(WW Norton & Co., 2021)
Richard Powers’ latest one invites many literary considerations. In Perplexity its mastery strikes a new vein, and while the takeaway is by no means lacking in intelligence or artistry, it makes for quick and easy reading, sparkling with timeless story elements; it gives goose bumps and breaks our hearts. The text and the author alone give a reviewer a lot to cover⎯ but I can’t get the job done right without turning to the morning news first.
In The Guardian, today’s flagship article was about the global climate crisis. Alarming new study reveals that “many key indicators … are getting worse”. The numbers indicate that our planet has already passed its “tipping points,” with both atmospheric carbon dioxide and ocean acid levels at devastating levels. The peristaltic cloud of Vesuvius is falling, one might say. So what am I doing, procrastinating in the villa library? The question, the bad news, has particular significance when it comes to the Last Powers. As in the previous novel Perplexity, the Pulitzer winner The story, major evolutions are caused by the destruction by humanity of the natural systems on which it depends.
The story worked on a much larger canvas. The trees were central, intrinsic to each scenario, and like humans, the action swept through at least eight of them. All have taken part in one way or another in the fight for the environment, and all have suffered vicious assaults. Violence is this author’s worst (although blood from World War I stained his debut in 1985, Three farmers on the way to the dance), and more worrying still, in the opus of 2018, it is American police and guards who brandish heavy weapons. There is no doubt that the novel’s indictment of American capitalism and the damage it has caused. Despite a Tolstoyan structure and subtlety, The story presents nothing less than a panorama of rape. In this broader sense, its praise seems an encouraging development⎯ as does its large readership, an audience extending far beyond what you would expect from fiction of such quality. I have seen the evidence both in book clubs around Iowa and in publicity material for Perplexity. Those include a page of mentions from Hollywood, Halle Berry and others.
The film industry tends to complicate things, but I’m trying to come up with something simple: the remarkable accessibility of the text. This too makes the last novel a companion to the previous one, something Powers claimed to have in mind (for example, in a Editors Weekly conversation with Barbara Kingsolver).
The obvious link is in alarms Perplexity lifts above our disintegrating biosphere, and its frame is indeed an ugly America, more or less a renewed cycle of the Trump nightmare (although # 45 is never named). After wildfires destroyed much of the San Fernando Valley, this president begins to “blame the trees.” His decree called for the cutting of two thousand acres of national forest. Worse yet, if someone denounces the man, “they could put you in jail.” Democracy and sustainability hang by a thread, in other words, and yet the novel’s first impressions have less to do with global peril than with a pair of deeply sympathetic characters.
It is about a father and son admiring the night sky above the Smoky Mountains, “one of the last spots of darkness in the eastern United States.” the woman of their life, wife and mother, was recently “crushed to death”. On top of that, the dramatic elements all emerge in poignant two- and three-page snapshots, with a few chapters even shorter. Such a quick change is a new move for this writer, as is playing two, much of it here.
The narrator is Theodore Byrne, doing his best with his Robin. Theo looks like a standard model of Powers, with an encyclopedic spirit and a calling that most of us need to explain: astrobiology, the search for life among the stars. He gained esteem, a permanent position in Madison, Wisconsin, but outside of the lab, “everything about parenting terrified me.” He used this wild retreat in part to celebrate the boy’s ninth birthday, but also to give them both a much-needed break. The kid is very smart, but that doesn’t help him with his grief and rage. His collapses send the boy to doctors, but what does a parent have to do with all of these diagnoses? “So far the votes are two Asperger’s, one probable OCD and one possible ADHD.”
After all, what is the acronym for “inconsolable”? Less than two years ago, this strange couple lost their Aly, Alyssa, in a car crash. Details emerge with painstaking timing, heightening the suspense and highlighting how much Theo cares, struggling with what to reveal. Likewise, the father resists drug therapy; “When two different doctors want to prescribe three different drugs, something is wrong. From where Perplexity‘s primary narrative, the alternative healing provided by science and the hair-raising carnival of its aftermath. On Robin’s next birthday, the climax, in a fast-spinning book, he and his father opened a Pandora’s Box.
