Bewilderment is what we should feel about the natural world around us, and what we imagine might be out there beyond Planet Earth. That same emotion applies to what any rational person should feel about the climate catastrophe – and the fact that it continues to progress. It’s something Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers has been feeling – and deals with in his new novel, Bewilderment.
Published Tuesday and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award, Bewilderment is both a love story and a warning. It is a book about grief – which, as its narrator defines it, is “the world stripped of something you admire.” That could be an absent mother and wife, as it is in this story. It could be this planet as we know it. That’s where the warning comes in.
As the novel begins, Theo Byrne and his son Robin are marking the boy’s ninth birthday with a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, where they can sleep under the stars. Theo is an astrobiologist who runs computer simulations to help determine if there might be life on other planets. Absent is Robin’s mother, Alyssa, who died in an accident when Robin was seven, leaving father and son heartbroken. Robin – who might have OCD, ADHD or Asperger’s syndrome – finds solace in the natural world. But that turns to grief, once he becomes aware about the environmental catastrophe humans have wrought – in particular the rates of extinction of wild creatures, something he learns through watching a video of his mother.
“If she’s right, there’s no point in school,” he tells his father. “Everything will be dead before I get to tenth grade.”
Powers, 64, is a polymath who started university studying physics, but switched to English when he realized that as a writer, he could explore all sorts of worlds – no door would be closed to his curious brain. He also worked as a computer programmer after graduation.
Powers expertly employs his science chops in Bewilderment, as he has in much of his previous work. But this is a new beast. “When you read this book, I think it’s not like anything else I’ve ever written – stylistically or in tempo or in mood,” he said in a recent interview. He credits life in the Smokies, where he has lived for the past five years.
Powers published his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, when he was 27. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, beginning a long list of accomplishments, including a MacArthur Fellowship – the so-called “genius grant” – and a National Book Award, for The Echo Maker.
His 2018 environmental epic The Overstory became an instant Tree Lit classic. It won the Pulitzer, was shortlisted for the Booker and earned rave reviews, including one from fellow novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who called it “a gigantic fable of genuine truths.”
Bewilderment, his 13th novel, is slimmer in volume, but still gigantic at heart. The novel grew out of The Overstory, as did Powers’ experience of writing it. Powers, who was born in Evanston, Illinois, was teaching at Stanford University in California when he started writing The Overstory. He took a three-day research trip to the Smoky Mountains – and was still thinking about that trip months later. “I was so buoyed up by the experience of being in these forests,” he recalled.
So he went back to Tennessee and bought a house, where he finished the novel.
“Up until moving here, I never really lived where I lived,” he said from that same house, after closing the window as rain began pelting down outside, so loud that he was having trouble hearing the interview questions.
“I started to take this place seriously. Who lives here? What does the land want to do? What is the relationship and behaviour of all the native species? I was doing that for the first time in my life. And as a result, my relationship between writing and living changed.
“For the first 11-and-a-half books that I wrote, the work came first. And when I woke up in the morning, I would write 1,000 words and then I was free to go about and do what I wanted to do. Now the words come out of being in this place. … It’s not like the two things are separate at all; they just feed on each other.”
Amid the massive success of The Overstory and the endless book tour that followed, Powers found it difficult to get traction on a new novel. He did start writing a very different version of what would become Bewilderment. Then when pandemic lockdown happened and he returned to the Smokies and started hiking the trails, he realized the novel would be about a boy and his father. “And I threw out everything I had and I started again,” he said.
The story takes place in a tumultuous time: climate change has taken hold and freak weather is becoming the norm. A horrific cattle infection in Texas makes the jump to humans, going undetected for some time. Cities are burning and flooding has contaminated the drinking water for millions of Americans.
An all-caps-tweeting U.S. president (unnamed) cuts funding to research, mocks science in his social media posts and blames the trees themselves for California wildfires.
A young Greta Thunberg-like activist does more to draw attention to the climate crisis than pretty much anyone else, and Robin, admiring her, decides to launch his own protest.
