Summary, Analysis + Review: Bewilderment by Richard Powers


One-paragraph version: Theo is an astrobiologist who is raising his 9-year-old son Robin (who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, ADHD, etc.) who has been having behavioral issues since Theo’s wife’s death. Theo starts Robin on an experimental treatment called Decoded Neurofeedback, getting him to try to mirror brain patterns of other people to try to learn to control his emotions. The treatment is successful, especially once Robin starts mirroring a brain scan from his mother. However, the treatment gets put on pause by the government when it gets caught up in political/cultural wars. Robin regresses back to before. The book ends with Theo and Robin on a trip where Robin gets injured and dies.

The book opens with Theo Byrne on a trip in the Smokies with his 9-year-old son Robin. Theo is an astrobiologist who is interested in life on other planets. His wife Alyssa, who was a lawyer and animal rights activist, passed away two years ago in a car accident (and their dog Chester died a few months after that). Robin is passionate about animal rights, astronomy and nature.

Robin has always had some behavioral issues (and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, ADHD, various syndromes, etc.) but it’s gotten worse since Alyssa’s death. Robin is very happy on their camping trip. On the drive back from their trip, they listen to an audiobook of Flowers for Algernon.

Back at school, Robin has an incident at school where he hits his best friend, Jayden, in the face with a metal thermos. Jayden had angered Robin when he relayed his parents’ speculation that perhaps Alyssa’s car accident was caused by her trying to hurt herself. Back at home, Theo reassures Robin that it isn’t true. A possum ran out and Alyssa tried to avoid it, crossed into the median and hit an oncoming vehicle. Robin is upset that Theo never told him it was a possum (because he didn’t want Robin to have possums), but Theo knows the bigger secret he didn’t say was that Alyssa had been pregnant at the time.

One morning, Robin has an idea to make paintings of endangered animal to sell at the farmer’s market. He plans to donate the money from the paintings to one of the organizations Alyssa advocated for. Theo encourages this idea though Robin has a meltdown later when Theo doesn’t allow Robin to skip school to work on his project for the second day in a row.

With the school trying to get Theo to put Robin on psychoactive drugs, Theo asks a friend of Alyssa’s, Martin Currier, for advice. Martin is a well-known neuroscientist. He offers to enroll Robin in an experimental treatment known as Decoded Neurofeedback (“DecNef”) to help Robin learn to control his emotions. (Theo and Alyssa both once had their brains scanned for Currier’s experiment. )

Robin starts to improve very shortly after beginning his DefNef treatment. It involves using the brain scans of others in certain emotional states and having Robin trying to mirror their brain patterns (using visual/sensory cues).

In the spring, they sell Robin’s endangered animal paintings at the farmers’ market. After he makes his donation, they send him a thank you letter. However, Robin gets upset when he learns that 30% of his donation will go toward administrative costs and that there are big-dollar donors who have money to donate, but who hold back those funds until others donate (donor matching).

Instead, Robin decides he wants to go protest at the state capitol (he’s inspired by a famous child activist in the news, Inga Alder). However, that goes poorly when a congressman lambastes Theo for letting Robin protest alone. He says that Robin should be organizing with other kids or getting involved in various projects to be more effective and that what he’s doing instead is a waste of time. Robin goes home thoroughly demoralized.

With Robin feeling depressed, Theo turns to Martin for advice. Martin suggests that they use Alyssa’s old brain scan to train Robin on (as opposed to brain scans from various strangers) to reinvigorate him. Robin is instantly enthusiastic about the idea.

Very soon, they are making huge progress by training with Alyssa’s brain scan, and Robin feels closer to Alyssa the process. Robin is able to focus more, stops having meltdowns, has less anxiety and becomes much more open to the world and new people. However, Theo starts to wonder if Robin knows things about Alyssa that he didn’t know before just by training with her brain scans. (Martin insists it’s not possible.) Meanwhile, Robin asks to be homeschooled, and after some discussion, Theo agrees. Robin also decides he wants to become an ornithologist someday (likely because Alyssa always loved birds).

One day, Martin asks to use clips of Robin for videos to market his technology. Theo asks Robin what he thinks, and he says he thinks it’ll help people, so Robin agrees. The video soon goes viral (seeing Robin’s transformation), and people figure out Robin’s identity. Robin gets interviewed on a huge online channel and appears in a popular academic lecture series. Strangers start to recognize him when they see him. Robin uses these media opportunities to promote environmentalism.

Soon, Theo’s work takes him to Washington D.C. so he can advocate for funding for a space telescope to further his work in identifying possible extraterrestrial life. When they’re there, Robin brings a huge banner promoting saving the animals and wants to take a picture with it (so that people can see it when they search for images of him), and it draws a crowd due to his viral fame. When an officer tells them to disperse, it leads to the officer grabbing Robin, which Theo reacts strongly to. Theo ends up getting arrested.

Back at home, Robin turns 10. He goes to Currier’s Lab for his next training session, but they find out that Currier’s experiments have been put on pause by Health and Human Services while they “investigate”. Apparently, the media attention on Robin and DecNef have turned the experiments into a political pawn. The party in power is looking to energize its red base and show dominance against environmentalism, science and spending.

On the way home, Robin is optimistic about being able to maintain his training alone. However, soon Theo sees that Robin struggling to remember what Alyssa “feels like” through her scans. Slowly, Robin’s behavior starts to regress, and he starts being anxious and having meltdowns again. When Robin sees some graphic photos of cattle inflicted with some type of disease causing them to go crazy, he flips out and starts banging his head against the wall — injuring himself — and screaming. Soon, caseworkers from the Department of Human Services show up to assess whether Theo is abusing Robin (due to his head injury).

Theo finally decides that he’s going to take Robin on a trip to the Smokies again and then he’s going to start him on a (drug-based) treatment plan. The trip is going well until they get to a river where there are cairns constructed all along the banks. Theo comments that Alyssa hated cairns because people disturb the homes of the wildlife there when they build them. They take a few of them down, and go to sleep though Robin wants to keep going.

That night, as Theo sleeps, Robin sneaks out in the dark to deconstruct more of them. Theo finds Robin injured and freezing in the river. Unable to get him to safety in time, Robin dies. The book ends with Martin Currier texting a very depressed Theo after the funeral. He asks if Theo wants “to be with” Robin (by training using Robin’s brain scans).

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