Bewilderment, by Richard Powers, Heinemann, 288 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1785152634
“Sometime towards the end of the last millennium, I started having global warming nightmares. I am sure I was not alone.” Kate Rigby’s recent account of her own ecological night terrors typifies what is now becoming a familiar experience for many. Alternately termed “climate grief”, “ecotrauma”, or “solastalgia” (lyrically glossed by Glenn Albrecht as the “homesickness you have when you are still at home” or the nostalgic pang of watching Earth collapse), Rigby’s “atmosphere of unspeakable dread” is fast becoming Generation Z’s defining mental health crisis. A 2021 survey cited in Nature found that a majority of sixteen- to twenty-five-year-olds reported feeling “anxious” and “powerless” in the face of looming climate catastrophe. The kids are not alright.
Where the take-no-prisoners rhetoric of climate activists enjoins immediate, drastic action from us all (“our house is on fire”, as Greta Thunberg memorably warned three years ago), the paradoxical result is often paralysis: burnout, compassion fatigue, and anxiety-induced inaction. Part of the reason for this disconnect, novelist Richard Powers contends, stems from an inability to reconcile climate collapse with traditional Western values of progress, individualism, and human exceptionalism: “it’s hard for us to imagine a ‘point’ that isn’t being overwhelmed and threatened by the climate catastrophe”. Into this wilderness, Powers’s Booker-shortlisted thirteenth novel Bewilderment positions itself as therapy for the ecotrauma epidemic, an attempt to spark a “change of consciousness” in climate activists and sceptics alike. As protagonist Theo Byrne muses: Earth has “two kinds of people: those who could do the math and follow the science, and those who were happier with their own truths. But in our hearts’ daily practice […] we all lived as if tomorrow would be a clone of now.” Changing the heart’s daily practice is the unenviable task Powers has set out to achieve, attempting to carve out more emotionally sustainable ways of responding to climate catastrophe.
The novel follows Theo Byrne, astrobiologist and recently widowed father of nine-year-old Robin, a deeply sensitive boy who is fascinated by the natural world and racked with anxiety over its accelerating extinction. Robin’s undiagnosed (or, as Theo complains, overdiagnosed) neurodivergence has led him into trouble at school after a series of violent outbursts, and Theo’s preferred treatment of taking Robin hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains is beginning to fall short. As Theo, disgruntled by doctors’ readiness to prescribe away the problem, complains: “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 non-existent to the country’s most commonly diagnosed childhood disorder in the course of one generation […] there’s something wrong.” Resisting the efforts of doctors and school management to place Robin on psychoactive medication, Theo turns instead to Decoded Neurofeedback: a real-life experimental therapy which trains participants to emulate the emotional patterns of other volunteers (“Ecstasy”, “Vigilance”, “Admiration”). In this “empathy machine”, Robin learns to mimic the emotional signature of his late mother, Alyssa, a firebrand animal rights activist and attorney, developing Zen-like attunement to the natural world and generating headlines in the process.
Powers’s rather convoluted plotline is threaded through with a series of vignettes of imagined planets which both stands in for father and son’s bedtime stories and picks up on Theo’s scientific research simulating models of hypothetical planets in distant galaxies. The vignettes, which read at times like excised chapters from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, range from delicately poised sketches to transparent political fable. The planet Stasis, for instance, which differs from Earth only in its lack of axial tilt and resulting absence of seasons, offers Powers the opportunity to criticise present-day political polarisation. Life on Stasis is extremely specialised to its respective biome: “Everything knew one, infinitely deep thing: the sum of the world at their latitude.” Much like Earth-bound political positions, Powers implies, there is no room for nuance or blurring.
