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Richard Powers' Book 'Bewilderment' Explores Life On And Beyond Earth


Climate change, new planets, grief, mental health - these are only some of the themes that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers explores in his new novel "Bewilderment." The tale centers around a single father, Theo Byrne, with a 9-year-old boy named Robin. Both are grieving the death of Byrne's wife, Alyssa. Her life remains intertwined with theirs through the magic of neuroscience. The narrative is told through the lens of the father, an astrobiologist who searches for the possibility of life beyond Earth. But he's also struggling to raise a sensitive child in a world that is dying and a nation that is growing more authoritarian.

Richard Powers joins us now.


RICHARD POWERS: Thanks so much, Leila. It's a lovely introduction.

FADEL: Thanks. I mean, the novel was definitely an emotional one, and so much of it felt like a version of the world that we live in right now. But I wanted to start by asking you how we got "Bewilderment." I mean, after your last novel, "The Overstory," you said you'd never write again. What changed?

POWERS: Yeah. Well, "The Overstory" was my 12th novel. And it was well over 500 pages and five and a half years in the making. And I was worn out. I just felt like I'd given everything that I could to the book. As it turns out, "Bewilderment" is far shorter, less than half the length of "Overstory." It deals with only two characters. And I think that greater intimacy and that greater focus allowed me to rally my energies during the pandemic.

And it's a bit of a pandemic book, you know? It certainly treats a kind of parallel Earth to the one that we've been living through. And because I was locked down in a very beautiful part of the world, the Great Smoky Mountains, I used place, also, as a restorative and as a way to build my stamina again for a new novel.

FADEL: Now, the Smokies are featured in this book. And I'm curious how you decided to tell the tale through a father and son, especially because you've talked about how you yourself have never really wanted children and decided not to have children.

POWERS: The idea to set it in the Smokies and to feature a father and a son occurred to me while I was on a trail here in the national park. I was deep into the trail, two or three miles. I hadn't seen a human being in a long time. And all of a sudden, I had this odd sensation that there was a little boy riding on my shoulders. And that's when I realized I was going to do this great leap of speculative fiction at the age of, you know, 62, 63, to wonder what it might have been like to be a father.

FADEL: You mention this parallel world, and that world is a world ravaged by floods and water contamination and wildfires. There is a very Trump-like president in power, deep societal divisions, authoritarianism. How much did current events inspire you for this novel?

POWERS: I was, like so many people during lockdown, just chained to the headlines. And the book really was created under the shadow of this feeling that we were at a moment that could get out and follow a very disastrous trajectory.

FADEL: Are we still in that dangerous moment?

POWERS: Yeah, no question.

FADEL: Yeah.

POWERS: You started out with a litany of the natural disasters that the book treats. And the book does venture into speculative fiction a little bit, but, boy, when I heard you name that catalog, I thought, there's no exaggeration there. There's no parallel Earth there. That's where we are.

FADEL: Right. I mean, those are the types of things we report on every day now. Now, you really drive home in the novel how, when you talk about the non-human life of this planet, how easily humanity grows accustomed and really ignores atrocities going on around us, especially the possible extinction of so many species on this planet. And the son, Robin, is obsessed with human beings' mass killings of animals and the destruction of our planet. Is Robin ultimately humanity's mirror in this book?

POWERS: Yeah, it is a book about the results of a way of thinking about the living world as if we are the only sacred entity with agency and meaning. And while I wrote "Overstory," I realized that it's that culture that has to shift if we want to stick around here much longer. And that's where "Bewilderment" started. I thought, well, the next thing that I could do is try to tell the story of one person who begins to think about the world in a much different way, in a way where we aren't separate from but we are reciprocally interbraided (ph) with other living things.

FADEL: And there's this sort of - with a child first learning the world, this almost disbelief in the way that people can ignore things, right?

POWERS: Yeah. I mean, there are many reasons why it was important to me to have a child at the center of this story and a child who's just on that threshold. You know, from 9 to 10 is a very interesting transition in age. They don't yet understand why we might have to look away or qualify or be confused. You know, they see things in that childlike black-and-white way, and they demand answers. And in this case, he wants to know, is it really true? Are we losing this incredible patrimony? And Theo has to say yes, and he has no good answer for why.

FADEL: Which is just crushing - right? - in the way that it goes between father and son 'cause he can't protect his son.

POWERS: Yeah. And I think it's an invitation for readers to wonder how they would explain something that we have gotten good at not explaining or avoiding or postponing. Because you can't say no to a 9-year-old.

FADEL: Now, ultimately, this book, it's about love between father and son, love between husband and wife, mother and son and then that larger connection to the planet. But there's also a lot of hopelessness in this book against all that is going wrong in the world. And I'm just curious what you want readers to walk away with when they finish this novel.

POWERS: I would characterize the book itself as a strange mixture of darkness and light. This question of whether it's ultimately hopeful or despairing has everything to do with how we understand the idea of hope. But I do hope - insofar as hope means a commitment to engage the future as a meaningful pursuit, I do hope and I strongly believe that this place where we are that is still so incredible will provide us with a meaningful place to put all our efforts and all our empathy for as long as we can stick around.

FADEL: Novelist Richard Powers speaking to us about his new book, "Bewilderment," shortlisted for a Booker Prize.

Thank you so much for joining us.

POWERS: Thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRLPOOL SONG, "IDEAL WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.