Booker Prize 2021: Bewilderment by Richard Powers

estimated reading time: 4 minutes

They share a lot, astronomy and childhood. Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.

Richard Powers’ Bewilderment makes you think, it leaves a mark. Set in a not-so-distant future society, Theo and Robin are a father and son trying to cope with the loss of their beloved wife and mother, Aly. The promising astrobiologist is suddenly plunged into raising his child by himself, more specifically a nine-year-old boy diagnosed with disturbed behaviour. But Robin is an extremely intelligent child, a lover of nature (just like his parents) and the reader clearly perceives how desperately his father loves him and tries to help him understand and control his emotions. Indeed, using his work models, he creates alternative universes to give Robin the chance to know and live – albeit shortly – in different worlds.

The narrative starts with a short holiday between the two: Theo brings the boy to the woods and there they spend a week connecting with nature, wondering about the mysteries of life and science. However, reality is still there, and father and son can’t avoid it forever. At school, in a fit of rage, Robin smashes a friend’s face. The principal insists on putting the boy on psychoactive drugs, threatening Theo to get social services involved. The father strongly refuses but an unexpected option comes up: a new neural feedback therapy might help Robin to better control his emotions by using fMRI and brain mapping. Most importantly, it would do so by using a pre-recorded brain mapping of his mother, consequently giving the chance to both father and child of having an everlasting contact with their beloved Aly. A question starts making its way in the reader’s mind: how long can this last? What will happen when the therapy comes to an end?

I told him. It came from Buddhism, the Four Immeasurables. “There are four good things worth practicing. Being kind toward everything alive. Staying level and steady. Feeling happy for any creature anywhere that is happy.  And remembering that any suffering is also yours.”

Readers and protagonists embark on a journey against time, with Powers showing us the devastation of our planet through a child’s eyes. The writer’s ability stands in making us reflect and wonder about what is left for our environment and in the end, what is left for us in the future. Powers’ style is simple and brilliant. The novel, which is not divided into chapters, gives us the impression of living with Theo and Robin, almost experiencing the thoughts of its protagonists. In less than 300 pages a whole world of deeply important issues is discovered, explained in the simplest and clearest way. A central, mainly political part, is intertwined with the characters’ story and it creates a tension we have already experienced at least once in our lives, either personally or in some other part of the world, witnessing it through the media. The claustrophobic political scenario proposed is not unbelievable nor unreal: common men and common environmental issues seem not to matter when power is involved. 

Despite the seemingly difficult scientific topics, Bewilderment is a tiny masterpiece capable of mixing neuroscience, astrobiology, politics and environmental concerns with reality, life and most of all love, the common denominator that should unify men and earth just as it happens between a father and son left alone to take care of each other. Bewilderment is a prayer of love and hope for the world we are living in, while we still have the chance to change it for good. 

Watching medicine fail my child, I developed a crackpot theory: Life is something we need to stop correcting. 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.

Why it could win

I have loved this book from the beginning to its unexpected ending. It is astonishing how Powers is able to deal with contemporary fundamental issues without boring its readers and creating a deeply personal, almost sacred experience. There is never a dull moment, and the pages are permeated with every possible emotion: it makes you cry, laugh, fear and think just in a few pages. Power’s work truly shows how it is possible to create a masterpiece in the simplest style, with a good rhythm and with the most incredible descriptive prose, a few suggestive scenes. I highly recommend this novel and I truly think (and hope) it has the chance to win the Prize.

by Carolina Granini

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