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Bewilderment

By Richard Powers



Book review and synopsis for Bewilderment by Richard Powers, A story about a single father, his troubled son and an experimental neural treatment.

Synopsis

In Bewilderment, astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life throughout the cosmos while single-handedly raising his unusual nine-year-old, Robin, following the death of his wife. Robin is a warm, kind boy who spends hours painting elaborate pictures of endangered animals. He’s also about to be expelled from third grade for smashing his friend in the face. As his son grows more troubled, Theo hopes to keep him off psychoactive drugs. He learns of an experimental neurofeedback treatment to bolster Robin’s emotional control, one that involves training the boy on the recorded patterns of his mother’s brain…

With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing vision of life beyond, and its account of a father and son’s ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Richard Powers’s most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?

(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)

Detailed Plot Summary

Section-by-Section Summary & Analysis
See the Section-by-Section Summary & Analysis of Bewilderment
Quick Plot Summary

One-paragraph version: Theo is an astrobiologist who is raising his 9-year-old son Robin (who has been diagnosed with Asperger's, ADHD, etc.) who has been having behavioral issues since Theo's wife's death. Theo starts Robin on an experimental treatment called Decoded Neurofeedback, getting him to try to mirror brain patterns of other people to try to learn to control his emotions. The treatment is successful, especially once Robin starts mirroring a brain scan from his mother. However, the treatment gets put on pause by the government when it gets caught up in political/cultural wars. Robin regresses back to before. The book ends with Theo and Robin on a trip where Robin gets injured and dies.

The book opens with Theo Byrne on a trip in the Smokies with his 9-year-old son Robin. Theo is an astrobiologist who is interested in life on other planets. His wife Alyssa, who was a lawyer and animal rights activist, passed away two years ago in a car accident (and their dog Chester died a few months after that). Robin is passionate about animal rights, astronomy and nature.

Robin has always had some behavioral issues (and has been diagnosed with Asperger's, ADHD, various syndromes, etc.) but it's gotten worse since Alyssa's death. Robin is very happy on their camping trip. On the drive back from their trip, they listen to an audiobook of Flowers for Algernon.

Back at school, Robin has an incident at school where he hits his best friend, Jayden, in the face with a metal thermos. Jayden had angered Robin when he relayed his parents' speculation that perhaps Alyssa's car accident was caused by her trying to hurt herself. Back at home, Theo reassures Robin that it isn't true. A possum ran out and Alyssa tried to avoid it, crossed into the median and hit an oncoming vehicle. Robin is upset that Theo never told him it was a possum (because he didn't want Robin to have possums), but Theo knows the bigger secret he didn't say was that Alyssa had been pregnant at the time.

One morning, Robin has an idea to make paintings of endangered animal to sell at the farmer's market. He plans to donate the money from the paintings to one of the organizations Alyssa advocated for. Theo encourages this idea though Robin has a meltdown later when Theo doesn't allow Robin to skip school to work on his project for the second day in a row.

With the school trying to get Theo to put Robin on psychoactive drugs, Theo asks a friend of Alyssa's, Martin Currier, for advice. Martin is a well-known neuroscientist. He offers to enroll Robin in an experimental treatment known as Decoded Neurofeedback ("DecNef") to help Robin learn to control his emotions. (Theo and Alyssa both once had their brains scanned for Currier's experiment. )

Robin starts to improve very shortly after beginning his DefNef treatment. It involves using the brain scans of others in certain emotional states and having Robin trying to mirror their brain patterns (using visual/sensory cues).

In the spring, they sell Robin's endangered animal paintings at the farmers' market. After he makes his donation, they send him a thank you letter. However, Robin gets upset when he learns that 30% of his donation will go toward administrative costs and that there are big-dollar donors who have money to donate, but who hold back those funds until others donate (donor matching).

Instead, Robin decides he wants to go protest at the state capitol (he's inspired by a famous child activist in the news, Inga Alder). However, that goes poorly when a congressman lambastes Theo for letting Robin protest alone. He says that Robin should be organizing with other kids or getting involved in various projects to be more effective and that what he's doing instead is a waste of time. Robin goes home thoroughly demoralized.

