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Richard Powers’s Bewilderment Is an Exercise in Empathy

He has always dealt in big ideas. Can he do emotion?

The novelist Richard Powers has made a name for himself as a gloriously geeky writer, unafraid of big ideas. Over 12 novels, he has tackled race, religion, identity, politics, music, technology, surveillance, genetics, the environment, and more, often in startling ways. In The Gold Bug Variations, he interwove Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” the four base nucleotides of DNA, and the two pairs of lovers of the plot. In The Echo Maker, he juxtaposed a man’s lost memories and connections with the transcendent echoes animating the great, ancient migrations of the sandhill cranes. And in his recent, Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Overstory, he foregrounded the complex, social, interconnected lives of trees, asking what it would mean to be “bound back into a system of meaning that doesn’t begin and end with humans.”

by Richard Powers
W.W. Norton & Company, 288 pp., $27.95

The Overstory sealed Powers’s reputation as a visionary. More contested has been his status as an artist. T.S. Eliot famously described Henry James as having “a mind so fine no idea could violate it”—something no one would say of Powers, whose inspired schema often unfold at the expense of his characterization. Thomas Mallon wrote of his 2003 novel, The Time of Our Singing, that Powers “plays his people like thematic violins,” and, along similar lines, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that his “interest in his characters does not go beyond their usefulness as symbolic elements in grand theoretical assemblages.” Of course, all novels are at some level assemblages. At the same time, while rich with artistic intention, they ideally evince what Kant called “purposiveness without purpose.” Or, at least, this is the view of the dominant literary culture right now—that novels are essentially playful. They explore and reveal—indeed, reveal deeply. But they are not instrumental. They are rather, like people, autotelic, ends in themselves. And so, too, ideally, are their characters, which, Pinocchio-like, come to life, escaping the control of Geppetto.

Powers has rejected this consensus. When a review by Nathaniel Rich placed The Overstory in the “grand realist tradition,” Powers was skeptical. “I’m flattered that someone could read any of my books like that,” he told The Guardian, “but they’re myths.… And they’re allegories, which is even worse.” Powers is trying to write novels of ideas, he has said, while “knowing that the novel of ideas [has] had its day, and that day is not now.” The difficulty, in his view, is “how do you tell a story of intellectual passion while making it warm enough to be accessible?”

This difficulty is central to his latest novel, Bewilderment. Its premise is inspired by Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon, a science-fiction classic published in 1965. As Powers writes in an opening author’s note, Algernon came to mind as he pondered a new neurofeedback technique he’d come across. Recalling how, in Algernon, first a mouse, and then a human, undergo an operation that radically expands their intelligence, Powers began to wonder what would happen if this new neurofeedback technique could expand a person’s capacity for empathy. Happily, too, it seems, the Algernon model brought aid on the warmth front, as it is an unabashed tearjerker: What starts out as hope boomerangs tragically. To this basic arc, Powers added a single father, a neuro-atypical son, and the back-to-back deaths of the child’s extraordinary lawyer-activist mother and the family’s beloved dog. And voilà—Powers was set to go about his real business.

Theo Byrne, a 45-year-old father and the narrator of Bewilderment, is an astrobiologist—a scientist who, in predicting the gases that might be present in the atmosphere of a given planet, predicts as well which planets might support life. He is, in short, alive to possibilities others aren’t, and we first meet him on a camping trip full of magic.

A full Hunter’s Moon hung fat and red on the horizon. Through the circle of trees, so sharp it seemed within easy reach, the Milky Way spilled out—countless speckled placers in a black streambed. If you held still, you could almost see the stars wheel.

His precocious nine-year-old son is a splendid companion. Though already, in Theo’s words, “sad,” “singular,” and “in trouble with this world,” Robin—a.k.a. “Robbie”—is galvanized by natural phenomena, and as riveted as Theo by the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists. Even if we never hear any sign of them, “like ever,” Robbie and his dad agree, that means “Nothing definitive.” Is the whole huge universe really barren of life besides ours here on Earth, or is it teeming with life we simply can’t apprehend? Theo and Robbie fervently believe the latter.

