Through the Reading Glasses February 2022

By Janet Moore

 When the century turned at midnight on December 31, 1999, no technological protocols and systems were overturned, and the world didn’t come to a complete stop. But while my family was inside watching the ball drop, I stubbornly stood outside in the bitter cold, wondering if the stars would remain in alignment. 

To my profound relief, the North Star was visible off the handle of the Big Dipper while the sky glittered with heavenly bodies: I’ve always found the winter sky a clearer window into the wonders of the universe.

Not so with astrobiologist Theo Byrne and his son, Robin, in Richard Powers’ new novel, “Bewilderment.” After his wife’s untimely death, Theo is left to raise Robin on his own, not an easy feat with a boy under the sometimes destructive spell of an autistic-like brain and emotional bereavement. But they both love the stars and the clear skies of the Great Smoky Mountains. 

As Theo tries ever harder to get Robin through school without the help of psychoactive drugs, he learns of an experimental treatment involving neurofeedback that sounds promising. There’s just one catch: Theo and his wife participate in the same friend/scientist’s brain research, and Robin will be trained on the recorded patterns of his mother’s brain.

There’s just one catch, again. As long as the project is funded, Robbie will take on all the best traits of his mother. As Theo struggles to digest the worsening news of a president gone mad with power, of pandemics,  extinctions, and finally, the withdrawal of his own space telescope funding,  Robbie chooses homeschooling and sets out to detail his minute observations. And then there’s the final catch.The experimental project funding is halted.

If you’ve read “Flowers for Algernon” you’ll know what’s coming. Read “Bewilderment” anyway. The story encompasses the full range of human emotions, and, in Theo and Robbie’s story, you may find yourself looking up at the stars and down into your heart and discovering hope.