Richard Powers: Bewilderment

by Jennifer Bryce

Bewilderment was on the 2022 Booker short list. It describes an intense father and son relationship – they are both still grieving the death of their wife/ mother two years ago. The son, Robin, is described as ‘neurodivergent’ and his school sees him as potentially ‘on the spectrum’, which Theo, his astrobiologist father points out, everyone is on. The book is set in the near future, it might be a second term of Trump.

Ultimately things get bad at Robin’s school and to avoid having him put on medication, Theo decides to home school him. Through university connections (particularly those of his late wife) Theo involves Robin in a project that uses Decoded Neurofeedback (DecNef), whereby through neural imaging participants can ‘approximate’ the neural structures of other people’s brains. In this case, Robin’s mother had participated in the project before her death, so Robin absorbs some of the structures of his dead mother’s brain.

Richard Powers

On this program, Robin’s behaviour improves. He is often obsessed with projects to save endangered animals – he spends hours meticulously drawing them. In a naïve nine-year-old way, he protests about endangered animals outside of Congress, when his father has to go to Washington to deliver a paper on his scientific work.

Then the funding for the DecNef project is cut. Robin’s behaviour starts to regress. In desperation, Theo takes Robin on a holiday to the Smoky Mountains, where they had spent a beautiful time around Robin’s ninth birthday. But they can’t stay in the mountains observing wildlife for ever. Hauntingly sadly, Robin’s determination to follow his mother’s example provides a solution.

I found this a beautiful account of a father desperately trying to help his ‘neurodivergent’ son negotiate life – a life in which they both share an intense love of nature and concern for how the behaviour of much of the world’s population is destroying the environment.