Richard Powers: Pushing environmental awareness to another level

New ‘intimate’ novel is shortlisted for the Booker before it’s even published

Until now it’s been a given that any feature about the American novelist Richard Powers will open with a reference to his under-the-radar, under-appreciated, under-rated qualities; that he is, as the New York Times once said of our own Brian Moore, “one of the best-known obscure writers alive”.

That will not hold any longer, not since Powers won the Pulitzer Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker for his last novel The Overstory, an epic work about humankind’s relationship with trees. He’s a big name now, and this year’s Booker jury, keen not to be left behind, also shortlisted his new novel Bewilderment before it’s even been published.

The Overstory was life-changing for Powers not just in profile terms: during the writing of it he moved from California to the Great Smoky Mountains national park in Tennessee for research purposes, and there he stayed. That explains why I’m speaking to him today via landline phone: the internet connection in the Smokies is too unreliable.

The first thing that strikes the reader about Bewilderment is that, next to The Overstory, it’s smaller, more “intimate” as Powers calls it, a chamber piece next to The Overstory’s symphony. Indeed, ambition and range has been a hallmark of Powers’ work since I first became aware of him in the 1990s with books like The Gold Bug Variations (on music and DNA) and Galatea 2.2 (on artificial intelligence).


“I’ve been thinking about my career a lot lately,” he says when I mention these early novels. “I don’t know why. I’m 64 now, this is my 13th book.” (That is probably why.) “And when I look back on a book like Gold Bug, I think of that Bob Dylan song: ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’! And I’m glad I did [it] when I was young and brash and feeling like all the possibilities of the novel were available to me.”

I do think the success of The Overstory had an impact on me as a creator

Which is not to say that Bewilderment is not in itself an ambitious book – it takes in politics, space exploration and AI neurofeedback therapy – but it is “smaller”, as Powers puts it, and much of the book is a two-hander between astrobiologist Theo and his nine-year-old son Robin. What dictates the smaller scale of this book?

“I do think the success of The Overstory had an impact on me as a creator. For one, I was on the road so much more than I’ve ever been for a book. I was still touring for the book [which came out in 2018] when the pandemic started. I couldn’t work in the same way I did in the past [...] going about and visiting venues and interviewing people. I was locked down in my house, in the Smoky mountains. Fortunately I had half a million acres of wilderness in my backyard, and that made quarantine a whole lot easier. But it also turned me inward, it turned me toward this place.”

Indeed, in Bewilderment, Theo’s son Robin is having trouble at school since his mother’s death in a car accident. He’s been diagnosed as having various neurodivergent conditions, and Theo finds that taking him out of school to the Smokies for a week calms him; he is happy there. Is that how Powers feels about the place too?

“It marked the first time since maybe my own childhood when I felt connected to the place I live. We all start out with our feet in the earth and as we get older we get seduced and co-opted by this culture of commodity and individualism and exceptionalism. And we begin to think that the world is just a resource for our own plans. So the Smokies for me is this kind of lovely late life settling in of grace, the ability to take daily inspiration and to learn every day something about who I’m sharing this spot with.”

Speaking of attachment to place, I’m bound to ask: Powers is a fine Irish name. Does he have any Irish blood in him? He laughs. “We Americans, we do this thing, ‘I’m one-quarter Scandinavian’, these odd little formulas we have in tracing our ethnic genealogy.” But, he adds, “I am Irish!” His paternal grandfather “was first generation American. So not that far out.” And “I think I must have over the generations absorbed something culturally because I have responded intensely to Irish literature, both prose and poetry, and on the couple of occasions I’ve been able to visit, there’s been an odd sense of coming home to a place I didn’t know.” (Indeed, Yeats’s poem A Prayer for My Daughter features prominently in Bewilderment, as did Sailing to Byzantium in his 2000 novel Plowing the Dark.)

Back in the world of Bewilderment, when Theo and Robin return from the Smokies, Robin undergoes an extraordinary therapy for his difficulties, using an AI system called decoded neurofeedback (DecNef), that seeks to train his brain to help him “get to a desired emotional state by himself”. In the novel it goes on to be used by both Robin and Theo for more surprising purposes, but I wonder is DecNef real, or am I confusing scientific truth with the different sort of truth a novel is interested in? “It is, kind of,” Powers says, “it’s under way and they’re exploring it, and they’re using it to do trauma and so forth.” But this has, we discuss, always been a feature of his novels: what he calls “the difference between accuracy and truth”.

Another area where Bewilderment splits accuracy from truth is its political setting: an America where a Trumpier-than-Trump president doesn’t just threaten to postpone the election, but does so, and wins. More familiar is the presentation in the book of the administration’s resistance to science.

“You know, it’s interesting,” Powers says. “Right before you called, I was reading the day’s news. And a poll has just been released that shows that if Trump ran again in 2024, at the moment he would beat Biden by a long shot. And that’s when I thought, well, maybe this book is a near future [novel], much less a counterfactual!” But, he adds, “one thing I like about the book is its positioning of MAGA America, Trumpist America, in a broader context. Its position with regard to restating old hierarchies of power are very clear: it’s males above females, whites above other races. What I tried to do in Bewilderment is say, yes, but there’s a missing piece, and it’s ‘humans above all other living things’.”

“A culture,” he goes on, “that says, yes we can live like that, yes we should have absolute say, no we don’t need to apologise or defer or accommodate anything else, is of course the culture that has led to the widespread degradation of the living systems of the planet. So that’s why it’s a necessary part of the novel to say, whatever is going wrong, whatever we’re doing with regard to species extinction and climate change, also has to do with this other political insistence [on] dominance and control and non-accountability, and to see them all together.”

It's a sad time to be alive

Bewilderment, then, takes the environmental awareness of The Overstory and pushes it to another level, as Robin channels his anger (“It’s a sad time to be alive”) into action and activism, and the book in its alternative world features a Greta Thunberg-like teenage activist (“an oval-faced girl in tight pigtails”) called Inga Alder. Do children like this, I wonder, give him hope for the future?

There is a long pause. “I would start by asking: hope for what?” Powers begins slowly. “I don’t think we can hope for a continuation of the life that we’re leading right now. We’re not going to get over the finish line with all our stuff. When people ask this question of hope, they really secretly or unconsciously harbour this idea that technological solutions or activism will allow us to continue more or less the same kind of life that we’ve been leading, and without changing the idea of where values and meaning come from.”

It’s a downbeat conclusion to our conversation. But, on the other hand, children like Robin, and the Greta Thunberg character, can “hold adults’ feet to the fire, and ask the questions that we’re so good at ignoring and hiding from. She also knows we need to relocate meaning, no matter how we solve the technological problems. […] If instead, we say another kind of culture would bring continuance and purpose and joy, that would be something.” That, for him, is where optimism lies. “I can find hope for that. I can.”

Bewilderment is published on September 21st