Is Richard Powers trolling Sally Rooney? In reality, you’d have to say no. But it can appear, when placing their last two novels side by side, that Powers is swatting away the concerns that used to keep Rooney busy and now seem to keep her up at night. Powers’s astonishing saga The Overstory (2018) appeared a few months before Normal People. His ensemble cast – nine central characters – and emphasis on arboreal science might have seemed like a rebuke to pokier subject matter even without the moment when Ray, a lawyer, laments that fiction too often mistakes life for “something huge with two legs” and that “no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people”. The Overstory and Normal People both made the Booker Prize longlist, but Powers got one stage further, and even Rooney’s commercial success may be said to prove Ray’s point.
If, the last time around, Powers torpedoed Rooney in advance, then his slighter but similarly far-reaching new book, Bewilderment, is arriving late to spoil a party. In the Irish author’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, the Rooney-like writer Alice bemoans the ethical complacency of “the contemporary Euro-American novel” and fears that to place global suffering next to invented characters would be “deemed either tasteless or simply artistically unsuccessful”. Yet Powers, without any apparent self-consciousness, has set the relationship between two characters – a 30-something widower, Theo, and his troubled, possibly autistic son, Robin – against an unspecified future landscape marked by chaos and collapse. Theo’s work as an astrobiologist involves finding planets that might offer an alternative to this one – research that seems to grant Robin his only refuge from a life of anger and isolation, until a neuro-feedback experiment turns him into a popular eco-warrior.
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The result, though rich, is far from perfect. Powers is so often praised for his intellectual firepower that his qualities as a writer risk going unmentioned, and Bewilderment, like many of his books, is full of limpid, light-touch sentences. But the desire to explain, and to express rapture, also produces overheated effects, or just colliding vowel-sounds: in one 50-word passage, we get “splayed”, “cascade”, “crustacean”, “inhaled”, “percolating”, “sensations”, and “elated”. And for reasons that never become clear, the story is told in more than 100 sections – so that’s 100 opening gambits, 100 fade-outs or punchlines or cliffhangers. It puts a strain on his resources.
Since the appearance of The Gold Bug Variations 30 years ago, the Richard Powers novel has become a sub-genre characterised by multidisciplinary erudition, historical sweep and networks of symbolic imagery. Though Bewilderment is being sold as a kind of coda to The Overstory, which was awarded the Pulitzer and received praise from Barack Obama, it has more in common with Peter Carey’s Powers knock-off, The Chemistry of Tears (2012), which concerned a horologist mourning her dead lover while ruminating on the history of technology. You could say that in writing a dystopian fantasy that desires to warm the cockles – a kind of YA version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – Powers is being mawkish by design. But the earnestness still grates. Facing yet another science discussion involving father and son (“How could we ever know aliens? We can’t even know birds”), I couldn’t help but recall the narrator of the mockumentary, Look Around You, asking: “What are birds? We just don’t know.”
Powers gets around the ethical quandary the same way Rooney does. He more or less says that life is just something huge with two legs (“Maybe humanity was a nine-year-old,” Theo speculates). Theo calls Robin a “compact planet”. And just as in Beautiful World Alice’s friend Eileen assures her we’re simply born to love and worry about the people we know, so Theo says that worrying about Robin when “the entire species might have been on the line” is the “trap evolution shaped for us”. Theo’s late wife Alyssa sighs in flashback, “Man, we all fall short so beautifully”; Eileen roots for human beings to survive “because we are so stupid about each other”. So the latest bout between the hand-wringing novelist of ideas and the increasingly pained writer of love stories probably ends in a draw. Powers, like his younger combatant, has made a valiant attempt at a daunting task while providing a distinctly mixed experience for the reader.
Hutchinson Heinemann, 288pp, £18.99
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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West