Richard Powers on His New Book ‘Bewilderment’
The acclaimed author’s latest release is the October pick for the Outside Book Club. We spoke with him about the book, climate anxiety, and the father-son relationship
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In his latest book, Bewilderment, the celebrated novelist Richard Powers explores an intense father-son relationship on an ailing planet. As wildfires rage and floodwaters rise, widower Theo and his unusual young child, Robin, attempt to understand why so little is being done to stop the accelerating effects of climate change. Powers’s previous novel, The Overstory, won a Pulitzer Prize, and now Bewilderment has been longlisted for the National Book Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It’s also the inaugural pick for the relaunch of the Outside Book Club, and we’ve been discussing the book for the last month in our Facebook group (which we encourage you to join). Outside correspondent Eva Holland, who reviewed Bewilderment for Outside, reached Powers by phone to talk about how the novel came to be, why its message matters so much, and how he thought up the book’s dramatic ending.
Outside: What was the genesis of this novel?
Powers: Thematically, it originated as a branch or a bud off of The Overstory, exploring our alienation from the more-than-human world, and the realization that we’re going to have to come back to planet Earth and join the community of interdependent living things as just one among many rather than as the dominant controller of all the rest. I thought it would be interesting to tell a story about an individual person who begins that journey.
I had read some years ago about this strange therapy called decoded neurofeedback, and this technology made me think of machine-mediated telepathy, or a kind of empathy machine, as it ends up being called in the book. I had started a story with an experimenter and a subject and the tensions and clashes between them, and I had written some way into that story, but I began to feel that there was something wrong. So I set the book aside for a while and I just spent several days outside. I live in the Great Smoky Mountains in southern Appalachia—the national park is just a couple of hundred yards from my front door—and I have a thousand miles of hiking trails in that park. And when I hit the wall with writing I just like to go out and walk. I did that for several days.
And then one day I was several miles down a trail; I hadn’t seen humans in a while. And I had this sensation of a child riding on my shoulders—like I was giving a child a lift after he had grown too tired to walk. It was this very odd, fleeting hallucination. I imagined him scampering down and walking alongside me and looking at all the things—the cascades of the river along the trail, the heron in the water. I just imagined him being overwhelmed by all of this lushness. The Smokies is a temperate rainforest and it’s incredibly lush, incredibly biodiverse. And I just thought: Who is this guy? And then a little while later I realized—that’s my hero. And so I raced back to the trailhead and got home and started making notes, and lived with that boy and his father for the next couple of years.
You mentioned that it was a bud or an offshoot of your last novel, The Overstory. Did you feel like you had more to say about planetary health and people who are moved to protect the earth?
I had had this moment of awakening while writing Overstory, and this realization that so much of our contemporary literary fiction doesn’t bring in place or the more-than-human, and I knew whatever I wrote next, I would try to be respectful of this idea that we can’t really tell stories about ourselves without bringing into that narrative all of the other kinds of life that we really depend upon to be who we are. That literature of human exceptionalism that says “we’re the only interesting party on this planet, the only one with agency or consequence or sanctity”—I no longer wanted to write stories like that.
There were times reading Bewilderment when I felt almost called out by Robin—when he would confront Theo and say, Why isn’t anybody doing anything? I felt put on the spot, like, why aren’t we doing more? Did you intend for that child’s voice to be pointing out what should be obvious to so many of us adults: that we’re just not doing enough?
I’m very interested in this question of eco-trauma among the young. Robin is an unusual boy, he lies very far from the mean of just about any kind of distribution curve that you’d draw for children his age, and the book initially begins with this question of: What’s the right way forward for this child with this problem? And Theo himself doesn’t know. He gets a couple of different diagnoses and the condition is medicalized. But little by little, in the interaction between father and son, the story does this reverse. We see this boy who, perhaps because of his unusual nature, has a kind of moral clarity and is asking a perfectly valid question that no adult would know how to answer—the question of ‘What’s wrong with Robin?’ slowly gets replaced by this question, ‘What’s wrong with the adult world?’
This condition of eco-trauma is very widespread. However unusual or different Robin is, he’s absolutely representative of a condition that is epidemic among young people. A sense of anger, a sense of fear, a sense of bewilderment in the face of what’s happening—that moral precision of childhood, that black and white quality that simply sees what should be happening and what is happening, and wants to know why the two things aren’t the same. Theo’s crisis is not just how to protect his son, it’s how to answer his son.
I thought that was so well done and so unsettling. I felt our collective deficiency in being able to answer Robin. I’ve seen a lot of comments from readers about Robin’s voice. How did you build Robin?
