Flowers and Stars for Algernon

If you enjoy the musical stylings of Sting (and who doesn’t?), you might enjoy Richard Powers’ Bewilderment. It’s creative, intelligent, and pretentious. Everything you want in a good pop song.

The story follows a father and son, Robin, as they cope with the recent death of Robin’s mother. The father is an astronomer. Robin is 9 years old and diagnosed as being on the spectrum – a vague assessment that is less than helpful because, as his father points out, “everyone alive on this fluke little planet was on the spectrum. That’s what a spectrum is.” At any rate Robin is extremely sensitive to everything and has difficulty relating to his “normal” classmates – so they torment him.

To help re-wire his brain, he is enrolled in an experimental but promising neurofeedback program, which works wonders until a nefarious orange-haired politician spitefully cuts off the funding. Robin begins to revert with devastating consequences. It only sounds like a 2021 version of Flowers for Algernon because it is.

The novel works best when it focuses on astronomy and the search for unknown (to us) planets throughout the universe. “The laws that govern the light from a firefly in my backyard . . . also govern the light emitted from an exploding star one billion light years away . . . One set of rules runs the game, in all times and places.” In language accessible to a layperson, the novel discusses scientific matters, such as the Fermi Paradox, which (to paraphrase) states: if the universe favors life (and science indicates it does) then, given all the universe’s time and space, why does it seem no one is out there. These sections are fascinating.

However, the novel gets bogged down when the discussion returns to Earth. The parallels to Flowers for Algernon are obvious, and the reader has a fairly good grasp of where the novel is headed from the beginning. The references to the Trump presidency are strident. Mr. Powers is not a fan. He is angry but so are a lot of people, and he does not bring anything new or all that interesting to the conversation. The novel succeeds when it explores the universe – just not that portion pertaining to Earth.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor