Saturday, January 15, 2022

The universe of the heart is a strange and lonely place in "Bewilderment"

In Richard Powers' novel "Bewilderment," Theo Byrne’s nine-year-old son Robin may have ADHD or Asberger’s or is somewhere on the autism “spectrum.” He is suspended when he clocks a kid at school. He always says the wrong thing. Therapists try to convince Theo to put Robin on medication such as Ritalin or Concerta. Theo, an astrobiologist searching for the universe’s exoplanets, refuses to do so. He’s a single parent, his environmentalist wife Alyssa killed in a car wreck when she swerved to avoid a possum.

Father spends many hours hiking and camping with his son. Together, they travel to imaginary planets that Theo only knows through the signatures of critical elements picked up from thousands of light years away. Those are wonderful chapters, journeying to quirky planets that come right out of the scientific imagination. Their names include Stasis, Isola, and Tedia which, not surprisingly, reflect their namesakes of isolation, loneliness, and tedium. One planet doesn’t spin on its axis due to the pull of competing suns. The planet’s few living things can only exist in a narrow band of twilight because they would die from heat on one side or freeze to death on the other.

Theo the astrophysicist discusses various terms regarding the existence of life on other planets. The Fermi Paradox asks the question once asked by Enrico Fermi: Where are the aliens? Drake Equation measures the probability of exoplanets that support life long enough for intelligent beings to emerge. In the novel, Theo proposes other possibilities. No sentient lifeforms anywhere. Civilizations so far away that we would never meet them. Some posit the idea that there is intelligent life in the universe but those beings want nothing to do with us. So they are silent.

All of this returns to Theo’s struggle to understand his son and deal with the death of his wife. A colleague opens a research project that might have answer. It involves a kind of neurofeedback, the AI linking of a person with electronic energy created by others. Neurodivergent Robin becomes part of the study, linking up with some feedback loops his mother made when alive. He gradually gets a better grasp on his behavior and exceeds the researchers’ goals. But disappointment awaits -- and a surprise ending. Think “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. “Charly,” the movie based on the book, really got to me when I saw it in 1968.

Powers is a powerful writer and “Bewilderment” resonated with me for several reasons. This tale got real early on. My wife and I put our son with ADHD on Ritalin when he was five in 1990. I resisted. I couldn’t imagine my little dynamo on drugs. But he needed help. His working parents needed help. Directors of preschools and kindergarten teachers pushed us to go the medication route. Three decades later, I can still feel the pain. I had to stop reading Powers’ novel at some points because the author does such a great job of describing the pain of the bewildered parent.

“Bewilderment” also asks this question: Are we as alone in the universe as we are on Earth? The book says yes but also provides the reader with transcendent moments.

Still, loneliness may be as endemic to the universe as hydrogen and helium. We may never see intelligent lifeforms. If they exist, they are far away and the distances too great. We are early in the exploration stage. I will be stardust by the time humans leave our solar system for another.

Powers creates a world where the reader feels the weight of the universe and the weight of people’s attempts to know ourselves and our loved ones. I finished the book, sat back in my recliner, said “we are all alone,” and then grabbed a beer. I have family and friends, a wife and two grown children. They will miss me when I am gone. But the earth will keep spinning, a sunrise will be followed by a sunset. One generation will be replaced by another and another and another.

Today I am going to pretend that I am not alone. I will reach out to those important to me. What else can I do?


RobertP said...


You are definitely not alone. And your experience with your sons ADHD was a big help to me with my sons. I learned a lot from your experiences and insights that helped. Our son’s school was also extremely helpful as was Children's Mercy Hospital where he was evaluated. We used Ritalin and it helped. We let Sam determine when to stop using it. He has gone on to be a great person with a good marriage and family.

Interestingly, when the doctors explained ADD to us clinically, we thought it described our daughter who was doing great in school. Doc said that if she really loved school, and she did, then it made sense she woul be obsessive about it. Like many kids were with video games. Years later, she came to the same conclusion. Interesting stuff.

Thanks again for your early insight. It really helped.


Michael Shay said...

Thanks for your comments, Bob. It's just been such a long haul for us and sometimes I get a bit down. The book really got to me, though. It was so damn sad about the fate of the earth and the fate of earthly relationships. I guess that's a tribute to the author's skill. Now I need a good comedy. Or two.