There is Much to Say
Hello, Radio Readers; this is Kim Perez, and I am coming to you from Hays with a few thoughts about the book Bewilderment by Richard Powers for the fall 2023 Radio Readers Book Club.
Power’s book is beautifully written, weaving science and storytelling in his exquisitely descriptive prose. It is magical and otherworldly. It is hopeful and despairing. It is moving and disturbing. I honestly don’t know how to feel about this book. I both loved it and hated it.
The book takes place in the near future and is the story of a father, Theo, who is an astrobiologist who is raising his neurodivergent son, Robin, as a single parent. It is about how they navigate the trials and tribulations of being a middle schooler who doesn’t fit in well with others and of parenting a child with these challenges. It is a story about how we, as humans, navigate multiple worlds: the inner worlds of our minds, which are uniquely complex and may not work the way other minds work; the earthly world and the growing crisis of climate change and potential planetary extinction and all of the fear and anxiety that accompanies that reality; and the world beyond the ether where there are countless possible other worlds based on the unique collection of conditions required to create life. There is a strong environmental message here about how children are able to cut through the BS of adult jargon and straightforwardly ask what adults are doing about this environmental crisis. It is a story of love and, for me, ultimately, a story of grief.
Robin is named for his mother’s favorite bird. His mother, Alyssa, was a lawyer, animal rights advocate, and an avid birder. He inherits her passion for animals and the environment and takes up her cause in the way that a 9-year-old boy can. He protests at the state capital and paints pictures of animals on the brink of extinction to sell so he can donate the money to an environmental cause. He is an avid reader of books about animals and can recite countless facts. He comes by his love of nature naturally and is perplexed, or shall we say bewildered, that humanity is not doing enough to save the planet. This reality causes him a lot of anxiety and grief. One of the things that brings him solace is time spent in nature. His father takes him on camping and hiking trips, allowing both to reset and find the calm that disappears in the “real” world. I suspect the author has another meaning for the title of the book. The obvious meaning is confusion, but if you think about the word and break it down, it is “be” “wilder,” and it is in the return to the wild where Robbie and Theo find their balance and equanimity. The loss of nature also means a loss of solace.
The more obvious use of the theme of grief is around the losses that the characters experience in the book. Both Robbie and Theo have lost Alyssa, and **SPOILER ALERT** in the end, Theo loses Robbie too. They both navigate grief by finding ways to be closer to those they have lost. And Powers comes up with an interesting way for the characters to do this. In an effort to keep Robbie off of heavy medications for his various diagnoses, he opts for a new treatment called Decoded Neurofeedback, where Robbie trains on the brain scans of his late mother and, as a result, picks up her interest in birds and feels closer to her. This treatment, and the access it provides to her joy, is what ultimately shifts his behavior and makes it easier for him to be in this world. At the end of the book, the scientist who trains Robbie offers Theo the opportunity to be close to his late son and wife by training on Robbie’s brain scans, which still have traces of Alyssa in them.
This made me think of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn’s idea of the manifestations of the eight bodies that he discusses in one of my favorite books, The Art of Living. Ironically, Hahn wrote this book while he was dying, but it provides an elegant reframing of the idea of loss and one that I have used since the loss of my parents. Through these eight bodies, Hahn argues that we are connected to the universe through our human, cosmic, and ultimate bodies, but the body that I am the most fascinated with is our continuation body.
Hahn argued that those we lost in the human form are still with us through their past words and actions. I lost my dad over twenty years ago, my mom a little over three years ago, and my stepfather (who had become my bonus dad) a little over a year ago. When I became an orphaned adult, I was lost, and I felt untethered until I read Hahn’s words, which brought me much comfort. My father lives on through my love of twangy country music and the intense need to sing it loudly and badly. My mother lives on through my love of gardening and gospel music. And my stepfather lives on through my love of listening to stories. The continuation body allowed me to continue to connect with and understand people whose physical bodies were gone from this earth like the Decoded Neurofeedback allows Robbie and Theo to connect to those they have lost.
There is so much more to say about this beautiful book, and not enough time here. I hope you can join us for more discussion on Sunday, November 12.
Thanks for listening. This is Kim Perez, and you are listening to the High Plains Public Radio’s Radio Reader’s Book Club.