Review: Bewilderment - Richard Powers
Genre: Literary Fiction, Eco Fiction.
Published: William Heinemann (Penguin Cornerstone), September 2021
My Rating: 2/5 stars
"I wanted to tell the man that life itself is a spectrum disorder, where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow." At the time of me reading this, Bewilderment has already been nominated for a number of awards, even though its official release is weeks away still. I’m going to start this review off by saying that it’s the perfect candidate to win some of them, and follow up that statement with my own very unpopular opinion: I didn’t like this book… Buckle up: this is going to be a long one… The Good By all accounts, this book sounds like should be a homerun for me. It combines speculative eco-fiction, with themes of family, loss and grief, while interweaves the whole with motifs of astrobiology, light existentialism and nod to Flowers for Algernon (a classic I love), that unfortunately isn’t as subtle as Powers thinks it is. Theo Byrne is an astrobiologist, spending his life in the theoretical search of life throughout the cosmos. He’s crudely brought back to Earth when he becomes a single father to his neurodivergent son, following the death of his climate activist wife. In a touching attempt to manage their shared grief via a language they both understand the best, Theo and Robbie spend their time fantasizing about alternate planets where life evolved in different ways. Theo is supportive when Robbie picks up the trail of his mothers eco-activism, even when his behavioural problems and his emotional turmoil seem to increase, to the point where he’s advised by his physician to start Robbie on medication. Refusing, to medicate his son, Theo opts instead for a more extreme and experimental solution. Whilst the setup is a recipe for success, the execution rubbed me the wrong way from a very early point. The best and shortest way for me to describe why, is by explaining to you why I think it’ll win those previously mentioned prices. - It’s accessible with the pretence of being literary, therefore making for the perfect “book-club-book”, that can be thought off as deep, even when you’re already a few wines in… - It centres around a current and lightly political topic; in this case climate change, but plays it só safe that it’s almost impossible to spark an actual uncomfortable debate or alienate part of the audience. - It includes a precocious child, used as both as a vessel for the authors quotes, that really aren’t as deep as he thinks they are, and to act as a cheap tear-jerker later on. Child + drama is always a win for broad audiences, even if it borders on sentimental melodrama in this case. This is the short, and more neutral part of my review. You can honestly take this either way: if it sounds like your cup of tea, please be sure to pick up this book and give it a read. The following is my personal opinion as to why I personally disliked it. If you disagree with my opinions, I kindly ask you to be respectful about the point I’m trying to make. The Bad The first and most fatal flaw in Bewilderment to me is its characters, which immediately becomes a problem in a deeply character-focussed novel . Our lead Theo is the only character that is sort of developed, in the sense that he has flaws and a personality that isn’t either “saintly-good-eco-warrior” or “evil-capitalist-corporate”. Robbie and mum firmly fall in the former category, and are basically idolized throughout the story. An argument could be made that this is intentional by the author: of course a good grieving husband remembers only the best sides of the wife he’s just lost, and of course he wants to see only the best in his son. It does however make for some very uninteresting and unrealistic characters. Especially Robbie sufferers from this: he’s smart beyond his years, the Greta Thunberg of his age, and misunderstood by everybody around him, whilst still maintaining the childhood innocence to remain 100% pure of heart. He is less of a character, and more of a device within this story. He’s the tear-jerker for the audience to feel sorry for; the soft fuzzy and innocent mouse for us to get attached to and pity. He is also the vessel through which the author spouts his quasi-philosophical quotes, that don’t quite hold up to scrutiny. I always hate the literary trope of unbelievably precocious saintly kids, especially when used as the stand-in to voice our authors opinions: it’s a bit too close to a humble-brag, or one of those stories you might read on r/thathappened. “Becky, you won’t believe what Johnny just said. *insert Shakespearean quote* Isn’t he the smartest?!” The second flaw is in the writing and structure of the novel. Apart from the overwritten in places, and trying a little too hard at being profound, the story soon begins to feel drawn out. One of the aspects I was looking forward to the most, the exploration of astrobiology and different planets, became extremely repetitive and on the nose and I felt myself tempted to start skipping sections all together. I got the message the first time… there was no need for the third, forth and fifth. That same criticism goes for the messages about climate change. I love eco-fiction when it’s done subtly and manages to stay out of preachy-territories. Recent examples include Migrations, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams and The High House. Unfortunately I can’t add Bewilderment to that list.
The Ugly Lastly, there are two personal reasons that made me deeply dislike Theo, and the fact that he’s portrayed as such a “loving and perfect father”. I view this book from the perspective of being a junior doctor myself, as well as having lost a mother at a young age, and I deeply disagree with the idea that this is an okay way to handle this situation. Loving your child does not absolve you of all your flaws as a parent, and I don’t like the way this book handled this discussion. First of all: being a medical doctor, I hate the “trope” of mistrusting medical professionals, and painting them as “out for profit”, or “just wanting to drug children”. We didn’t spent 6 years in training to become a doctor, plus another 6 to become a paediatrician because we want to harm children. Mental illnesses are just real and can be just as debilitating as physical illnesses, and therefore sometimes require medication to control. It’s nothing to be ashamed or scared off, and I hate when novels perpetuate this misunderstanding. Having your characters utter statements like "No doctor can diagnose my son better than I can." promotes a dangerous anti-medicine mindset that needs calling out. Especially when said character proceeds to put their child in an experimental, unproven neuro-modulation program, rather than choosing to listen to the experts. Secondly: grief will bring out the nihilistic cynic in all of us. Sharing that cynicism with your 9-year old child, and even mistaking their grief and nihilism for being “intelligence and wisdom beyond their years” is never the way. You may not be able to make the world a better place for your child, but you can teach them healthy coping mechanisms to help them navigate what comes on their path… Many thanks to William Heinemann and Penguin Cornerstone for providing me with an early copy in exchange for an honest review. Bewilderment is available from September 21st onwards, in physical, digital and audio- format.