It’s touching. Still, it is unclear how we are to read Theo in particular. Most of what he says suggests that Powers wants us to believe in him and side with him. When he looks at his son and says, “Such defiance. Such radical skepticism”—recognizing these things to be “so me” and, referring to his late wife, Alyssa, “so her”—we are fans of them all. And I, for one, could not help but react sympathetically at first when Theo says:

I never believed the diagnoses the doctors settled on my son. 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.

By Theo’s own account, though, Robbie is unusually sensitive to noise; refuses to give up clothing he has outgrown; occasionally wets his bed; and has thrown a thermos at a classmate, fracturing his cheekbone. He is also preternaturally intelligent. He can quote whole scenes from movies after seeing them once; he sketches uncannily well; and he can focus for long periods on anything formatted in a table, whether it is the Minerals of Nevada or the Kings and Queens of England. Like his late mother, an ardent wildlife advocate, he is especially attuned to the catastrophic and ever-accelerating decimation of whole animal species. But whereas Alyssa brought lawsuits, Robbie acts out—one day biting Theo’s wrist, for example, and arguing, “there’s no point in school. Everything will be dead before I get to tenth grade.” When Theo finally allows him to stay home, it is only to hear “a skin-freezing scream turned into the thunder of toppling furniture.” Robbie has overturned “a five-foot-high bookshelf,” and smashed his mother’s ukulele through a window.

Whatever the fads in diagnoses, and however split his doctors, Robbie appears to have a problem. So, too, does Theo, when he demands,

What was there to explain? Synthetic clothing gave him hideous eczema. His classmates harassed him for not understanding their vicious gossip. His mother was crushed to death when he was seven. His beloved dog died of confusion a few months later. What more reason for disturbed behavior did any doctor need?

Theo crusades against placing Robbie on drugs—claiming that the school is mandating this, although it is unclear that the school is, and implausible that it could. Of course, intelligent, educated, dedicated parents can have blind spots, particularly with regard to their children. Theo’s, however, seem tailor-made to explain his enrolling Robbie in the Algernon-reminiscent experiment in which Powers is interested. Do we really believe an unproven therapy never before tried on children will, as Theo maintains, get the school off his back? Well, never mind.

The researcher is an ex-boyfriend of Alyssa’s named Martin Currier. Armed with a color wheel of emotions, Currier has enjoined a number of subjects to simulate these emotions in the lab and, by extracting common patterns of neural activity from their fMRI scans, made “brain prints” of these states. He is now hoping to use them in a kind of behavioral therapy with instant biofeedback. Currier explains that

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.”

It is, in effect, a kind of AI-assisted empathy training, except that the trainee is not being trained to feel another person’s whole range of feelings but only a slice of it, and the object is not to understand what it is to be the other person but only to modify the trainee’s behavior. The twist, in Robbie’s case, is that Currier has a brain print made by Alyssa before she died, so that Robbie can actually be “trained” to match his brain activity to hers. This is a particularly felicitous opportunity, since she was, after all, his mother—making this a kind of posthumous mothering. But what’s more, while she was always, like Robbie, strung out by the plight of Earth’s animals, she was, unlike Robbie, extraordinarily resilient, with a marked gift for bliss. As Currier remarks, she “had some prize brain-body chemistry.”

The training is transformative. It raises a host of questions (Can we call emotions acquired this way our own? Would a scientist father really not think through the risks?), but the issues in which Powers seems interested have more to do with the relationship between our broken selves and our broken world. At one point, an interviewer observes, “You seemed so hurt and angry,” to which Robbie answers, A lot of people are hurt and angry. “But you’re not, anymore?” says the woman. In answer to which, “He giggles … No. Not anymore.” As for what he now understands,

Everybody’s broken … That’s why we’re breaking the whole planet.
“We’re breaking it?”
And pretending we aren’t … Everybody knows what’s happening. But we all look away.

Might wholeness, courage, and empathy save creation? And could Powers have erected the whole creaky edifice that is this novel in order to air this idea? It does seem so. Theo says that Alyssa “used to claim” that “if some small but critical mass of people recovered a sense of kinship, economies would become ecology. We’d want different things.”

And along similar lines, Robbie proposes that brain prints of animals be made, that people might be trained on them.

I mean, think about it, Dad. It could just be a regular part of school. Everyone would have to learn what it felt like to be something else. Think of the problems that would solve!

