On the surface, Richard Powers’s “Bewilderment” should have left me spellbound. The novel, shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, touches on topics I’m deeply fascinated by: astrobiology, psychopathology, American politics, climate change. Don’t get me wrong, I was enamored of this heart-rending tale, but not for any of the reasons I listed. Ultimately, this novel is elevated from “pretty OK” to “beautiful” by a single character dynamic, but unfortunately, the novel’s other promising elements failed to coalesce into anything substantive.

“Bewilderment” follows astrobiologist Theo Byrne as he struggles to raise his precocious and emotionally volatile nine-year-old, Robin, following the death of his wife in a car accident. Set in the near future, the novel’s world buckles under the weight of Big Pharma, climate change and science denial. Unsurprisingly, every character is waist-deep in existential dread. Robin is deeply unsettled by the complacency human beings have sunk into when discussing climate change and is outraged by the fact that people aren’t more upset about the state of the environment. Meanwhile, Theo struggles to contain Robin’s violent outbursts, unsure of whether or not to put his son on psychiatric medications; he is skeptical of how doctors’ suggestions of autism and ADHD might be motivated by Big Pharma. What results is an emotional tale of the bond between father and son.

Everything else aside, this novel finds its footing in its timeliness and relatability. Theo’s masochistic doom-scrolling is definitely something I’m guilty of, and the ambient din of right-wing authoritarian politicians cracking down on science (in the novel, there’s mention of how funding was withheld from schools that taught evolution) was too familiar to be completely fictitious. Powers brings into focus the impending doom of right-wing authoritarianism and climate-change catastrophe by imagining what these issues might look like in a few years. Major species are extinct, parts of the U.S. are uninhabitable and politicians use claims of election fraud to “redo” elections. At one point, Theo succinctly articulates these underlying anxieties with one statement: “I wanted to tell him that democracy had a way of working out, however ugly things got. But my son had this thing about honesty.” “Bewilderment” is a stark reminder of what is at stake each day, and it taps into a carnal fear by poking at our collective existential dread.

And why shouldn’t we, as a species, be emotionally crippled by this fear? Robin Byrd certainly is. In a desperate exclamation echoing a certain Swedish climate activist, Robin declares that “there’s no point in school. Everything will be dead before I get to tenth grade.” The book ponders if this is the only rational reaction a human can have. Most of us have become so inundated by news of a climate crisis that the words “climate disaster” have been robbed of their weight. Why aren’t we brought to tears by the irrefutable fact that everything is dying, and that we are the ones who have dug our own graves? Against the backdrop of outrageous news stories and political scandals, Powers raises a striking point: Maybe outrageous events necessitate outrageous reactions.

This raises an intriguing ethical problem, though: How can we, in good conscience, tell our children the truth of the matter? The reality of our crumbling world is so devastating that most adults can barely process the calamity, so how can children handle that? Should they have that innocence ripped away? Or should we lie to them, telling them that we aren’t dying, that mere hope and anger at these issues is enough to solve them? Powers never quite answers this question, perhaps because it doesn’t have an answer, but he does explore how the weight of this truth might burden a child. Robin becomes hyper-fixated on climate activism, drawing hundreds of pictures of endangered species to sell for charity and raise awareness. His fixation veers into an unhealthy obsession until he eventually becomes dejected at the prospect of any setbacks.

As rational as Robin’s response to climate catastrophe may seem, the sensitivity he displays isn’t always healthy, as it often metastasizes into emotional volatility. For example, when Robin’s friend makes a comment on Robin’s dead mother (which, to be fair, is rather upsetting), Robin proceeds to swing a metal thermos at the kid’s head, cracking his jawbone. Such outbursts weren’t uncommon; Robin is prone to throwing violent temper tantrums as soon as he gets upset. 

I’ll be honest, I kind of hated Robin. I felt sympathy for him, but how he continually lashed out at and endangered his peers didn’t sit right with me. But this feeling of irritation with Robin’s character was a benefit to the novel. It underscored the most powerful aspect of the narrative: the father-son relationship. The driving force behind every action Theo takes is what is best for his son. In the face of every outburst and meltdown, Theo continues to describe his son as “the luckiest thing in (his) life.” As the narrative chugs along, the reader gets the sense that this bond’s power could rival the gravitational pull of the sun. Theo regards his son with the admiration only a father could, marveling at Robin’s drive and fortitude when every other character fixates on Robin’s disruptive behavior. Powers doesn’t pull the camera away from the difficulties that come with raising Robin; in fact, Powers zooms in on the instances where Theo has no clue how to help his boy, focusing on the questions about raising children that simply don’t have answers.

The central conflict of the novel, for instance, is whether or not to place Robin on an experimental brain-wave therapy that would help him regulate his emotions better. As a parent, it’s difficult deciding what is best for your child, especially when you’re already wading in uncharted waters. How can anyone weigh the risks and rewards of potentially enabling their child to function in society using an experimental method no one’s tried before? “Bewilderment” doesn’t claim to offer any concrete answers, and in doing so illustrates the helplessness parenthood can sometimes elicit.

Robin is filtered through the lens of Theo’s undying love and acceptance so that, even though the reader does recognize behavioral issues and quirks, it’s difficult to not be caught by the light in Robin’s eyes when he becomes excited about environmentalism and advocacy. Theo himself thinks the world of Robin, and it’s evident that Robin brings out the best in his father. Multiple times, Robin muses upon the state of the world with the innocence only a child can have, and Theo is starstruck, shifting his worldview to account for revelations that seemed so obvious to his son. The ferocity with which Theo sings his son’s praises, the vivacity with which Theo will come to Robin’s defense, is nothing short of beautiful, perhaps because in Robin, Theo sees the expanse of the universe.

