(Cornerstone, 256pp, £18.99, hb)
Three years ago, Richard Powers was hiking near his home in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains when he had “the weird physical hallucination of some weight on my shoulders”. Standing alone beneath the sugar maples, the 64-yearold author realised: “I was thinking about the times I’ve seen fathers hiking with children on their backs. Then I imagined this boy – about nine years old – was walking next to me, his head on the swivel, just overwhelmed by the incredible diversity of the living world around him.”
Powers’ fleeting vision became Robin, the unusual child at the heart of his thirteenth novel, Bewilderment. A gifted but volatile boy, Robin is diagnosed with a range of conditions including obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Both his brilliant artwork and his violent outbursts are triggered by his intense passion for the natural world and his fury over its casual destruction by disengaged adults.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Bewilderment is written from the perspective of Robin’s recently widowed father, Theo: an astrobiologist writing computer programs designed to help find life on other planets. As the book opens, Theo is attempting to soothe his son’s escalating eco-anxiety with camping trips out in the woods. But things soon take a sci-fi turn when he enrols his child in an experimental neuroscience project in which new technology helps steer his emotional inclinations away from detached despair and towards empathy and joy.
Powers was motivated by concern that: “Every young person feels the strong temptation to give up and accept that our planet is already doomed. How do we turn that around? Adults are working out how to say: ‘I’m not going to lie to you, we are in big, big trouble. But there is still a world here and there are meaningful ways to commit to engaging in its future.”
Readers are likely to find echoes of autistic environmental activist Greta Thunberg in Robin. But Powers – who has no children – tells me he initially based his “pocket universe” of a character on “some unusual children I have been close to: a niece, a nephew and the son of a colleague at the University of Illinois where I taught for many years. But the truth is that the deeper I went into Robin the more I realised I was doing me, remembering my own strangeness as a child.”
Powers pauses. He doesn’t have great phone reception at his home in the Smokies, so he has driven for an hour through “thick, magical fog” to speak to me. He’s gazing into the white air as he concedes in a gentle voice that: “I haven’t been extremely comfortable talking about that strangeness in interviews because there are so many ways of going wrong. I don’t want to be accused of claiming MeToo… But I have no doubt that if I had been born nine years ago there would be a lot of confusion about who I was and what was different about me.”
Born in Cook County, Illinois in 1957, Powers is a headmaster’s son, the fourth of five siblings. He says he has always been “a thin-skinned introvert”. As a polymath who started his university career as a physics major before switching to English literature, he worked as a computer programmer before employing his cerebral fiction to work through a series of intense obsessions with often esoteric aspects of art, music, technology, psychology and philosophy. His geekiness won him committed fans (including Margaret Atwood) and critics like British author Patrick Ness, who feels that Powers can’t help but leave readers “feeling a little bit stupid”.
His first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985) was inspired by a 1913/1914 photograph by August Sander and explored the ways in which technological advances of the early twentieth century saw huge progress in art for the masses (photography) but also caused the largescale slaughter of World War Two. The Gold Bug Variations (1991) gave readers a crash course on DNA. His pseudo-autobiographical 1995 novel, Galatea 2.2, dived deep into the potential thrills and dangers of Artificial Intelligence. The Overstory (2018) was a multigenerational epic rooted in the mysterious, long and interconnected lives of trees. Both Bill Gates and Barack Obama said the book changed the way they thought about the earth and humanity’s place on it.
Richard Powers – Photo: Dean D Dixon
Today Powers jokes that: “My early books might have held stronger clues to my neurodivergence! As an older man I have found a way of indulging my enthusiasms while folding them more gently into a narrative for readers who might not have the patience for assimilating a lot of information.”
“I didn’t know a poplar from a birch before I started writing The Overstory,” he says. “At that point in my adult life I was completely indifferent to, and illiterate about, the natural world around me. But I hadn’t always been like that. Young children naturally embrace biophilia. They are entranced by the non-human and are willing to grant it a sacredness that we adults only confer onto other humans. They are pantheists for whom it’s all charged with the glory of God. As a kid I was the Bee Boy of Northern Chicago. I knew everything there was to know about insects. I knew all the Latin names and I was obsessed with invertebrates.” He thinks that connection broke when his family moved to Bangkok for his father to take up a position at the Thai capital’s International School in 1972. “I celebrated my eleventh birthday on the journey out there,” he says. “Moving to a city at that age had a big effect on me.” Powers stepped out of the natural world and immersed himself in human culture: he learned to play the cello, guitar, saxophone and clarinet and studied Homer. He didn’t return to the US until he was sixteen.
At that age Powers fell prey to “all the seductions of adolescence where suddenly other kids become the most fascinating thing. Navigating that sometimes terrible social pecking order becomes vital. The need to conform to the dominant culture becomes overwhelming. Families and peer pressures all push a child towards accepting the central beliefs of human exceptionalist, capitalist, individualist culture in which meaning is mediated by commodities and personal growth is equated with accumulation. It’s so hard for anybody to escape the tractor beam telling us that this culture is inevitable, that it’s the best possible culture.”
Looking through his first draft of Bewilderment, Powers realised that he had, subconsciously, drawn on the Buddhist culture of his Bangkok youth. “I remembered my older brother shaving his head and being ordained as a Buddhist monk. I remembered going to see him in the temple. I hadn’t thought about that for decades, but it’s all tucked inside this story, with its themes of reciprocity, interdependence, inter-being… . Escaping the ego and increasing the capacity to see yourself in others and feel your fate beyond your species is very Buddhist.”
Powers cheerily admits that he needs space from his own species on a regular basis. He did not enjoy the celebrity that followed the success of The Overstory. “There was a great luxury in spending decades writing the kind of books that attracted just enough attention for me to keep going, but not the anxiety of being forced under the big lights. Now I am in a new and somewhat anxious relationship with writing, which has created enormous pressure but also great possibilities.”
He’s nervous about being classified as one of the Great American Novelists. The macho men of American letters are, in his mind, “the silverbacks… hmm, no, I should not be confused with one of those. I’m more like…” he flounders briefly and I try to suggest something soothingly strange and quiet: a lichen? “Yes! Exactly. Leave me alone on this rock for thousands of years and let me spread slowly, please.”
He cautiously admits that, while acknowledging the huge suffering caused by the pandemic, “the past eighteen months alone in the woods, working on a fully engrossing fable, have been in many ways the happiest of my life. I’ve fought against type and tried to develop ways of managing the anxiety, but this last week my agent and my editor realised I wasn’t temperamentally fit to be parked in a hotel room in the middle of the city doing interviews and events all day long. They have to check in to make sure I’m not melting down. I already feel the dread of coming to Europe.”
But he is determined to make the trip because he feels the message of Bewilderment is too important to let drift. “I know that this is a very dark story,” he sighs. “I know that darkness risks enforcing that sense of detachment and despair. But I hope the reader holds on to the moments of light along the way and that the ending asks the readers to turn back to an awareness of how extraordinary this planet is. I hope it can help them appreciate how lucky we are to experience it and how many ways there still are to live on it, to love it and to engage in its rehabilitation.”
Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, the Financial Times and the Daily Mail