In Richard Powers’s New Novel, Hope for a Grieving Kid and Planet May Lurk in the Human Brain
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By Tracy K. Smith
By Richard Powers
The great American poet Lucille Clifton once said: “In the bigger scheme of things, the universe is not asking us to do something, the universe is asking us to be something. And that’s a whole different thing.” In Clifton’s mind, this proposition was not speculative but resolutely practical. What if we exist to serve as stewards of the planet rather than its plunderers? What if it is our calling to be the equals of all living things rather than agents of their domination? In the face of all that we have waged, ruthless and unending battles for the right to get wrong, what would it take for us to accept a different role in the bigger scheme of things?
The proposition that our thriving as a species hinges on assenting not to a different manner of doing but of being sits close to the conflict — and the extraordinary revelation — at the heart of Richard Powers’s novel “Bewilderment,” his 13th, including “The Overstory” (2018), which won a Pulitzer Prize. Personal peace, if not thriving, is predicated on the protagonist Theo Byrne’s ability to see his own life, the memory of his deceased wife and his son, Robin, through newly adjusted eyes.
Theo is an astrobiologist whose research involves searching the galaxy for planets with the potential to host life, and running the data to spin out imagination-boggling scenarios of the possible life-forms such conditions might allow to flourish. It’s a dream job for a sci-fi-loving loner still hamstrung by grief. But in the near future in which “Bewilderment” is set, America has tilted further toward anti-intellectual authoritarianism; government funding for such Old Testament-flouting research is drying up. Nevertheless, dreaming up possible worlds that so brazenly defy earthly logic — worlds that suggest “everything could be for real, somewhere, someday” — is a great skill to have at bedtime, especially because Theo struggles to raise 9-year-old Robin on his own.
Robin is sensitive, introverted, prone to erratic behavior. Theo can’t bring himself to accept the experts’ advice: that the solution to his son’s extreme sensitivity and his occasional outbursts is medication. Instead, father ministers to son by talking, camping and stargazing. Robin longs to feel the presence of the mother he remembers as extraordinarily alive: full of fervor not just for her own living, but for all sentient life, whose entitlement to fair and humane treatment it was her career as an animal-rights lawyer to defend. And so, a large part of the conversation between father and son has to do with recreating a sense of Alyssa, Theo’s daring and passionate wife, and Robin’s imaginative and compassionate mother.
When an outburst in school leads to a threat of expulsion, Theo allows his son to become a human subject in a neurofeedback therapy study taking place in the lab of one of Alyssa’s close friends. On therapy days, Robin’s brain is trained to access neural pathways corresponding to particular emotional states, including on a recording of his mother’s experience of ecstasy, made in the lab before her death. Reader, it worked! “Decoded Neurofeedback” therapy, at least in the world of the novel, makes a pretty strong case for the possibility that the key to being our best selves might be to really and truly find out what it feels like to be someone else. Robin achieves such nuances of self-control, empathy, imagination and consolation that he becomes more than a well-adjusted child — he becomes an emotional superhuman, a public activist, an internet meme.
Some of us will immediately think of Daniel Keyes’s 1966 novel “Flowers for Algernon,” which also happens to be the audiobook Theo and Robin listen to on a road trip from Wisconsin down to a camping spot in the Smoky Mountains. And so the joy of watching Robin triumph is tempered by the knowledge of just how far south such an enterprise might descend.
Oh, but the heights! In “Bewilderment,” possibility is synonymous with the vast wilderness of childhood, with the child mind’s innate world-building capacity, and with the child self’s inherent multiplicity. As Theo puts it:
Decoded Neurofeedback was changing him, as surely as Ritalin would have. But then, everything on Earth was changing him. Every aggressive word from a friend over lunch, every click on his virtual farm, every species he painted, each minute of every online clip, all the stories he read at night and all the ones I told him: There was no “Robin,” no one pilgrim in this procession of selves for him ever to remain the same as. The whole kaleidoscopic pageant of them, parading through time and space, was itself a work in progress.
Powers’s insightful, often poetic prose draws us at once more deeply toward the infinitude of the imagination and more vigorously toward the urgencies of the real and familiar stakes rattling our persons and our planet. In the world of the novel, the president sends Trumpesque tweets straight to Americans’ cellphones via a “National Notification Service” before overturning the results of a national election. Calling the president a “dung beetle” is an imprisonable offense. Freak weather, no longer the aberration, routinely disrupts travel. “Ninety-eight percent by weight of animals left on Earth” are “either Homo sapiens or their industrially harvested food.” Wildfires ravage the continent. There is precious little distance between the world of the novel and the world to which the novel makes its appeal.
Regarding the inevitable forms of tragedy with which this book is intent upon grappling — that loved ones die, that progress has its limits, that as a species we fail more often than we succeed — “Bewilderment” invites us to ponder not only our dominance of the planet and the ways that the unjust power of a few dominates the lives of others. It also insists we ponder this: At what cost do we allow our capacities for fear, jealousy and appetite to trounce other equally intrinsic capacities, like empathy, courage and forbearance? What if our worst enemy is not barricading himself in the White House or pelting our children with taunts on the playground? What if it’s right here, lighting up neural pathways inside our own skulls?
Lucille Clifton’s work demands that in order for our species to recognize its proper place in the universe, we must collectively admit to the beauty and the inviolable sanctity — the essentialness — of Black life. The conscience animating “Bewilderment” lobbies for the essentialness of plants, animals and those of differing needs and abilities. This being 2021, Powers also seems committed to demonstrating an awareness of Black Lives Matter as a viable proposition. Two characters identified as Black play briefly but significantly into the narrative arc of “Bewilderment.” On the depth spectrum, I’d say they occupy spots somewhere between extras and archetypes; their choices help Powers trip the switch on certain narrative inevitabilities, but, by and large, the bewilderment of the novel’s title is played out in white bodies and minds and in spaces where whiteness can be taken for granted.
Perhaps there’s nothing surprising or unusual about that. Neither is there anything surprising or unusual about the kicking in of my readerly desire to bring my whole self, race included, to the pondering of this profound novel. I’ll admit there was a tiny pang in discovering that the Blackness of those two characters was planted in the narrative only to be almost immediately retreated from. As is often the case, my corrective capacity rushed in to try to assure me that the white imagination may be a better setting than many for an exploration of the abysmal ends of power.
Indeed, the dynamic Powers calls out has implications in every context where the wishes of a powerful few claim priority over the needs of others. Coercion is often manifest as the reasonable-enough-seeming demands for compliance insisted upon by teachers, colleagues and even strangers in order to foster the comfort of others: Don’t fight; don’t procrastinate; don’t carry a grudge; carry your own weight; don’t make others uncomfortable; don’t incite guilt; don’t dare name the ends of power’s zero-sum game. Aren’t these the demands with which calls for all manner of change are routinely deferred?
What is the bigger scheme of things, and how do we get — and stay — there? If any writer is capable of invoking such scale, and allowing us to linger there awhile, it is surely Powers, whose capacity for world-envisioning offers rapt readers moment after moment of captivating recalibration. The possible — like the real — is enormous. Like other intelligent life in the universe, the possible is everywhere and nowhere, hiding in plain sight.
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