Being a successful parent is often a combination of skill and luck. It would be great if raising a child were more like an equation: Find the perfect algorithm for decisions, and your kid will have a happy childhood before becoming a responsible and compassionate adult. But most parents learn that no matter how much they want to mold their children into perfect human beings, kids have their own identity—their own spark, their own flaws, needs, idiosyncrasies, and desires.
When managing their children’s individuality, parents tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between actively trying to shape who their children will become and allowing them the freedom to explore who they are (with light guardrails where needed). This dynamic is laid out in The Gardener and the Carpenter, by the child psychologist Alison Gopnik. Gardeners, Gopnik writes, are the more laissez-faire type: While they’re invested in their child’s success, their focus is a bit more on the child’s happiness and self-actualization. Carpenters, on the other hand, see the child as a “future adult” to be molded through careful preparation. Theodore Byrne, the main character in Richard Powers’s new novel Bewilderment, would probably put himself in the “astronomer” category. For him, his child is a science experiment and childhood a long journey. “They share a lot, astronomy and childhood,” Theodore explains. “Both are voyages across huge distances. Both search for facts beyond their grasp. Both theorize wildly and let possibilities multiply without limits. Both are humbled every few weeks. Both operate out of ignorance. Both are mystified by time. Both are forever starting out.”
Theodore is given to think of childhood and parenting as astronomy in part because he is an astrobiologist. He is also a widower with a young son named Robin. Like his father, Robin is already something of a scientist: He wants to know the Latin names or other bits of trivia for all the flora and fauna he observes. For Robin, life is an interesting game of empiricism, and his precociousness, youthful curiosity, and blunt observations about the world are infectious. Theodore obliges his son’s queries and requests with patience and candor, fostering a love of the natural world through extended camping trips, driving from their Wisconsin home to the woods and mountains of Appalachia to birdwatch. Here, they talk about things like the state of the world; reminisce about Alyssa, Robin’s deceased mother; lament how human folly is ruining the environment; and speculate on what life looks like on other planets.
However, Robin is also troubled by disabilities that have made it difficult for him to get along with his peers and focus in school. At home, even a slight disappointment can send him spiraling into a tantrum. The doctors have never been able to make a consistent diagnosis for this; Asperger’s, OCD, and ADHD are all mentioned—and because of Robin’s volatility, his doctors and teachers want Theodore to put him on psychoactive medication. As a father, Theodore pushes back against a society that often looks at children as a problem to fix and child-rearing as a form of asset management. But when Robin hits a boy with a metal thermos for implying that there was more to his mother’s death than a tragic car crash, Theodore knows his son needs help.
That help arrives in the form of Martin Currier, a neuroscientist and friend of Alyssa (who Theodore suspects may also have been her lover). Martin approaches him about entering Robin into an experimental psychotherapy trial he is running called “Decoded Neurofeedback” (or DecNef). In it, he plans to use visual cues to help Robin practice mindfulness, which would result in his being able to regulate his emotions. Martin suggests that they train Robin using data of his mother’s emotional states—data that Martin recorded when Theodore and Alyssa came in to try the experiment years before. Theodore hesitantly agrees.
Once they start DecNef, the changes in Robin are immediate and dramatic. Things that used to spark tantrums in him now roll off his back. He’s calmer at school and at home. He also begins to exhibit some surreal aftereffects, implying, at times, that the experiment has connected him with his mother’s spirit. Theodore watches as Robin mentions things that Alyssa knew but Robin shouldn’t, like a tattoo she had or the songs of certain birds.
In a recent conversation with Ezra Klein, Powers asserts that wonder and humility are closely linked: “The more astonishing the world around us becomes, the more we have to share the limelight with these other things that are mind-boggling.” At this point in Bewilderment, the thing that is mind-boggling to Theodore is his son. Robin sees the world with such clarity, and Theodore wonders if the society that wants Robin to conform should in fact be more like him.
Raising a child with special needs while mourning his wife’s death is no easy task for Theodore. Robin constantly asks questions he already knows the answer to: how his parents met, how he got his name. Concerned about his son’s well-being, Theodore gamely answers these questions, forced to relive his own trauma over and over while keeping his composure and remaining patient. A sad memory can transform a good day into a day of mourning and stress, so the emotional burden of managing Robin’s moods can be draining. Powers shows that parenthood is a duty filled with both mundane and arduous daily tasks. In many ways, Bewilderment is an attempt to study the difficulties that come from these tasks: How can one be a parent in a world in crisis? How do you teach a child to be “normal” when climate change, mass extinction, animal suffering, and human poverty seem intractable? The crisis is personal as well—without the help of his wife, Theodore wonders if he is doing the right things for his son. Robin becomes a minor Internet celebrity when a journalist features him in a documentary about how the DecNef experiment transformed him; but as a father, Theodore doesn’t want him to become a spectacle.
Bewilderment also deals with how humans and animals cohabit in the midst of these ecological and political crises. The Byrnes find life on earth sacred, and before they go to bed, Theodore and Robin recite Alyssa’s prayer: “May all sentient beings be free from needless suffering.” But prayers alone won’t fix the world, and the novel spends a considerable amount of time exploring Robin’s fears about animal life: He refuses to eat meat, starts a project to paint every endangered species in North America, and mounts a solitary protest on the steps of Congress. While Robin’s neurodivergence can cause trouble at times, Theodore worries that making him conform to this society would diminish the spark inside of him. And yet Powers shows that our ability to cope with the world doesn’t make its catastrophes any less difficult to manage.
Over the course of Powers’s career, his fiction has consistently engaged with the natural world and how we are connected to it. He uses science to probe philosophical questions of love, innocence, freedom, responsibility, and redemption. In Overstory, Powers showed that the magnificence of nature often remains invisible to us. In Generosity, he asked us to consider whether important parts of our personalities are simply a matter of genetics or if we contain more mysteries than science can explain. In Bewilderment, we meet a father who doesn’t have all the answers. But one thing Theodore is sure of is that he doesn’t want to force his son to adapt to “this Ponzi scheme of a planet.”