Richard Powers’ Powers

Tom Nickel
4 min readJul 1, 2023

Read any good novels lately?

I didn’t think so. I mean, what “serious writer” can compete with the lite fiction served up daily by what we used to, unironically, call newspapers.

Richard Powers is a serious writer. He’s a MacArthur Fellow and he’s won every award a novelist can win.

I used to read novels, lots of them. Now I don’t so much. I had not read Richard Powers.

Have you? Don’t. Unless you want to be mentally rolfed.

On the other hand, rolfing is considered by some to be a therapeutic modality. It rearranges your connective tissue structurally. So does Richard Powers.

The reason to rearrange the way you hold yourself together is to see things in a new way. I can’t say that I enjoyed the two novels of his I have now read, but I could not stop reading them and I definitely see things in a new way.

I started with, “The Echo Maker” (2006, a National Book Award Winner).

If you tend to prefer non-fiction, this is a great work of fiction for you because it’s an excellent introduction to a range of neurological disorders. One of the characters is a prominent cognitive neurologist and you will learn a lot from what he sees in the main character.

If you like genre fiction, especially mysteries, this is also a great whodunit. The main character has a terrible accident that might not have been just an accident. There is a weird note that somehow appears at the character’s hospital bedside as he is hovering between life and death. The mystery proceeds from that.

If you like stories that examine people deeply and realistically — “The Echo Maker” has plenty of that. Not just the main character, but his family and friends and everyone else who takes care of him. It has a plot, but it’s a character-driven novel.

Finally, if you like to read about animals and nature, Sandhill Cranes and their life and times figure prominently. We get inside their world view as closely as we do the world view of multiple humans.

The main character of “The Echo Maker,” Mark, has Capgras Syndrome. His terrible accident caused him to believe that some of the most important people in his life are imposters.

It’s a great metaphor for any of us who have reached adulthood in a world populated by many folks who seem more like works of fiction themselves, folks who aren’t quite like the actual humans we were brought up to see as real. Are they aliens? CIA plants? Crazy people? Or just imposters?

But the novel goes much deeper than one character with a weird ‘delusion.’ What happens when someone you love thinks you’re an imposter? We see how people who don’t have Capgras are deeply affected by the questions it raises.

No one comes out of this one unscathed, especially the eminent neurologist. And you, when you read it.

But the ego-smashing and identity questions, “The Echo Maker” puts you inside of does not prepare you for, “Bewilderment,” (2021).

It’s half the length of, “The Echo Maker” and it’s much more of a page-turner.

One of the two central characters is a nine-year old boy who was already a bit unusual — then he experiences a devastating loss. We learn this on page one so I am not giving anything away.

Neuropsycholgy also figures prominently in this novel, as well as cutting-edge, possibly fictitious, brain-based therapies.

Can we ever really “get into someone else’s head?” What if mental states have unique rhythmic signatures that can be captured and we can learn to reproduce them ourselves? Would we then be experiencing someone else’s mental state?

Taking this train of inquiry one step further — if someone, now gone, had their brain states recorded, could we bring them back to life inside ourselves by reproducing those exact rhythmic patterns?

Sounds existential and maybe philosophical. “Bewilderment” is neither. It’s a compelling story about a father and son and about the bewilderment we can’t help but feel about the weirdness and polarization of the 2020s.

How are we supposed to react to the politization of everything? How are we supposed to raise children to fit into a crazy world? What does ‘fitting in’ even mean?

The father is an astrobiologist who copes with what’s happening on Earth by focusing on the possibility of life elsewhere. One of the most charming layers of this brief but multi-layered novel is the simulated visits father and son make to planets quite different than our own, where life evolves in amazing ways.

I have one recommendation, besides encouraging you to try out Richard Powers — don’t finish “Bewilderment” just before you plan to go to bed. You will want some time and space to let it all sink in before you retire to dreamland.

Image by David Denton

Tom writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about. He maintains a daily practice of meditation and serves as a Session Leader for Tripp.

He holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.

You can join a small but growing number of people like you who subscribe to his little gumballs of text for free on Sub-Stack.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos