When I first learned of Richard Powers’ new novel, I fretted over a character description: “Robbie is a 9-year old boy with Asperger’s-like traits” whose “behaviour grows more unmanageable”—per another source, he is “on the verge of being expelled from third grade for smashing his friend’s face with a metal thermos”.
I’ve avoided all reviews, because I do want to go into this fresh, but I did glance at the beginning of one which happens to mention “a new neurofeedback technique [Powers had] come across”; he wondered “what would happen if this new neurofeedback technique could expand a person’s capacity for empathy”.
That, then, is the partial premise of Bewilderment.
This, of course, is a huge red flag. Barring some sort of narrative reversal, it has all the stink of the idea that autistic people suffer from an empathy deficit. Actually-autistic people themselves (myself included) vigorously dispute this, going so far as to argue that one of the hallmarks of being autistic is a surfeit of empathy, which can become somewhat cognitively and socially stymieing.
Notable in recent autism research is the double-empathy problem, wherein at issue isn’t, in fact, a one-sided lack of empathy but a mismatch between the ways in which autistic people and allistic people experience and express their empathy.
It’s always possible that these promotional premises amount to something of a feint, and perhaps Powers ultimately dives headlong into that double-empathy problem, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t approaching this novel with more than a little anxious trepidation.
Actually-autistic people are quite accustomed to being talked over if they even are invited to the table at all. I’d like to think that Powers is better than that, if only because of my adoration for Galatea 2.2 and The Gold Bug Variations. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past several years, however, it’s that well-known idea that you best be prepared (metaphorically) to kill your idols.