In ‘Bewilderment,’ Richard Powers Smothers Nature With Piety

“The world had enough novels,” Richard Powers wrote in “Galatea 2.2,” his semi-autobiographical and arguably finest novel, revealed in 1995. “Certain writers were best paid to keep their fields out of production.”

Among these writers, 1 / 4 of a century later, could also be Powers himself. His new one, “Bewilderment,” is so meek, saccharine and overweening in its piety about nature that even a teaspoon of it numbs the thoughts.

“Bewilderment” is the follow-up to “The Overstory” (2018), his beloved novel about bushes, the significance of sustaining forests and folks, in that order. It gained a Pulitzer Prize and made Powers one thing near a secular saint. Let nobody say it was overrated.

“The Overstory” was seen to be enhancing and academic and anxious, just like the magazines — Mindful, Rock and Ice, Naked Food, Dwell, Runner’s World, Yoga — on show at Whole Foods, and thus wholesome to be noticed carrying round.

Good novels are not often constructed on good intentions or politics. Pauline Kael mentioned it about movie, and it applies extra so to novels: “the good ones never make you feel virtuous.”

“Bewilderment” is equal components earnest opinion-page essay (people + nature = yikes) and middling Netflix science fiction product (boy reconnects with lifeless mom by way of excessive tech).

The narrator is Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist in mourning. He’s trying to find life within the cosmos whereas elevating Robin, his delicate 9-year-old son. Alyssa, Robin’s mom — birder, vegan, hiker, activist, good friend to deserted canines — died two years earlier in a automotive crash.

Young Robin is vibrant and candy however compulsive and fast to anger. When a pediatrician suggests he is likely to be “on the spectrum,” his father thinks: “I wanted to tell the man that everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is.”

Robin’s about to be expelled from third grade for impulsively clouting a boy within the face. Theo doesn’t need to put him on Ritalin or different psychoactive medicine.

Vanguard science and expertise are sometimes tucked into Powers’s novels just like the B inside a B.L.T. In “Bewilderment,” the crisp academic element arrives within the type of experimental neurofeedback remedies, their promise and peril.

Richard Powers, whose new novel is “Bewilderment.”Credit…Dean D. Dixon

These remedies contain mind scans and steered emotional states and the potential to softly sync minds with different minds, even throughout time. Alyssa took half in a single such experiment earlier than her loss of life, and her “patterns of connectivity” are on file. Might it assist Robin to have the ability to sync up with these?

One of Alyssa’s steered states was “ecstasy,” and she or he hit that one out of the park. Powers doesn’t start to discover the Oedipal implications when Robin steps into her head.

The medical science described in “Bewilderment” is admittedly fascinating, within the method of a New Yorker article. As fiction, the novel is D.O.A. — shallowness that requests to be taken significantly.

The rap towards Powers’s novels was once that they had been chilly. Margaret Atwood, summing up the complaints, as soon as mentioned the concept was that he was “not cozy enough at the core.”

“Bewilderment” isn’t cozy, precisely, but it surely’s bought a nubbly sentimentality. Theo and Robin bond whereas they’re strolling in, and speaking about, nature. It’s Trump’s world on the market, and the cork has popped off the shaken bottle of fizzy swill.

The novel’s central query is similar one posed in “The Overstory” by Douggie Pavlicek, a Vietnam War vet turned eco-warrior: “What the [Expletive] Went Wrong With Mankind?”

The dialogue distantly jogged my memory of that in my very own favourite novel from third grade, Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”

Robbie speaks in italics all through, as if he had been an oracle or, just like the child in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” imaginary. “Don’t worry, Dad. We might not figure it out. But Earth will,” he says. And: “Spring will keep coming back, whatever happens. Right, Dad?” And: “New planet, Dad. Please.” And: “There’s something wrong with us, Dad.”

Robin provides, M. Night Shyamalanishly: “Your wife loves you. You know that, right?”

Theo says to him, “People, Robbie. They’re a questionable species.” He thinks: “There was a planet that couldn’t figure out where everyone was. It died of loneliness.” And: “Oh, this planet was a good one.”

To be honest to Powers, he retains a capability to alchemize the strangeness of on a regular basis world life — on paying a cabdriver, for instance: “I fed my card into the cab’s reader and credits poured out from a server farm nestled in the melting tundra of northern Sweden into the cabbie’s virtual hands.” But these moments are uncommon right here.

There are some books you need to give to your finest good friend; that is one to present to your distant aunt, for her studying group. It’s a James Taylor music whenever you require a buzz-saw guitar. There’s no impudence, no wit, no hearth and little fluttering understanding, regardless of the ostentatious science, of how human minds actually work.

It’s a e-book about ecological salvation that someway makes you need to flick an otter on the again of the top, for no good cause in any respect.