This myth, however, is not a key reference. The earlier story that matters here is the sci-fi chestnut “Flowers for Algernon”, as Powers explains in a preliminary “note” (another first for him). Between Theo and his son too, the story of Daniel Keyes comes back often. Both love science fiction, naturally, and more than that, “Algernon” provides a parallel for the boy’s response to an experimental therapy called decoded neurofeedback, “DecNef”. It is first of all to read a troubled brain and then to orient it towards the best, and in its explanations and demonstrations, Powers relies on the new scientific ballast which distinguishes all its work.
Not that Perplexity always loses his fear of the environment. Just as the smoke from a forest fire sickens distant children, the ruin of the world is no small contribution to Robin’s pathology. “Everything will be dead,” he moaned, “before I get to tenth grade.” So too, he and his father remain haunted by the work Alyssa has dedicated her life to, as a fierce lobbyist on behalf of animal rights. The woman could be so upset by the “ravaged ecosystems”, her accidental death sparks rumors of suicide; Theo must assure his son, and himself, that mum “did not choose anything… it was a reflex”. Yet when they watch a video of Aly speaking to the Wisconsin legislature, there’s no denying her passion or the author’s gift for the glowing vignette:
She said ninety-eight percent by weight of the animals left on Earth were either Homo sapiens or their industrially harvested foods. Only two percent were wild.
Scathing declarative jabs like this pop up all over the place. Many express bitter worldliness, as in this description of the police under a harsh right-wing regime: “Intimidation has spread. In the Smokies, however, father and son find respite, “elated” perplexity. In the midst of the “thirty kinds of salamanders”, their drama begins with joy, a crucial counterpoint, because the rest can seem like a vertiginous fall into tragedy. Ugly America is getting monstrous, by the last chapters. A flight delay at a crowded airport seems downright Boschean, and the two protagonists are left looking for a silver lining. Outside of the Smokies, their best options often seem alien.
Theo’s work offers him an inventive way to appease his troubled son. He dreams of distant vital planets, where they roam in a spectacle of monsters of sentient beings. Out of sheer imagination, these bedtime stories surpass anything in the Prior Powers, protean, charming and unsettling:
Pelagos… was covered in water. … The intelligent kelp hundreds of feet long spelled out messages in colors that rippled the length of their stems. The annelids practiced agriculture and the crustaceans built high-rise towns.
For these Wonderworlds, the model is simply Invisible cities, Italo Calvino’s love song to the gift of humanity for the establishment of the household. Corn PerplexityThe supernatural populations of us are finally reminding us that, on this planet, humanity is the problem. The names Theo makes up can suggest unfortunate affairs, such as seclusion and stillness (though “Pelagos” seems innocuous, a reference to fish and islands); like at Calvino Cities, too, in the end, these bizarre places take on a grim relevance. Life forms on a planet disappear in electronic replication; they only exist online. Another world remains hidden, wanting nothing to do with Sol 3’s crazies.
It is a dark fable, in short. There is no denying the intellect at work, “myriad of mind,” as Coleridge said of Shakespeare. Whether the subject is harmless and invertebrate or venal and in the Senate, the author is above, knowledgeable and concise. Yet that’s not the most impressive Perplexity. Rather, it’s how each moment reveals the instincts of a master: an infallible contact with development and cut, with support and relaxation, and where to put punctuation. If I had any doubts, they were about Aly. At times, she seemed too sunny a presence, a happy face sticker, and at others too dark, her own fallen episodes were smeared. But then, the woman is only seen from a distance; it is more important as a reflection of whoever calls it to mind, no matter what it is going through. As far as its own depths are concerned, psychological caving would throw itself into the recesses of Theo and Robin, disrupt the orientation of the text, its balance, both the author’s shortest work and his most clairvoyant. The novel travels across the universe to assert the sanctity of our own Goldilocks area. Between his last release and this last, I dare say that Richard Powers has achieved something more than two exemplary and superb fictions of the climate crisis. He also unearthed and refurbished the timeless bond between artist and shaman, a voice that screams in the wilderness.