he found first grade boring.
    Not comparing my son to this fictional one or to Owen, but saying that many parents will relate to this on some level.

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    • Rohan Maitzen December 11, 2022 / 6:35 pm

      I found that aspect of the novel both interesting and a bit troubling. There are so many questions around medications for children and skepticism is more than warranted – but Theo is against it on any terms which seemed possibly extreme.

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  3. Theresa December 14, 2022 / 10:19 pm

    I haven’t read his novels yet but maybe it’s time to do so. I read each new Kingsolver novel, always aware of the didactic potential. Sometimes it gets in the way but then, in a book like, say, Unsheltered, I find myself thinking about the breadth of her plot, the characters and their relationship to the issues at hand, even if the scaffolding occasionally shows itself.

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