All of that being said, this father-son relationship isn’t written perfectly. Robin is clearly more than a troubled child: He’s a violent child. He broke a kid’s jaw, he threatened to kill his classmates, he is habitually destructive when he’s upset. While the persevering love of Theo for his son is inspiring, it has an ominous flip side: Theo actively ignores and dismisses how problematic his son is. This becomes especially clear when Theo is discussing a few previous altercations his son has had with classmates, saying, “Robin went nuts, apparently threatening to kill both boys. These days, that was grounds for expulsion and immediate psychiatric treatment. We got off easy.” Theo says this as if Robin’s behavior was just “boys being boys,” or as if that behavior wasn’t deeply traumatic for the kids Robin lashed out at. Theo later dismisses the broken jawbone that Robin inflicted as a typical childhood injury, one that would heal in no time, as if every kid sustains a broken jaw playing on the playground. As I explained earlier, this undying paternal devotion isn’t necessarily bad; given how problematic Robin is, the power of that bond is underscored. The issue lies in the fact that the author never gives any indication he’s critiquing the harmful behavior or Theo’s wearied acceptance of it. Theo never considers why others might treat his child as if he were dangerous, and the only characters who do treat Robin’s behavior as harmful are vague unseen bogeymen.

Another issue that becomes stunningly clear over the course of the novel is just how little Richard Powers knows about the field of psychiatry. Mostly, this lack of knowledge is betrayed by the repeated conversations about Robin’s own psychological problems. This is a child worthy of sympathy and compassion and love, yes, but this is also a child who clearly has real underlying psychological and developmental issues. Yet Richard Powers makes a point of disparaging any sort of diagnosis thrust upon Robin. When confronted with the possibility that Robin might have autism or ADHD, Theo scoffs, saying, “Half the third-graders in this country could be squeezed into one of those categories.” When school supervisors advise psychiatric treatment for Robin, Theo bristles at the idea of his child being diagnosed with some disorder.

Powers (and, by extension, his characters) is even more keen to condemn psychiatric treatment, only referring to medications with the ominously clinical phrase “psychoactive drugs,” and having characters parrot lines such as, “If eight million children are taking psychoactive drugs, something isn’t working.” In fact, Theo is so averse to the idea of placing Robin on medication that he decides to place his child in an experimental pilot study of a fancy brain wave therapy. Somehow, the only alternative to medications is to place a nine-year-old on an untested and potentially harmful new treatment? Bafflingly, less invasive, more reliable forms of treatment (like behavioral therapy) are never mentioned as alternatives. Intervention is coded in a binary way by the novel: It’s either good or it’s bad. The novel concludes that medication and fancy diagnoses are bad as if interventions can’t incorporate a variety of different treatments.

I’ll give Powers credit, though, as he does raise a lot of valid concerns. The rate at which children are diagnosed with disorders such as ADHD has increased by a startling amount, and psychiatric medications can have a lot of uncomfortable side effects. Moreover, the idea that “Big Pharma” drives how a lot of research and medications are promoted — one of the reasons Theo lists as to why he distrusts medication — is rooted in very real anxieties. But Richard Powers explores these concerns with so little nuance that I can only conclude that he has no clue what he’s talking about. Rather than sparking intriguing discussions about pitfalls in the field of psychiatry, Powers dismisses the idea of neurodevelopmental disorders, the positive impact of medications and the value of psychiatric intervention altogether. This is ironic considering the novel’s concern about the growing anti-science sentiment among Americans.

Beyond these issues, the novel has a few other pervasive problems. The author, for instance, tends to introduce and abandon plotlines, such as an unresolved thread about the fidelity of Theo’s dead wife, Alyssa. This subplot is especially frustrating as it involves a central character, Dr. Currier, the psychiatrist who conducts the study Robin is enrolled in. Seemingly, this thread is resolved before it has even begun unspooling: Theo recounts a time when, in a spate of jealousy, he asked Alyssa if she’d ever cheat. Alyssa gives a pretty definitive “no,” and the reader is left to believe that Theo’s anxieties are nothing more than that: anxieties. Later, though, Theo becomes convinced that Alyssa had an affair with Dr. Currier, and this “revelation” that his wife was supposedly unfaithful was so oblique and vague that I barely even registered Theo’s newfound conviction. Afterward, Theo treats this revelation as truth, but nothing ever comes of it, and there is nothing to challenge, or even support, the veracity of his anxieties. In fact, it’s only referenced once more throughout the rest of the novel. More maddeningly, emotional twists are alluded to — such as Alyssa being pregnant when she died, or rumors that her death was a suicide — but never followed up on, making the reader question if such threads were ever there, to begin with. As a result, the narrative feels frayed, as if the author forgot to clip off strands of stray storyline.

Additionally, the novel suffers from flat characters; outside of Theo and Robin, none of the other characters have any sort of development or depth. Furthermore, Richard Powers repeatedly uses planets as metaphors for plot points in the novel, which is artful and imaginative at first — these sections added a delightful vividness and color to the narrative, painting glorious pictures of interstellar wonders for Robin as bedtime stories — but soon feel like distractions from the far more interesting plot. 

All in all, “Bewilderment” ends up being barely more than the sum of its parts, with most of its value and insight found in the bond between Theo and Robin. In spite of that, though, the story is still bogged down by abandoned story beats, flat characters and problematic implications. Richard Powers accomplishes a beautiful feat in forging a relationship between an astrobiologist and a troubled nine-year-old, but that feat is what distracts from a litany of other shortcomings.

Daily Arts Writer Tate Lafrenier can be reached at tlafren@umich.edu.