From the slight distance of what Powers calls “soft science fiction,” the book eviscerates social media, academia, the political system – and, perhaps most importantly, inaction on climate change.
The Trump-ish president declares an election invalid and clings to power. Chinese students have their visas revoked; journalists start getting arrested; labs across the country are shut down. Everyone is suddenly required to carry proof of citizenship or visas.
Powers finished his draft last October, before the real-life rigged-election conspiracy-theory craziness went down in the U.S.
“When the election got thrown up in the air exactly the way I predicted it in the book and my editor called and said, ‘You know, Rick, it looks now like Biden’s going to win – is that going to be a problem?’ I said, ‘No problem whatsoever.’ Because I think that people are going to be so traumatized by the course that we’ve just been through that they’re going to look at this little hypothetical alternate-present kind of story and say, ‘Boy, that doesn’t seem like science fiction at all.’”
Talking about Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again movement, Powers compares it to the issue at the heart of this novel. Trump and his followers, he says, want to return to a hierarchical system they’re comfortable with: men above women, whites above other races, the U.S. above other countries. “What’s missing when people identify those nostalgias for those old hierarchies is human beings above all other creatures. To me, where we’ve gone wrong environmentally is very close. It’s part of the same system of thinking.”
Powers, who is childless by choice, says as he wrote the book, he channelled three children with whom he has had a sort of surrogate parental relationship. “I watched these children being brought up, and I watched how bewildered their parents were by the rage and the confusion and the fear and the anxiety – but also the joy and the energy and the intensity that these children could experience.”
Help for young Robin in the book is offered through technology – something called Decoded Neurofeedback: an experiment where the subject can actually feel what another person, whose brainwaves were captured, had previously felt. This serves as a metaphor for what this most ancient form of communication, a story, can do – stories are empathy machines, Powers says, and that is why art can be such a powerful tool when it comes to making people care about the climate emergency.
“Neurologically, we are built for acts of narrative empathy – acts of imagining ourselves into other situations and places and times and sensibilities,” he said. “And it is the only way that we have of travelling beyond our set of beliefs. What would the world look like, what would it feel like – who would I have to be if these events were to be made real for me? And only through that act of empathetic leap do we feel and perceive the world differently enough to be humbled out of our own convictions.”
Powers has been watching the protests in Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, where more than 1000 arrests have been made as people try to stop old-growth logging in the area near Port Renfrew, B.C.
“I have been deeply moved by the action that people have taken at Fairy Creek,” Powers said. “And I wish everyone who is engaging and putting themselves on the line as much stamina and strength and clear vision as there can be. And I am grateful – and we all are, on this continent – for whatever assertion and better balance the protestors can hold out for.”
But once one is riled up enough to protest – or galvanized by reading a beautiful novel – then what? It’s easy to feel impotent in the face of catastrophe. Powers says what’s needed is a complete cultural overhaul.
“We cannot solve the cataclysm of climate that we’ve set in motion while still preserving the culture that created that cataclysm. So we say we can work on reducing, but that doesn’t actually change the fact that our culture says it’s meaningful to accumulate as much as possible and to think of ourselves as somehow exceptional and separate from the rest of the planet, and think of the rest of the planet as a resource for our own purposes. What has to change is our entire cultural outlook.”
Powers did not write Bewilderment to finger-wag, but it is a call to arms. The result, as Powers describes it, is “a kind of perilous balancing act between the darkness and the light.” It is clear-eyed about the mess we are in and humans’ responsibility for it, but it is not a lecture.
“It’s a story that keeps asserting how miraculous and outrageously lucky even this diminished version of Planet Earth is and how much room there is to engage that luck and that richness and to try to rehabilitate it; to live purposely in respect to it,” Powers said.
“It’s been interesting to see already the ways that people have this odd reaction. They’ll say the book seems to kind of flirt with despair. But it turns that darkness into another kind of poetry, another kind of assertion of gratitude and luck.”
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