In terms of its storytelling, there is nothing bewildering about Richard Powers’ new novel, Bewilderment. He’s in tip-top form, and the story is a masterpiece of human compassion, poignance and social concerns. Beyond that, this short (just 278pp) novel presents in a rare, nontraditional style which Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney, editors at Rose Metal Press, characterized as a “novella-in-flash” in their anthology, My Very End of the Universe. It’s very engaging: each scene is short and distinct, although none have an old-fashioned chapter title or other type of distinct break except for the first sentence being printed in all caps.
One of the most interesting aspects of Powers’ use of the novella-in-flash format/concept is how deeply connected the scenes are without the conventional linking of overlap or intra-referencing, e.g. a character reminding the reader of what she said or did in a previous chapter. All that’s gone: Powers keeps his narrative almost perfectly, exclusively, in the now moment. Thus the reader is engaged in a more profound way, as if it would not be a good idea to put the book down because the story, like the river analogy the author employs, might keep the narrative flowing on without her.
Although I’m not going to give you a plot recitation, I did tab a number of things to share here in my review:
~ Martin, a neurological research scientist, asks Theo, the narrator and father of nine-year-old Robin, if the boy has been diagnosed with something that has resulted in social services recommending he be made to take prescription meds. Theo replies, “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD, and one possible ADHD.”
The researcher replies, “This is why I dropped out of clinical psych.” (p.97)
~ Robin asks his dad, “Trouble is what creates intelligence?” (p. 114)
~ “This late in the world’s story, everything was marketing. Universities had to build their brands. Every act of charity was forced to beat the drum. Friendships were measured out now in shares and likes and links. Poets and priests, philosophers and fathers of small children: we were all on a needless, flat-out hustle. Of course science had to advertise.” (p. 179)
~ Dad Theo is an astrophysicist; he muses: “I felt us traveling on a small craft, piloting through the capital city of the reigning global super-power on the coast of the third largest continent of a smallish, rocky world near the inner rim of the habitable zone of a G-type dwarf star that lay a quarter of the way out to the edge of a dense, large, barred spiral galaxy that drifted through a thinly spread local cluster in the dead center of the entire universe.” (p. 210)
~ “The dais was filled with politicians who looked like yesterday’s America.” (p. 216)
~ Dad speaks of Robin: “After dinner, he asked me to quiz him with flash cards of state flowers. Before bed, he entertained me with tales from a planet where a day lasted only an hour, but an hour lasted longer than a year. And years had different lengths. Time sped up and slowed down, depending on your latitude. Some old people were younger than young people. Things that happened long ago were sometimes closer than yesterday. Everything was so confusing that people gave up on keeping time and made do with Now. It was a good world. I’m glad he made that one.” (p.237)
~ “He nodded to himself and headed up the ridge. . . .My phone pinged. It shocked me to be in coverage, even up here. But it was the job of coverage to cover every uncovered spot on Earth.” (p. 259)
Bewilderment is a novel of ideas—a great many ideas, conveyed in such a casual, everyday manner that they can be consumed like snacks. Good snacks. Food for thought snacks. I’m a big fan of Richard Powers’ writing, but unmoored from his narrative arc to an extent because I’ve not read one of his novels since Galatea 2.2. I have The Overstory on my library shelf to read, inasmuch as I’ve been reading other works (most reviewed here) about ecology, forests, fungi, and the ever-shortening era of humankind.
The Overstory is 502pp long. I’d probably better get started on it.