Richard Powers’ thirteenth novel, Bewilderment, is a follow-up to a huge success—2018’s The Overstory, a centuries-spanning book about forests and people who want to save them that won the Pulitzer Prize. But Bewilderment, a much smaller domestic story, is an awkward successor. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner panned the novel as “meek, saccharine, and overweening in its piety about nature,” and called it “a book about ecological salvation that somehow makes you want to flick an otter on the back of the head, for no good reason at all.”
I almost couldn’t get through the new Powers, not because of the earnestness or the piety (though those were very real and very annoying), but because its failed ambition was so big and so honest. Bewilderment is a story about what the knowledge of ecological collapse may do to a sensitive, intense child’s mental state, and how that child’s anxiety may, in turn, change a desperate parent’s life. To judge by recent evidence, it seems like this is a problem that may unfold in more and more households, as everything gets worse. Recently, researchers asked 10,000 people, ages 16-25, in ten countries, about their climate anxiety, and found that 59 percent reported being very or extremely worried; 84 percent moderately so. Over half felt a string of negative emotions about climate change: “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.”
Robin, the 9-year-old at the heart of Bewilderment, feels all of those things, and feels them so dramatically that sometimes it affects his ability to go to school, relate to other children, and handle anger without becoming violent. Richard Powers told Time in an interview that he doesn’t have children. Robin, he said, is modeled on a niece, a nephew, and the son of a friend. “I think there is a growing plague among children,” he said. “They’re born into this world and in childhood we feel the magic of the living world, we’re pantheists, we connect to the nonhuman, we take it seriously. I think any adult with an active, engaged, intense, intelligent child now is going to have a hard time answering their questions about what’s happening.”
This is a pretty big-R Romantic idea of childhood, and it makes sense, looking at the way Robin is in Bewilderment—often far too sensitive and wise to sound like a real kid—that Powers thinks this way. Robin’s emotions are on overdrive, and a lot of the book is very difficult to read, because the strange intensity (and accompanying transience) of kids’ feelings is hard to represent well. Not only is he miserable about the ecological collapse that’s already in motion in the near-future Wisconsin of the novel, but also, his mother died two years ago, and he’s not doing well with it. “He melted down and exploded over nothing,” says Robin’s father Theo of his son, who’s got various diagnoses from various doctors, but whose father emphatically resists medicating him. “But he could just as easily be overcome by joy.”
The Robin arc in the novel—an intentional echo of what happens in Daniel Keys’ Flowers for Algernon, though the change is in the subject’s emotional landscape, rather than his intelligence—comes courtesy of an experimental technique called “decoded neurofeedback” (this idea is taken from the real world). Robin learns, with the help of machines and a scientist as trainer, how to tweak his responses to the world away from despair, and toward connection and joy. His late mother, Alyssa—a dynamo, an animal rights activist who read poetry to dogs at night—thought much the way Robin did about animals and the natural world, but largely managed to channel her own despair into an attitude of positive allegiance to nature. That’s what Robin learns to do.
Before he starts these experimental treatments, he connects with the part of Alyssa’s environmental consciousness that’s grim and hopeless. He watches a clip of her testifying before the legislature on the loss of biodiversity, rewinding it obsessively, to try to remember her. Watching it triggers a crying jag, when he asks his father whether one of the numbers Alyssa quotes in her speech—that 2 percent of all animals, among all the humans and “factory cows and factory chickens,” are wild—is correct. Theo finds himself unable to comfort him, because “something in him hated me for letting that number be true.”
Robin’s turnaround starts when he begins with decoded neurofeedback treatments, and the scientist who runs the lab suggests training him on a recording of Alyssa’s mind, made before her death. The recording is one that the scientist made after suggesting Alyssa conjure a mental state of “ecstasy.” In his review, Garner found this part very awkward—“Powers doesn’t begin to explore the Oedipal implications”—and I get that. It’s especially weird because Theo is fixated, throughout the story, on what it was that Alyssa was picturing when asked to project “ecstasy.” (He suspects she cheated on him, and hopes it’s him in the brain scan, not somebody else.)
But I think Powers picked “ecstasy” because it represents the other side of Alyssa’s eco-consciousness—that flavor of feelings about nature that, environmental educators know, is what actually moves people to action. (Not guilt; not fear—joy.) It’s an awkward way to prove that point, and far too deus ex machina. But I think that’s the argument. “To watch this boy become a joyful person … is to raise in the reader the possibility of a life that’s more meaningful and more rewarding than the life of accumulation has ever been,” Powers told Time.
It’s just very difficult to fully realize what a young person’s climate anxiety might look like, because if adults took it seriously (as Robin points out several times in this book) they’d act differently. The constant temptation is to see the whole thing as ridiculous, or overblown, because the implications—and self-implication—are too painful. A few years ago, when Greta Thunberg spoke at Davos, it became clear how divisive the topic of youthful climate anxiety can be. At the time, I wrote about how the right made a laughingstock of Thunberg, calling her “deeply disturbed,” implying she’s a puppet of the adults around her, and so on. Liberals made an icon of her, putting her face on candles and murals, which isn’t super great, either; the point (as Thunberg herself would be quick to note) is not to lionize one kid with blonde braids, but to think differently about the future.
That liberal adult response to Greta Thunberg—a response I’d describe as guilty hagiography—showed how hard it can be to really think about children’s climate anxiety without falling into the kind of sentimentality that pervades Bewilderment. Thunberg has an analog in the book: a girl named Inga Alder, who Robin watches on television and identifies as being “like me.” Thunberg has a big dose of what Theo likes about Robin: an angry fragility. “I couldn’t imagine Robin toughening up enough to survive this Ponzi scheme of a planet,” Theo thinks. “Maybe I didn’t want him to. I liked him otherworldly.”
There may yet be a great novel to write about children’s climate anxiety. The topic combines two terrible parental worries: the child may be unhappy; the world may be broken. (Or: The child may be broken; the world may be unhappy.) Bewilderment is a few shades too lumpy, sincere, and strangely plotted to be it. But the road is open for the next.