This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR. The book is “Bewilderment” by Richard Powers.
This is a book of overlapping metaphors and colliding worlds as order and science slide toward the dark hole of authoritarian chaos. A widowed father, our narrator, tries to bring up and bring out his brilliant, autistic 9-year-old son Robin who becomes a star subject in an experimental neuro feedback program where stored brain imaging data from his late mother connects the young boy to her through her recorded neural responses.
At first, we seem to be in a semi-dream state in which the father, an astrobiologist, conjures distant worlds around other stars through which father and son seem to float, taking in the wonders in each imagined planet. These tours through possibilities bind parent and child together, not only father and son but mother and son, even though the mother was killed in an automobile accident before our story opens.
And schools. At nine years old, and autistic, there are problems at school. Robin doesn't want to go. He will be bullied and shunned because he is different. I understand the reluctance. I was eight, going on nine, when my mother married my stepdad and sent me to Catholic school, third grade. That destroyed me. Robin's difference was not the same as mine. In catechism class I learned that my divorced mother was a sinner, a mortal sinner, and it was my duty to counsel the sinner.
I tried to counsel her. Knowing that my family was in mortal error I shut down, away from students, school, mother and new father. I deeply censored any words I might utter that might give us away. Any associations that might discover our terrible, sinful, status. I have few memories from those years, almost none with any details. Mostly, the next two and a half decades were a blur of pain and ducking and weaving. None of it needed.
I remember reading "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" when it came out. It felt like my life. Like a spy in enemy territory. All because of the false belief in our unacceptable social and eternal status. Members of the damned, in hiding.
If only I had gone to public school. In "Bewilderment," young Robin demonstrates to his father that he is learning from the store of books and material in their house, the library within which he finds solace and enough self-learning that he is able to pass state education requirements. His father sets up home schooling.
I had books, and a library card and eventually worked in the library. They didn't solve my religious school problem, but those books were worlds into which I plunged. I think I passed my courses in school more from my own library readings than from the homework and schoolbooks. Still, each day, year after year, I had to face the gauntlet of other children who had the right to breathe openly, unlike myself.
In later years, when I pulled out of that space, my earlier life was not only vague but as if I were relating the story of someone else, someone I might have read about.
In our book, "Bewilderment," the increasingly fractious nation outside the academic research community reaches into the education system to dismantle it. To pull funding, apparently on a whim. Politics becomes increasingly authoritarian. The agent of authoritarian control is chaos, for the book's world and for our world, which I think Powers is really addressing.
We are in danger. Listed issues are not important, only wielding lists of the unacceptable, to destroy teaching, learning, established equity and social acceptance. Chaos is fertile ground for opportunists to live without laws, other than to claim legal control.
And to what end?
This is Mike Strong, in Hays, for HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.