Richard Powers’ thirteenth novel, Bewilderment, is a follow-up to a huge success—2018’s The Overstory, a centuries-spanning book about forests and people who want to save them that won the Pulitzer Prize. But Bewilderment, a much smaller domestic story, is an awkward successor. In the New York Times, Dwight Garner panned the novel as “meek, saccharine, and overweening in its piety about nature,” and called it “a book about ecological salvation that somehow makes you want to flick an otter on the back of the head, for no good reason at all.”

I almost couldn’t get through the new Powers, not because of the earnestness or the piety (though those were very real and very annoying), but because its failed ambition was so big and so honest. Bewilderment is a story about what the knowledge of ecological collapse may do to a sensitive, intense child’s mental state, and how that child’s anxiety may, in turn, change a desperate parent’s life. To judge by recent evidence, it seems like this is a problem that may unfold in more and more households, as everything gets worse. Recently, researchers asked 10,000 people, ages 16-25, in ten countries, about their climate anxiety, and found that 59 percent reported being very or extremely worried; 84 percent moderately so. Over half felt a string of negative emotions about climate change: “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.”

Robin, the 9-year-old at the…

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