With Robin feeling depressed, Theo turns to Martin for advice. Martin suggests that they use Alyssa's old brain scan to train Robin on (as opposed to brain scans from various strangers) to reinvigorate him. Robin is instantly enthusiastic about the idea.

Very soon, they are making huge progress by training with Alyssa's brain scan, and Robin feels closer to Alyssa the process. Robin is able to focus more, stops having meltdowns, has less anxiety and becomes much more open to the world and new people. However, Theo starts to wonder if Robin knows things about Alyssa that he didn't know before just by training with her brain scans. (Martin insists it's not possible.) Meanwhile, Robin asks to be homeschooled, and after some discussion, Theo agrees. Robin also decides he wants to become an ornithologist someday (likely because Alyssa always loved birds).

One day, Martin asks to use clips of Robin for videos to market his technology. Theo asks Robin what he thinks, and he says he thinks it'll help people, so Robin agrees. The video soon goes viral (seeing Robin's transformation), and people figure out Robin's identity. Robin gets interviewed on a huge online channel and appears in a popular academic lecture series. Strangers start to recognize him when they see him. Robin uses these media opportunities to promote environmentalism.

Soon, Theo's work takes him to Washington D.C. so he can advocate for funding for a space telescope to further his work in identifying possible extraterrestrial life. When they're there, Robin brings a huge banner promoting saving the animals and wants to take a picture with it (so that people can see it when they search for images of him), and it draws a crowd due to his viral fame. When an officer tells them to disperse, it leads to the officer grabbing Robin, which Theo reacts strongly to. Theo ends up getting arrested.

Back at home, Robin turns 10. He goes to Currier's Lab for his next training session, but they find out that Currier's experiments have been put on pause by Health and Human Services while they "investigate". Apparently, the media attention on Robin and DecNef have turned the experiments into a political pawn. The party in power is looking to energize its red base and show dominance against environmentalism, science and spending.

On the way home, Robin is optimistic about being able to maintain his training alone. However, soon Theo sees that Robin struggling to remember what Alyssa "feels like" through her scans. Slowly, Robin's behavior starts to regress, and he starts being anxious and having meltdowns again. When Robin sees some graphic photos of cattle inflicted with some type of disease causing them to go crazy, he flips out and starts banging his head against the wall -- injuring himself -- and screaming. Soon, caseworkers from the Department of Human Services show up to assess whether Theo is abusing Robin (due to his head injury).

Theo finally decides that he's going to take Robin on a trip to the Smokies again and then he's going to start him on a (drug-based) treatment plan. The trip is going well until they get to a river where there are cairns constructed all along the banks. Theo comments that Alyssa hated cairns because people disturb the homes of the wildlife there when they build them. They take a few of them down, and go to sleep though Robin wants to keep going.

That night, as Theo sleeps, Robin sneaks out in the dark to deconstruct more of them. Theo finds Robin injured and freezing in the river. Unable to get him to safety in time, Robin dies. The book ends with Martin Currier texting a very depressed Theo after the funeral. He asks if Theo wants "to be with" Robin (by training using Robin's brain scans).

For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.

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Book Review

Bewilderment by Richard Powers was recently released two weeks ago. With Powers’s last novel winning the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it was sure to be big release. Sure enough, Bewilderment was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and has been shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize already.

The story in Bewilderment deals with a father, Theo Byrne, who is an astrobiologist who is raising his 9-year-old son, Robin, alone after his wife passed away two years ago. Robin has always been a troubled boy, but his behavioral issues have worsened since his mother’s death. In the book, Theo gets the opportunity to enroll Robin in an experimental treatment called Decoded Neurofeedback to help with his behavioral issues.

Bewilderment is an uncomplicated novel that’s deeply intimate and thoughtful. There’s a gentleness and tenderness to the writing that makes it incredibly pleasant to read. That said, there’s also a certain sadness as he regards the state of the world, and sadly Powers offers little in the way of consolation or reassurance.

The writing in Bewilderment reflects the profound love of the natural world that Powers has, stretching from the delights found in the intricacies of a tiny blade of grass to the wonders of the furthest unseen stretches of space.

Bewilderment also ropes in a lot of current events by using fictional entities as stand-ins for their real-life counterparts. In the book, Robin is transfixed by Inga Alder, a famous child activist who is clearly meant to evoke the image of Greta Thunberg. Meanwhile, the book is set upon the backdrop of a world ravaged by weather-related disasters and disease, all the while an unnamed President constantly makes angry and temperamental posts to social media.

