What you have to realize about Richard Powers is that he is completely disinterested in being pretentious.
Nowadays, that is. For a long time it seemed as if Powers was going to be the next big thing in “American Postmodern Pretentious Literature” — i.e., the league of erudite, tastefully ribald, tragi-comically observant writers that blend high and low culture, refined and uncouth speech, and appropriate and transgressive decorum. It’s one of the U.S.’s signature literary movements, and its entropic brand of high-concept irony marches on to this day in search of its newest voice. With his formless characters, limited narrative settings, and hyper-specialized motifs, the Richard Powers of the 80s and 90s seemed certain to take up the mantle.
But something happened in the 2000s. Powers’ writing became less abstract, and less desperately disillusioned with his own characters and the situations they inhabit. Slowly but surely, his style became more digestible and straightforward. With 2018’s “The Overstory,” he had a bonafide literary hit on his hands. It nabbed the Pulitzer Prize, was picked up by Oprah’s Book Club, and scored a Barack Obama quote on the cover saying “it changed how he thought about the Earth.”
After reading about Powers in an interview Amherst College did with David Foster Wallace, I went to Barnes & Noble to pick up one of his titles. When I couldn’t find “Operation Wandering Soul” (the postmodern masterpiece Wallace touted in that interview as a work that demands acute “cerebration” and “aesthetic apprehension” of its reader), I came across “The Overstory,” which, three years after its publication, was still being ostentatiously displayed in the store with a brief rave review from an employee attached to its place on the shelf. Say what you will about the genius of Powers’ past works — clearly, this is the one that was moving people.
And it’s easy to see why. The novel consists of narratives from the perspectives of eight distinct characters. Some of the more interesting ones include a tech-genius obsessed with perfecting the world, a hermetic artist who carves wooden sculptures he can’t pay people to take off his hands, and a disenchanted college student majoring in actuarial sciences turned pseudo-Messiah figure.
However, despite the willful discreteness of these characters — the sharp edges of their personalities and their past traumas that would ostensibly preclude friendship — the trajectories of their lives nonetheless overlap, evoking a deep feeling that inescapable interconnectedness is the fate of even the most lonely among us. At the heart of all their stories is the very wellspring of all interconnectedness: those great, mysterious providers of clean air, ecosystem stability, and life itself — trees, and the questions that come with them. What do we know about them? What can we know about them? What are we missing out on, and what will we miss out on, forever, if we don’t act, right now, to save them?
And if you would rather gouge out your eyes than read a novel about trees, Powers understands completely. He is painfully aware of the fact that it’s easier to care about the small, inner lives of a few people than the fate of the entire world. Furthermore, his characters reflect the spectrum of this absurdity. Some of them realize that they cannot live without giant redwoods, and others couldn’t give a shit about distinguishing between an oak and a Douglas fir.
What Powers focuses on however, is not the moral righteousness or superiority of any one position. Because, for all their posturing and desperate feelings, no one really gets it — everyone in “The Overstory” is small, weak, inadequate, and ultimately human. The real weight of the story falls to the trees in the novel’s background — waiting to be recognized, but content with waiting.
Even if we protect them, even if we destroy them, trees have been around long before we were here, and will remain long after we are gone. Through this book, the reader realizes that preserving the environment does not have to be about the environment. Richard Powers reveals that people who care about trees are people that need new and better ways to care about themselves. In its earnestness, it is nothing less than a deeply radical novel.
This brings me to “Bewilderment,” Powers’ newest novel and, unfortunately, the least interesting segment of this article. That isn’t to say that it’s not a good book; in fact, I’d say that it’s a very good book. The massive scale of “The Overstory” has been pared down to two and a half characters: a father, his son, and the dead wife and mother between them.
The father, Theo, is an astrobiologist — he has spent his life investigating what makes life possible, and what form it could take on other planets. He relentlessly explores these possibilities with his nine-year old son Robin, a neurodivergent child who refuses to move on after the loss of his mother.
Escapism isn’t enough for him, though. Theo is drowning in his inability to help and understand his child, not to mention his own grief. Fortunately, Theo reconnects with an old friend of his wife, a neurologist who studied her mind in a clinical study. He tells Theo that he has preserved his wife’s neural information, and that Robin can, essentially, be trained on her brain waves as part of an experimental study in neurofeedback conditioning. As the training progresses, a change roots itself deep in Robin. He reveals things to Theo that he never knew about his wife, and leads him down the paths of life — through the rapture of scientific wonder, through the quiet of calm observance, through the rebirth of what is sorrowful and beautiful in memory — that Theo suspected he would never walk again.
If that last line leaves a certain taste of cloying sentimentality in your mouth, then know that there is some of that in the novel. There are moments in “The Overstory'' that are similarly corny, but they feel like inevitable byproducts of a novel that is constantly running up against what you expect it to be. What’s disappointing about “Bewilderment” is that it often lacks this ambition to strain the joints of conventionality. The ‘precocious child who spouts startling wisdom’ trope covers a familiar emotional territory of revelation and sensitive introspection.
The novel’s backdrop is essentially the present day, and there are a few clumsy references that grate on the nerves (most conspicuously, imagined asides from our Ex-Tweeter-In-Chief, and some mild fawning over “Inger Alder,” a Greta Thunberg doppelganger). And then there’s a weird effect where the narrowed focus of the novel paradoxically makes the story feel more directionless. Sometimes, it feels like the themes are simply flung into the massive distance between people that deeply care for each other.
This might just be the point. “The Overstory” felt like its goal was to expose how connected everything is, and it was content to revel in the scale of this feeling. “Bewilderment” is grasping to feel that implication, to know, in a specific time and a specific place with a specific person, what it might mean to be connected — no matter how painful and devastating that ends up being.
The end of this novel is plenty painful and plenty devastating, and plenty of signs tell the reader that this is coming. There are many explicit allusions throughout to the heartwrencher “Flowers For Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, which might have been the first novel that emotionally destroyed me. But right after that horrible ending, the book flips. There is one more path that waits for Theo, and as he begins his journey along it he can’t help but feel that it is enough. The real ending inspires more hope than the novel could have if it had never been written. That’s a beautiful thing.
“Bewilderment” is not a major achievement, but it very well could be a minor one. At any rate, it’s worth reading. It's proof enough for me that Richard Powers, at age 64, is at the top of his game, and that he has gotten there through sheer earnestness. What’s more is that he has come to this earnestness from a literary school that doesn’t allow it. He walks alongside his settings, his atmospheres, his people. In a world so chaotic and cruel, he is not content with his wonder. But he will not abandon it.