I drew on extraordinary children who I had had a kind of surrogate parental relationship with when I was younger. A nephew of mine, a niece of mine, and the child of a colleague of mine—they were each extraordinary in a different way, and I think that’s part of the message of the book, that whatever we know about aggregate diagnostic categories and certain components or behaviors that correlate strongly, statistically, with some of those categories, it’s important not to mistake the diagnostic category for the individual. You have to particularize, you have to allow a character to be his own collection of unusual traits—sometimes contradictory, sometimes not as strongly correlated with the condition that he supposedly partakes in.
One question posed in the Outside Book Club was why you chose a father-son relationship to explore these larger issues of the climate crisis and mass extinction?
I think it’s because, to give it the greatest possible authority and the greatest possibly emotional intimacy that I as a writer was capable of giving it, I had to channel my own experience. And while I myself am not a father, I have a lot of experience being a son, and I remember with great precision the challenges that I presented to my own father.
There is a line in The Overstory about how all the best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind—the only thing that’ll do that is a good story. We don’t transform because of graphs and figures and statistics and rational arguments. We transform because we have allowed ourselves to make an empathetic leap with someone else, and to participate in their vantage point, and to identify with them however different they are from us. We ask ourselves, What would the world feel like if I were not myself but this other person? That’s what art does, that’s why art is the great empathy machine. Especially narrative art. And it did seem to me that if I wanted to explore that question of a change in consciousness, that the best way to do it was through a very narrow and very personally focused story.
The ending is very dramatic! How did you find your way to ending the story in a way that satisfied you?
When I used to teach writing, years ago, I would tell my students that the challenge of finding an ending to a story is that you’re looking for something that is both surprising but inevitable. You’re following a trajectory, and you’re watching the consequences, this chain of choices and consequences that drives a narrative forward, and you may think you know where the story’s going, but to do justice to your characters and to the plot that you’ve set in motion, you also have to make constant course corrections along the way.
And that’s what happened to me. I had a sense of where the story was going, and I knew that I was kind re-creating the Allegory of the Cave that Plato writes about—the story about someone who breaks out of this narrow confine and realizes that they’ve been mistaking emotion for reality, and they get outside and they experience the truth of their situation, and then they go back into the cave and try to communicate to other people that there is a real world out there. So I knew the broad outlines of the fable that I was basing my story on. And I was following that, but also trying to do justice to these two very particular characters. When I got to the nine-tenths point, and I had seen Robin’s rise in emotional intelligence and then his regressing to the mean at the end of the story, I didn’t know what was going to happen. And then I did. And it was really eerie. Some part of me had already known—all the necessary groundwork was already there. I realized that I was surprised by my discovery of how the book had to end, but it was inevitable.
One more question from a reader that I think will be a nice one to end on. How do you deal with climate anxiety and paralysis? How do you maintain hope?
It is the essential question of our time, and very complicated to answer. But in brief: I have worked my way to seeing that most of our fear and terror has to do with the knowledge that there is no way forward into this crisis and through this crisis that doesn’t involve great suffering, disruption, and pain, and lots of death. Yet a lot of our despair comes about because we see the world addressing this question as a problem of chemistry and engineering, and not of change in consciousness or change in culture. We’re afraid that there is no other kind of cultural configuration than human exceptionalism; we live in a culture that equates meaning with accumulation, and we don’t know how to get out of it.
Critic and theorist Fredric Jameson famously said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And that’s why we’re terrified. No matter what we do on the chemistry end, on the reduction end, if meaning still means accumulation, we’re not going to change who we are or what we want. So the crisis is going to cause us great pain and suffering, and nothing is going to be different. If, however, we recover what so many cultures around the world have known throughout so much of human history, and begin to realize there are other ways of finding meaning—in our connections with other living things, with interbeing, with rehabilitation, with taking joy in living where we live, in committing to place and understanding what place wants, in being present and attentive and understanding the incredible diversity and agency of the more-than-human world, we may find that the world of the future has more possibility for meaning, more work and more meaningful engagement, than the world of the present.
If we are afraid that life won’t survive the climate crisis that we’ve unleashed, I think we can console ourselves with the fact that life has survived mass extinctions that were caused by changes in the earth that are much more extreme than the ones we’ve set in motion. So in all likelihood, life will survive anything that we throw at it. Then the question is, will we be around in any capacity? I believe that our collective ingenuity and resourcefulness will, if we can transform our consciousness, find ways of rehabilitating and re-entering the community of living things, and finding a durable and renewable way of being on the planet. So if there is life and if we are around, the question is: What will replace our sense of meaning in the present? And what is hope? Hope is a willingness to commit to engage the future. In the world that I’m describing, if there is more work, and more meaning, even if it is accompanied by upheaval and pain and suffering, it may ultimately be better to make that leap into a new kind of culture and to find greater purpose than anything that the culture of commodity-mediated individualist human exceptionalism now offers us. Hope in the future will consist of tying us back together to the living planet.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.