The most welcome casualty of the climate crisis, Powers seems to suggest, should be the notion of human exceptionalism. As the novel shuffles through its assortment of speculative planets, the suggestion that there are likely to be innumerable places with life as vibrant and interesting as Earth’s is implicit. Which provokes Robin’s question: “How come nobody’s anywhere?” Bewilderment revolves around this “Great Silence” in the form of the Fermi Paradox, which Robin and Theo riddle over throughout the book and which becomes a cipher for the various experiences of grieving traced by Powers. In one particularly graceful moment, Robin and Theo watch the “first of the year’s last fireflies” illuminating the evening: “They floated in slow streaks across the summer dark, like the lights of interstellar landing craft from all the planets we’d ever visited, gathered in a mass invasion of our backyard.” The fireflies’ elegiac careen picks up a note of grief that’s common to the whole novel, sensitively uncovering the shared ground between bereavement, climate grief and cosmic loneliness, and providing an arch answer to the Fermi Paradox in the process; the “mass invasion” has already begun. Rather than the result of an empty universe, the real isolation at the heart of Bewilderment, Powers suggests, is human-made – the product of a society which builds “more and more protection against the living planet” while simultaneously chipping away at the earth beneath its feet. “Our culture is a culture of loneliness: it’s a culture of really radical individualism”, Powers has suggested in interviews, labelling this ideology “humanism in its most terrifying form”. For all its emphasis on human uniqueness and agency, this paradigm only produces an “isolating freedom”.
By contrast, an unexpected consequence of Robin’s experimental therapy is the hyper-charged environmental attunement he gains in the process. At one point, he eagerly suggests using a dog as a test subject for humans to learn empathy: “Scan his brain while he was really excited. Then people could train on his patterns […]. It could just be a regular part of school. Everyone would have to learn what it felt like to be something else.” It’s a provocative thought. The intended parallels between Robin’s experimental therapy and common defences of literature as “empathy training” are often blatant and allow Powers to adopt a conveniently self-congratulatory stance (the novelist as unacknowledged therapist of the world, perhaps). In the novel’s least convincing moments, meanwhile, Robin’s new-found cosmic consciousness falls victim to Powers’s long-held tendency to sentimentalise. The novel indulges in saccharine depictions of post-treatment Robin as a pre-teen Messiah, whose new-found oneness with the world allows him to defuse run-ins with teenage delinquents and media hacks simply by pointing them towards the beauty of nature. In one trite episode, Robin charms his way out of an altercation with the neighbourhood bullies by taking them to see a horned owl nesting nearby; when Theo asks Robin how he noticed the well-hidden bird, he answers “Easy. I just looked.” (Robin always speaks in italics.) Robin is rarely believable as a realistic nine year-old, and for all the grandiosity of Powers’s aspirations (Theo at one point speculates that “ten thousand children with Robin’s new eyes might teach us how to live on Earth”), Bewilderment tends to rehearse clichés that would feel more at home in a self-help guide than a work of climate fiction.
Towards the end of the book, as Robin’s therapy begins to wear off, Theo reads him Yeats’s “A Prayer for My Daughter”, a poem which Alyssa would recite to the family dog on wine-fuelled evenings after long days campaigning. Like Yeats’s poem, Powers’s novel dreams of insularity, of the family unit as a charmed circle of protection against the howling storm outside. Such protection eludes Powers’s characters: readers familiar with Flowers for Algernon, the loose inspiration for Powers’s environmental fable, will see the novel’s ending coming. Powers has written an attempted prayer for Generation Z, a generation which famously does not take kindly to being spoken for by older age groups. This is a risky operation, and not one that Powers – not being a father himself – is well-positioned to make. In a recent interview with Mitzi Rapkin, Powers summed up his hopes that adults and children alike might “stop being paralysed by ecotrauma and start realising that there will be a world beyond the catastrophe […] a world that continues to adapt”. A world beyond the catastrophe there may be, but it will fall to the younger generations to tell the story of that world for themselves.
Damian Walsh is a PhD candidate in English at University College London, researching representations of religion and the environment in the work of various late Victorian writers including W. B. Yeats and Oscar Wilde.