In his new novel Bewilderment, Richard Powers turns his pen to the state of our planet with both grief and hope

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Awe is what we must feel about the natural world around us, and what we imagine could be beyond planet Earth. The same sentiment applies to what any rational person should feel about the climate disaster – and the fact that it continues to progress. It’s something that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Powers is realizing—and tackles—in his new novel, Nervousness.

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Published on Tuesday and selected for the Man Booker Prize and long-listed for the National Book Prize, Nervousness Love is both a story and a warning. It’s a book about grief—which, as its narrator defines it, is “the world taken away from what you admire.” It could be an absent mother and wife, as in this story. It could be this planet as we know it. That’s where the warning comes in.

As the novel begins, Theo Byrne and his son Robin are marking the boy’s ninth birthday with a camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains, where they can sleep under the stars. Theo is an astrobiologist who runs computer simulations to help determine whether there may be life on other planets. Absent Robin’s mother, Alyssa, who died in an accident when Robin was seven years old, father and son heartbroken. Robin – who may have OCD, ADHD or Asperger syndrome – finds solace in the natural world. But it turns into sorrow, once he becomes aware of the devastation of the environment man has wrought – especially the extinction rate of wild animals, something he learns by watching a video of his mother. Is.

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“If he’s right, there’s no point in school,” he tells his father. “Everything will die before you get to the tenth grade.”

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Powers, 64, is a polymath who began university studying physics but turned to English when he realized that as a writer, he could explore all kinds of worlds—any door to his inquisitive brain. Will not stop. He also worked as a computer programmer after graduation.

Powers expertly employs his science chops Nervousness, as he has done in most of his previous works. But this is a new animal. “When you read this book, I think it’s not like anything I’ve ever written – stylistically or in motion or in mood,” he said in a recent interview. He attributes life to the Smokies, where he has lived for the past five years.

Powers published his first novel, three farmers on a dance path, when he was 27 years old. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985, beginning a long list of achievements including a MacArthur Fellowship – the so-called “Genius Grant” – and a National Book Award. eco maker.

His 2018 Environmental Epic the overstory Instant Tree Lit became a classic. It won a Pulitzer, was shortlisted for Booker, and earned rave reviews, including from fellow novelist Barbara Kingsolver, who called it “a giant fable of real truths”.

NervousnessHis 13th novel, is thinner in volume but still huge at heart. grew out of the novel the overstory, as Powers had experience writing it. Powers, who was born in Evanston, Illinois, was teaching at Stanford University in California when he began writing the overstory. He took a three-day research trip to the Smoky Mountains—and was still thinking about that trip months later. “I was very excited by the experience of living in these forests,” he recalled.

So they went back to Tennessee and bought a house, where they ended the novel.

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“Up until here, I’ve never really been where I lived,” he said from the same house, closing the window as it started to rain, so loud he was having trouble hearing the interview questions.

“I began to take this place seriously. Who lives here? What does the land want to do? What is the relationship and behavior of all the native species? I was doing this for the first time in my life. And the result was writing And my relationship changed between living.

“For the first 11-and-a-half books I wrote, work came first. And when I woke up in the morning, I’d write 1,000 words and then I was free to do whatever I wanted to do. Now being in this space the words are coming out … It’s not that the two things are completely different; they just feed on each other.”

amid the huge success of the overstory And after the endless book tour that followed, Powers found it difficult to gain traction on a new novel. He started writing a very different version of what would happen Nervousness. Then when the pandemic lockdown struck and he returned to the Smokies and started walking the trails, he realized the novel would be about a boy and his father. “And I threw everything away and I started all over again,” he said.

The story takes place at a difficult time: climate change has taken hold and strange weather is becoming the norm. A horrific cattle infestation in Texas leaps to humans, going undetected for some time. Cities are burning and floods have contaminated the drinking water of millions of Americans.

An all-caps-tweeting US president (anonymous) cut funding for research, mocked the science in his social media posts and blamed the trees themselves for the California wildfires.

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A young activist like Greta Thunberg does more to draw attention to the climate crisis than anyone else, and Robin, admiring her, decides to launch her own protest.

From a short distance from what Powers calls “soft science fiction,” the book explains passivity on social media, academia, the political system – and, perhaps most important, climate change.

Declare the Trump-ish presidential election invalid and cling to power. Chinese students’ visas have been revoked; Journalists start getting arrested; Labs are closed across the country. Everyone is suddenly required to carry proof of citizenship or visa.

Powers finished his draft last October, before the real-life rigged-election conspiracy-theory craziness subsided in America.

“When the election was thrown in the air exactly as I predicted in the book and my editor called and said, ‘You know, Rick, it looks like now Biden’s going to win – will that be a problem? ?’ I said, ‘Never mind.’ Because I think people are going to be so hurt by the course that we just went through that they’re going to look at this little fictional alternate-current story and say, ‘Boy, it doesn’t look like science fiction at all. ‘”

Talking about Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again movement, Powers compares it to the issue at the center of the novel. Trump and his followers, he says, want to return to a hierarchical system they are comfortable with: men above women, whites above other races, America above other countries. “What humans are missing above all other beings is when people attribute those nostalgia to those old hierarchies. To me, that’s pretty close to where we went environmentally wrong. It’s the same thinking system. Is part of.”

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Powers, who is childless by choice, says that as soon as she wrote the book, she channeled three children with whom she had a sort of surrogate parent-child relationship. “I saw these children being raised, and I saw how amazed their parents were by the anger and confusion and fear and anxiety – but also the joy and the energy and intensity that these children could experience.”

Help for the young Robin in the book is offered through technology – something called decoded neurofeedback: an experiment where the subject can actually feel what another person, whose brainwaves were captured, had previously felt. did. It serves as a metaphor for what this most ancient form of communication, a story, can do — stories are empathy machines, Powers says, and that’s what happens when people have a climate emergency. Art can be such a powerful tool when it comes to caring about yourself. .

“Neurologically, we are made for acts of narrative empathy – acts of imagining ourselves in other situations and places and times and sensations,” he said. “And that is the only way we have to travel beyond our set of beliefs. What would the world look like, what would it feel like – who would I be if these events were made real to me? And only through that act of empathic leaps We feel and experience the world differently than we do outside of our own beliefs.”

Powers watches a protest at Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, where more than 1,000 arrests have been made as people try to block an old development in the area near Port Renfrew, BC.

“I have been very impressed by the action people have taken at Fairy Creek,” Powers said. “And I wish everyone who is busy and putting themselves on the line, as much stamina and strength and clear vision as they can. And I’m grateful – and all of us, on this continent – are protestors for whatever claim and better balance the protesters can hold.”

But once one gets excited enough to resist – or gets excited by reading a beautiful novel – so what? It’s easy to feel impotent in a disaster situation. Powers says a complete cultural shift is needed.

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“We can’t solve the climate catastrophe while preserving the culture that created that cataclysm that we’ve put in motion. So we say we can work on mitigating, but that’s not really the fact Our culture says that it is worthwhile to accumulate as much as possible and think of ourselves as somehow extraordinary and different from the rest of the planet, and to think of the rest of the planet as a resource for our own purposes. What has to change is our whole cultural outlook.”

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