“This is ethical fiction” – Bewilderment by Richard Powers #bookerprize #bookerprizeshortlist

IMG_11Aug2021at064733Richard Powers’ first novel since the gargantuan — and gargantuanly impressive — The Overstory is operating in the same territory: the rapid large-scale and largely irreversible destruction of Earth’s ecosystems by humankind. Like its predecessor, it’s dealing in ecopoetics and what’s coming to be called cli-fi (climate fiction) insofar as this book is about the natural world and how we’re fucking it up; unlike its predecessor, which looked mostly at trees, this book focusses on the contemporary and ongoing mass extinction of animal life, and how the toxic intermingling of capitalism and politics is hastening this unfolding tragedy. And as with The Overstory, Powers’ readers learn about this alongside his characters — in this case, a precocious kid appalled by the world he’s found himself part of. The novel is set now, more or less, in an ever-so-slightly altered present (except here, Trump overturned the 2020 election result and a form of bovine encephalitis jumped species rather than a novel coronavirus); it’s speculative fiction, then, but on the genre’s borderlines, because there’s very little in here that’s not already happening.

The story follows Theo Byrne, a widowed astrobiologist who’s researching the possibility of life on other planets, and his nine-year-old son, Robin, who’s struggling with his mom’s death and has been tentatively labelled as either autistic, ADHD and/or OCD by his school’s management team, who are threatening Robin with expulsion if his behaviour doesn’t improve and Theo with social services if he doesn’t get his son onto medication, pronto. Instead, Theo asks his wife’s old friend, Martin, to let Robin join a trial of an experimental new technology: a neurofeedback AI system that trains its subjects to map onto, and thus emulate, specific brain states. Robin takes to it unexpectedly well — in particular, he learns to mimic an old brain-map of his mother’s — and as a result finds himself a national talking-point with regard to mental well-being therapies and the idea of empathy-training. Not only does Robin’s state of mind shift from depressive to euphoric, but he throws himself passionately into his mom’s old interest — saving animals from human cruelty. But the planet’s at a tipping point with regard to thus, and Robin’s just one kid.

So, there’s a lot going on here. Aly, Theo’s deceased wife, lobbied most of her life for animal protection, mostly without success. Theo’s interested in other worlds — he and his colleagues are focussed on the possibility of life emerging elsewhere — but they’re struggling to get the US government to take an interest; the President tweets a constant stream of anti-scientific nationalist crap and turns Congress against NASA’s research plans. Martin, Aly’s friend (and possibly her lover), wants to use AI to help people develop empathic skills, but, again, without sufficient government funding, he’ll have to sell the tech to corporate interests. Nobody, of course, is listening to Robin, who’s growing up to discover exactly how much damage his species has wrought, and the empathy that Martin inculcates in him via the AI the government is defunding, exposes him to deep existential crisis: how can Theo explain to a mourning child that he needs to harden himself to mass murder?

As a piece of speculative fiction, then, Bewilderment explicitly references Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon (if you don’t pick up on the echoes yourself, Robin himself is quick to point them out), and if you’ve read that book, you’ll have an idea of how the trajectory of this book plays out. If not, well, is it likely that a writer as committed to forcing us to confront the reality of the so-called Anthropocene as Powers is going to write a happy book? You’re meant to think empathically; you’re meant to feel despair. But, like Theo, you’re meant to keep going. But, like Robin, you’ve got to work out why and how. It’s a politically-engaged book; it’s a powerful one. It’s more abstract than The Overstory, and the length-discrepancy between the two partially accounts for this: the earlier book had the scope to really teach us about the wonder of trees, of forests, while Bewilderment relies on a rapid-fire delivery, bolstered by Theo’s speculations on other forms of life, elsewhere: life is multifarious, astounding, precarious and resilient. If not this life, then that life, we hear. We might die, they might die, but other life will find a way. But nonetheless: Powers wants us (via Robin) to wake up: life in general might find a way, but we’re the ones responsible for the destruction of all of this life. To read Bewilderment the week of the release of the sixth IPCC report, then, feels like a horrible sort of poetic justice.

As a piece of political writing, then, this is powerful and affecting. What Powers describes is happening; what do we do as a result? This is ethical fiction: this is using art to jolt the reading populace into a state of awareness. This is what art should be doing. And for this alone, Bewilderment should take this year’s Man Booker prize – its readership would boom, its message would reach a wider audience. Maybe, like Robin, it would go viral. I’m not sure it will, though. As a piece of crafted literary fiction, it’s a little difficult to engage with. Robin’s hard to credit as a real kid: he’s neurodivergent, sure, but he seems a study in neurodivergence rather than a character that might in himself inculcate empathy in his readers – which is, of course, another analogy in the book, for doesn’t fiction do exactly what Martin’s AI hopes to achieve? But it’s hard to settle into the fictive dream here: Robin’s so on the nose, he feels unlikely. There’s a couple of stylistic oddities – the use of italics as dialogue markers alongside actual quotation marks felt unjustified by the requirements of the narrative; the renaming of Greta Thunberg and TED seemed odd and overly cautious, and again, represented a jolting out of the narrative: we know the kid Robin adores is Greta, we know the staged talks are run by TED – in a book that’s all about hammering home the problems in the real world, now, this dissemblance felt artificial.

But does any of that matter? I don’t think so. I think some aspects of this book as storytelling will alienate some readers, and I think that will affect its overall reception such that it won’t get the acclaim of The Overstory, but I think, too, that Powers has achieved what he set out to do: he makes us feel the horror of what we’ve done. He makes us want to act. And isn’t that the point?

Any Cop?: A quick and deeply moving read by a writer engaged with the most pressing issues of our age.

Valerie O’Riordan

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