Overall, I thought that that it was a compelling read, beautifully written. I wasn’t blown away by it, but I think it’s a book many people, especially readers of literary fiction, would enjoy.

Some Criticisms

There were also aspects of the novel that I was less sure about. Theo’s absolute aversion to psychoactive drugs for Robin (despite obvious and severe behavioral issues) is left largely unexamined. There’s also sort of a weird plot line about Theo’s wife having possibly cheated on him that felt extraneous.

In general, there were a few parts where the idea occurred to me that if Richard Powers hadn’t just won a Pulitzer, that an editor might’ve pushed him a little harder on some of the substance of the book.

There were a handful of occasions where the book poses some fascinating questions, but then it doesn’t really attempt to answer or really address them in a meaningful way. For example, Theo has a deep professional and personal interest in the idea of discovering life of other planets. At one point, the book questions whether or not that’s an important or necessary goal for us as humans, but it sort of brings it up and then doesn’t say anything about it.

Finally, I have to say I didn’t love the ending. It felt a little cheap to me, but I imagine people will disagree about this. Also, I thought it was weird at various points in the book when Theo would make decisions by letting Robin decide on issues (like allowing him to be in the training video) that Robin had no way of comprehending the possible consequences of (he’s 10!). If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts below!

Read it or Skip it?

Bewilderment is an intensely interior novel that tells a largely uncomplicated, but poignant story about a father and his son. It’s a story full of wonder about grief, science and nature. I mostly enjoyed this book, and I loved the writing in it.

I would readily recommend this to anyone who enjoys accessible literary fiction and to book clubs. There’s plenty to mull over in this thought-provoking read. In fact, I imagine some people may actually get more out of discussing it than the book itself, since it’s a book that doesn’t offer a lot of hard answers to the questions it asks.

P.S. For anyone curious about using neurofeedback in their own mindfulness training, as I was reading this, I was reminded of related mindfulness training technology (though it relies on EEG measurements as opposed to an fMRI like in the book, so it is undoubtedly less precise) that I tried a while ago. It’s a device called Muse that measures your brain activity and shows you images (such as of a sky or beach, etc.) that reflects your mental state. The goal is for you to control your thinking and empty your mind so that the image you see is a calming one.

Anyway, if you want to try neurofeedback training for yourself, you can try out the Muse Brain Sensing Headband. Just make sure to test it out before the return window closes in case you don’t like it, since it’s a pricey device.

See Bewilderment on Amazon.

Bewilderment Audiobook

Narrated by: Edoardo Ballerini
Length: 7 hours 50 minutes

Hear a sample of the Bewilderment audiobook on Libro.fm.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe Robin’s personality? Why do you think Robin has trouble at school? In what ways has his personality been shaped by his parents and experiences?
  2. What did you think of the character of Theo? In what ways do we see Theo struggle as a parent as he tries to raise Robin? In what ways do we see Theo succeed as he tries to raise Robin?
  3. What do you think this book says about grief? In what ways do we see the grieving process play out in Bewilderment?
  4. What role does religion play in Theo’s thinking?
  5. What role do the descriptions of the imaginary planets play in the book? Were there any planets that were particularly notable to you? Why do you think Robin likes hearing about these planets?
  6. Why do you think Theo agrees to let Robin drop out of school? What do you think about him allowing Robin to be Currier’s clips and the Ova Nova video? What do you think of his parenting decisions in general?
  7. What did you think of Robin’s transformation? How does he change, and why do you think he changes so suddenly?
  8. Why do you think Theo plays Flowers for Algernon for Robin? Why do you think Powers includes this in the novel?
  9. What role does the political situation described in the book play in the plot? Why do you think Richard Powers includes this aspect of the novel?
  10. What do you think of the whole concept of finding proof of life elsewhere? Do you think it matters?
  11. Why do you think Theo decides to
  12. What did you think of the ending of the book? What do you think Currier means when he says “If you’d like to be with Robbie, you can be”? What do you think happens when they mirror the brain scans of another person? What do you think will happen after this point?

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of Bewilderment


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