Father and son take over the world in Richard Powers’ new novel
Perplexity. By Richard Powers. WW Norton & Company; 288 pages; $ 27.95. Guillaume Heinemann; £ 18.99
AN EPIC ECOLOGICAL On deforestation, “The Overstory” helped Richard Powers reach a wider readership when he won a Pulitzer in 2019. His new novel, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, may raise awareness of him even better. It’s a shorter, more intimate tale that still grapples with the scientific themes that are its hallmark.
The story is set in Wisconsin and is told by Theo, a widowed astrobiologist. He struggles to bring up his son Robin, whose autism diagnosis he resists, and whom the novel follows from eight to ten years. Robin’s mother, Alyssa, recently died in a car accident; he is disruptive at school. Grieved by global warming and the ruin of the natural world, he consoles himself by playing a game in which he and his father imagine life on other planets.
When problems at school escalate, Robin may participate in pioneering neuroimaging therapy, which reduces her stress levels by teaching her to mimic her mother’s brain activity. Theo agrees to let Robin appear in the program’s commercial, but the resulting attention spins out of control.
This science-infused home schooling drama takes place against a dystopian backdrop of extreme weather, crop failures, and rampaging militias, encouraged by an authoritarian president who locks up journalists and bans dissent. Swords clash between America and China. In the end, a viral disease of the brain spread from cattle to humans. “Perplexity” comes to sound like a fictional cousin of “The Road,” Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel in which a widowed father and son tell each other stories during an apocalypse.
The unfortunate past in which Theo recounts the events generates suspense, as does the nagging question of why Robin’s dialogue (like Alyssa’s) is presented in italics, while the rest is shown in quotation marks. By combining his broad themes in a mixture of speculative fiction and domestic realism, Mr. Powers manages to engage both the head and the heart. And through its central grieving story, this novel about parenthood and the environment becomes a multi-faceted exploration of mortality. ■
This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Life, Universe and Everything”