Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bewilderment, by Richard Powers: A Lesson in Empathy

"In the face of the world's most basic brokenness, more empathy meant deeper suffering."

If you're like me, you'll likely have two main reactions to Richard Powers' new novel, Bewilderment. (Well three if you count HOLY SHIT THAT WAS GOOD.)

1. Sadness: The natural world is receding, and we don't seem to care.

2. Rage: The natural world is receding, and not only do we not seem to care, many on one side of the political spectrum are actively working to ensure it's a trend that continues. Science is the enemy. Individualism trumps the common good.

That is such as a sad, lazy, selfish way to live, and worse, to lead — and Powers captures the real consequences here perfectly.

But this isn't a political novel, even though "the President" (the previous one) butts in occasionally. Instead, at its root, this is a novel about empathy. Empathy leads to a respect for the natural world and other creatures (as well as fellow humans, of course). As many of us are losing our empathy, so too are we losing the power and ability to undo the damage we've already done.

Bewilderment is the story of a father, Theo, and his son, Robin. After the death of Theo's wife in a car accident, Robin begins exhibiting behavioral issues, and the always-recommended solution is to put him on drugs. This is anathema to Theo, who knows there is nothing wrong with his son — he's just experienced trauma. And that combined with his unusual but beautiful brain is what's causing him to act out. They come upon an experimental treatment called Decoded Neurofeedback that allows Robin to learn from the emotions and brain activity of others — basically learning empathy. And it works!

But then all goes awry. 

This novel, in addition to just wrecking me emotionally, is fascinating in how it treats the notion of science for science's sake, and the wonder of discovery. Theo is an astrobiologist, searching for life on other planets. His wife had been an animal rights activist, a calling which Robin adopts whole-heartedly. It's an interesting juxtaposition: Why do we continue to look up and out, when there's more than enough life to save here? Because we must. We must do both. And also, because as Theo tells Robin: "People, Robin. They're a questionable species."

A new Richard Powers novel is always an absolute must-read for me. The way he combines science and one does that better than him. And he does it again here. I'm not sure this is in quite the same pantheon as his last novel The Overstory — one of my favorite novels of at least the last 10 years — but it's not too far off. Bewilderment is awe-inspiring.

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