Richard Powers is probably much smarter than you, even if you have also won a MacArthur, a National Book Award, a Pulitzer. He also feels as much as he thinks, at least on the page. He maps the brain and the human heart over and over again. “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” asked T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock. For 13 novels, disturbing the universe has been Powers’s thing.
Galatea 2.2 takes a Pygmalion story into the age of the personal computer. Generosity: An Enhancement charts the neurochemical elements of a love affair and ponders the genetic secret to happiness. The Time of Our Singing is a sweeping story of a bi-racial family, the music they make, and the fallout of their experiment when it collides with the racial ferment of the 60s. Powers, it seems, knows about everything.
But when I read The Time of Our Singing—and was blown away by it—it did occur to me that Powers never had children. His book contained astonishing prodigies, but not really children.
Powers still hasn’t had children. But, as he writes in a note to reviewers of his latest novel, Bewilderment, he became close with a couple of them. “I had a fierce niece who loved butterflies, and for a long time couldn’t stop drawing them. I had a deeply affectionate nephew who talked to ‘critters,’ but who flew into violent rages at the stupidity of humans,” he writes. “The little girl managed to grow into an accomplished and mostly happy young adult. The little boy did not.”
As someone who knew more about microscopes than about small humans, Powers made yet another discovery. You don’t need to have a scientific brain to know that children can be fascinating. But Powers does have a scientific brain and, most crucially, an emotional core to everything he writes, and this sets him apart from nearly everyone.
There is not a sentence of his prose that could resemble a textbook. All discoveries take the form of lush description. The emotional stakes are always high. And, of course, a writer as prolific and serious as Powers will not miss an opportunity. Nearly 20 years ago, before Powers appeared at the 92nd Street Y, I was seated with a group of people who knew him. It turned out that every one of us had given him information for a book.
Bewilderment is, in inimitable Powers fashion, a hybrid. It is a father-son story, a bereavement narrative, a science-fiction tale—but not in the Arthur C. Clarke sense. (Science fiction, at its highest, can be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.) It is really a book about parenting, but when it is father and son against the world, the world usually wins.
Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist, is the widower of a tenacious animal-rights lawyer named Aly, who is always absent yet perpetually present. Theo is in a constant state of awe and indignation. “In over thirty years of reading and two thousand science fiction books,” says Theo, “there is no place stranger than here.”
This is constantly reinforced by his memories of Aly, who said things such as “Nobody’s perfect … But, man, we all fall short so beautifully.” “All” really means Robin, a son named for his father’s favorite bird, who is bullied in school and bullies back. But when it’s just Robin and Theo camping out in the Great Smokies, every exchange is a discovery. “Trouble is what creates intelligence?” he asks. “Then we’ll never find anyone smarter than us.”
Fate intervenes in a science-fiction plot rooted not in reality but in the educated imagination. After Robin seriously injures a classmate—this was after an altercation about his mom, so we are meant to understand—and Theo is mortified about giving psych meds to a nine-year-old and his developing mind, we learn that he can be re-united with his mother and all she knew through a genetic experiment.
Too good to be true? You bet. The boy soon becomes a celebrity, his rights are signed away, and the government—one with an unnamed Trumpian president—becomes involved.
If you can’t handle watching terrible things happen to a sweet, misunderstood kid, this book may be hard for you to take. Just remember, this may feel like the real world, but it’s not. In the imagination of the book, the dead can live again as re-mapped memories. The flawed world can be redeemed, at least until the grant money runs out.
Powers finds magic in the commonplace. He left a lucrative teaching gig at Stanford to burrow in the Great Smoky Mountains. For many years and many books, he has used a software that allows him to write novels without touching a keyboard. And when he talks to that screen, new worlds emerge, better, perhaps, than the one the rest of us have to live in.
In the real world, some children can be saved and some can’t. But somewhere in the Smokies, there is a bewildered Richard Powers, who knows how unlikely it is to experience love, joy, or anything resembling transcendence.
Bewilderment is a pastoral elegy for a planet that is already doomed. Look around and take it in with everything you have. “Oh, this planet was a good one,” Theo tells us. “And we, too, were good, as good as the burn of the sun and the rain’s sting and the smell of living soil, the all-over song of endless solutions signing the air of a changing world that by every calculation ought never to have been.”
David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell