Review: Human History on Earth | Book reviews and short stories

ELLEN AKINS Star Tribune

“Perplexity” by Richard Powers; WW Norton, 288 pages, $27.95.

As he did in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Overstory” – which the Financial Times called “A Great American Eco-Novel” – Richard Powers tackles life in the natural world and its suffering at the hands of man. in “Bewilderment”. In this much shorter and more focused novel, however, suffering is central and seen through the prism of a father’s love for his troubled child.

In the not-too-distant future, much like our own times of Culture War but with the volume and heat turned up, Theo is an astrobiologist working on a project trying to identify life on distant planets; as he puts it: “we studied how the absorption of lines in the spectra of distant atmospheres could reveal biology.”

His wife, an animal rights lawyer and activist with a bright character and boundless energy, died recently, and his 9-year-old son, Robin, is struggling.

A bright and unstable little boy, Robbie takes the plight of Earth’s living creatures and humans’ failure to protect them, personally and harshly. Rather than seeing the child as oversensitive, “Bewilderment” asks if the rest of us aren’t actually undersensitive. Trying to help his son without resorting to drugs, Theo allows him to participate in an experimental program “called Decoded Neurofeedback. It was like old-school biofeedback, but with neural imaging for real-time, brain-mediated feedback ‘IA.’

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In what Theo calls an “empathy machine”, a subject learns to mirror the mapped emotions of other participants – in the case of Robbie, his late mother, who once modeled “ecstasy” for the program. This all might sound a little technical sci-fi, but all the scientific dazzle, including the details of the planets Theo painstakingly imagines for Robbie, simply underlines the human story at its center – and makes the tenderness between father and son so real and heartfelt that the novel becomes its own empathy machine.

What’s more powerful, however, is how the emotions evoked by “Bewilderment” extend far beyond the bond of father and son to embrace the living world and Robin’s anguish over his fate. , experienced more and more deliciously as the experience progresses. And then, in case you figure your feelings for this man, this child, and this blind planet can’t get any stronger, fair warning:

The book “Flowers for Algernon” is Powers’ touchstone in “Bewilderment”, mentioned in the author’s note and listened to by Theo and Robin as they cross the country. But, as Robin reassures his father after discovering the degraded state of the Mississippi River: “We’re just an experiment, aren’t we? And you always say that an experiment with a negative result is not a failed experiment. … Do not worry. , dad. We may not find out. But the Earth will. “

Ellen Akins is a writer and writing teacher from Wisconsin.

Alycia R. Lindley