I appear to have an unpopular opinion on this one. It has a 4.04-star rating on Goodreads, and I gave it 2. I’m surprised on a few levels.
I put a hold on Bewilderment as soon as I heard about it solely because of its author, Richard Powers. Just as we were sinking into quarantine, I read The Overstory, which is the best book I’ve read in years. If it wasn’t such a big novel, I’d read it again just so I could write about it here. It’s beautiful and vast and worth the significant time investment. Seriously, read it.
Bewilderment, though, is another story. It’s about a neurodivergent boy, Robin, and his dad, Theo, navigating a world made for people who can compartmentalize the horrors of contemporary society. It’s a slightly alternate America where a Trump-like dictator and his Washington cronies run the country, contributing to the climate crisis. Robin is especially sensitive to the plight of animals, and he lacks the ability to compartmentalize those feelings, resulting in meltdowns and the like. His mom died in a car accident, and he’s also having trouble processing his grief. His dad, Theo, is an astrophysicist and university professor. A neuroscientist colleague of Theo’s has been performing experiments on neurofeedback aided by an instantly imaging MRI machine. Theo and his wife had participated, and the colleague offers Robin a place, hoping to help him cope better with the world. Theo agrees, and, over the course of a few months, everything changes for Robin. The world opens up, and he finds himself able to cope. Everything is beautiful for him after he begins neurofeedback sessions with recordings of his mother’s brain activity while she remembered a moment of ecstasy. That’s as far as I’m going with the plot.
Sounds interesting, right? It kind of is, but Powers has so much going in this relatively short novel that it all kind of jumbles together into a meh gray. If you’ve read Flowers for Algernon, you know what happens at the end, as Powers generally followed that plot. I haven’t even read Flowers for Algernon, but I know what happens well enough that this book was entirely predictable. The effects of neurofeedback based on Robin’s mom’s brain patterns are also creepy and, at times, cringey. I was put off by the whole situation, and I’m not sure this book was worth my time. I should have stopped when I first decided I didn’t like it a few pages in.
While I was scrolling through the Goodreads reviews trying to find someone else who feels how I do about this novel, I found Ron Charles, whose review was published in the Washington Post. He explains it better than I do, and he gave Bewilderment the same two stars I did.
Really, I didn’t like Bewilderment from the beginning, and I’m not sure why. I was fully expecting to love it after The Overstory and Prisoner’s Dilemma, which I read in 2020 and also enjoyed. I certainly won’t hesitate to read his next novel, and he’s a pretty prolific writer, so I have a ton of backlog to read through. Don’t let my review turn you off to Bewilderment or Richard Powers – if nothing else because so few people on Goodreads seem to agree with me that, at least in the context of his other work, Bewilderment is mediocre at best.