To this, Theo responds:

Robbie was right: we needed universal mandatory courses of neural feedback training … The template animal could be a dog or a cat or a bear or even one of my son’s beloved birds. Anything that could make us feel what it was like to not be us.

One can agree that human solipsism has wreaked incalculable damage yet still see why Powers might be accused of playing “his people like thematic violins” here. ­Alyssa, Robbie, and Theo are not Pinocchio come to life but firmly in thrall to Geppetto’s strings.

There are yet other points to be made. As Alyssa, when she was alive, once argued, only 2 percent by weight of the animals left on Earth were wild. “Either Homo sapiens or their industrially harvested food” accounted for the other 98 percent. “Didn’t the few wild things left need a little break?” And Robbie asks things like, “Did you know that the world’s corals will be dead in six more years?” while Theo reports that a prominent ecologist foresees a wave of mass extinctions as a consequence of warming, with “thousands of interconnected species failing in a series of cascading waves. Not a gradual decline: a cliff.”

Powers’s interest in Alyssa, Robbie, and Theo is not strictly limited to their thematic usefulness. Take Theo’s description of Robbie’s preparations to stage a protest at the Capitol:

He dressed up. He wanted to wear the blazer he’d worn to his mother’s funeral, but after two years, putting it on was like squeezing a butterfly back into the chrysalis. I made him wear layers; any kind of weather could blow in over the lake that time of year. He wore an oxford shirt, a clip-on tie, slacks with a crease, a sweater vest, a windbreaker, and boy’s dress shoes that shone from long polishing.
How do I look?
He looked like a tiny god. “Commanding.”
I want them to take me seriously.

That mix of parental concern, tact, and pride, that desire to stand up and be counted way before the world is prepared to give you notice: How I would have loved to see more of this sort of thing in the book. Or what about Theo’s ambivalence about Robbie’s condition? He does provocatively muse, “I couldn’t imagine Robbie toughening up enough to survive this Ponzi scheme of a planet. Maybe I didn’t want him to. I liked him otherworldly … I enjoyed being the father of a kid whose favorite animal for three straight years had been the nudibranch.” Powers doesn’t delve into this further, however. More satisfyingly drawn are Theo’s frustration with the vagaries of scientific funding and his quixotic belief in his work. When his colleagues question the point of “simulating so many worlds, many of which might not even exist,” he poignantly answers, “What’s the use of childhood?” It is ironic to see Theo make so autotelic an argument in so instrumental a novel.

For all his brilliance, Powers can be sloppy in his use of language. To cite just two examples: “To pony up” means, of course, to pay up, not to ride as if on a pony, but Powers gives us, “Robin ponied up to his desk.” And in talking about the neurological changes he’s noticing in Robbie, Theo says, “Each day’s small changes blended into him and went native,” as if they were somehow able to adopt local customs, abandoning their home culture. It is impossible not to wish Powers would take more care with his phrasing, if only not to distract from his themes.

He seems, after all, to be going for broke for them. In the course of giving a talk, Theo recalls Carl Sagan’s emphasis on “the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” If Powers likewise channels Sagan more than he does Henry James, it is with nothing less than the healing of humanity and the saving of the earth in mind: We must, we must, he tells us, re-embrace the wilderness and heal ourselves with its true medicine before we destroy our planet. In the meanwhile, like Theo, we lie to ourselves and our children, with catastrophic results. Where are our courageous questions?

As for whether readers are persuaded that the urgency of this message justifies the instrumentality of its vehicle, I predict a split between those who do and don’t believe the novel must, above all, live. How do we feel about Pinocchio? Do we recognize the puppet’s waywardness as revealing of human truths that fealty to Geppetto could not? And do we see that waywardness, too, in, say, John Milton’s portrait of Satan in Paradise Lost—in the undertow of admiration that led William Blake to describe Milton as being “of the Devils party without knowing it”? If we feel something important about humans is glancingly captured there—something about grudging respect and all we can’t help but feel—we might well agree with Powers’s message but still not press this book upon our friends, finding it, ironically, not wild enough. If we believe, on the other hand, that the saving of the earth comes before all, including what Powers might see as the arrogant, individualistic, humanist product that is contemporary literature, we are likely to embrace Bewilderment whole hog—even to find this the most moving and inspiring of all Powers’s books.