by Richard Powers

reviewed by Hamilton Cain

Among the glories of an East Tennessee childhood are the Smoky Mountains that straddle the North Carolina state line. Three hundred million years ago, they loomed taller than the Himalayas. Since then, they have eroded to a spine of rounded summits tiered with oak and hickory. Damp paths laced with fern and poison oak run alongside purling streams, and a waterfall is always just a short hike away. The National Park welcomes more than 11 million visitors each year, but there are scores of secluded coves and ridges where you can pitch your tent in isolation.

This is the landscape Richard Powers reverentially conjures up in the opening pages of his lyrical, quietly moving new novel, Bewilderment, his first since the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Overstory. With prose that threads together head and heart, Bewilderment teaches us both to think critically and to feel extravagantly.

When we first encounter him, Powers’s narrator, Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, has pulled his nine-year-old neurodivergent son, Robin, from school following an unnerving incident. Father and son rent a cabin, swim in freshets and sleep outdoors beneath the Milky Way, but behind their idyll lies a dark secret. Two years earlier, Theo’s wife Alyssa—a vivacious lawyer and animal-rights activist—was killed in a head-on collision. The circumstances surrounding her death remain fuzzy, even to her husband and son, but in a series of flashbacks Alyssa’s own demons emerge.

From The Gold Bug Variations to Galatea 2.2 to The Overstory, Powers, who initially studied physics in college before changing majors, is, among writers of literary fiction, perhaps the one most steeped in science. It’s no wonder, then, that science fuels the middle section of Bewilderment. Robin’s troubles escalate once father and son return to Madison, where they are faced with an ultimatum from his school’s principal: find a solution for his behavior, or the authorities will intervene. Theo reluctantly enrolls his sun in a radical experimental therapy, which Alyssa and Theo once tried an early iteration of. A neurologist who has kept Alyssa’s plates now offers to connect Robin with his mother’s “ecstasy.” Robin blooms, taking on Alyssa’s speech and mannerisms, as if her ghost has slipped into his body, provoking Theo to anger and grief.

Powers metes out detail judiciously, revealing only bits and pieces of Theo’s backstory. “Lots of monsters inhabited my sunless depths,” he acknowledges in passing, without any elaboration. Although Theo’s wife and son have transformed him for the better, Powers renders their voices in italics—they represent an Otherness, a human goodness Theo can’t access. Only his imagination can make up for Theo’s damaged soul. His job is to search for chemical traces of potential life in exoplanets, sifting through data from the Kepler telescope, but he’s also inspired to build worlds for Robin, such as Tedia, doomed to a steady drumbeat of death and rebirth, and Stasis, an Earth-like planet with little axis tilt and hence no seasons.

As Bewilderment reaches its crescendo back in the Smoky Mountains, Powers upends our expectations. Tragedy, it turns out, is always lurking at the edges of hope. Yet he also affirms the universe: the ineffability of stars and their children, gaseous giants and arid rocks and garden planets. Powers sanctifies the universe of neurons inside us, the churn of human beings toward and away from one another. The fantasy of cyclical renewal lures us in, as Robin suggests to his father:

Spring will keep coming back, whatever happens. Right, Dad?

There were strong arguments either way. The Earth had been everything from hell to snowball. Mars had lost its atmosphere and fizzled away to a frigid desert, while Venus descended into hammering winds and a surface hotter than a smelter. Life could crash and spin out, pretty much overnight. My models said as much, and so did the rocks of this planet …

“Yes,” I told him. “You can count on spring.”

As for us, we can count on more thrilling work from a master at the height of his powers.

Published on November 5, 2021