I was delighted to have the chance to review Perplexity. Richard Powers is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Perplexity had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2021 (and is now on the final list). The conversation on this book was likely to be as big as any literary fiction release this year and I had been invited to join in too! Let me start by saying that Perplexity is a haunting mix of science, parenting, and wonderful writing. It’s gorgeous and brilliantly shiny throughout.
What is Perplexity?
Perplexity is the story of a father and a son. Their wife and mother, Aly, was killed in an accident two years before the book opened. Theo, Robin’s father and narrator of the story, is an astrobiologist. He looks in the heavens and tries to find planets that could support life. Robin is considered by the authorities to be part of the autism spectrum. Theo feels that they want to label, classify, and treat his son. Robin is articulate and fascinated by the world around him. When Robin crushes his friend in the face with a thermos, Theo receives an ultimatum. It’s time to put Robin on psychotropic drugs or be taken out of the school system.
Why read Perplexity?
It’s hard to know where to really start. Perplexity is a relatively slender volume, under 300 pages. (Compare that with Powers’ Pulitzer Prize Overstory, which scored over 600 points.) Yet despite its brevity, it covers many themes and topics.
First, from a purely scientific point of view, astrobiology is fascinating. It is reminiscent of the “What if? »Type stories found in Adrian Tchaikovsky Gates of Eden. The search for life goes far beyond finding little green men and Goldilocks planets. I hadn’t realized how much science had evolved since my undergraduate studies, when I had time to keep a vague eye on developments in astronomy.
Aly (Theo’s late white) was an environmentalist and this directly informs Robin’s attitude to the planet we share with so many other life forms. Robin is passionate about the natural world, both local and global. He and Theo campaign for environmental rights in the book. Perplexity contains a thick “we must do something about climate change” agreement. Sometimes Powers borders on the overly didactic side – a criticism I’ve seen of the novel in the UK broadsheet press. It’s hard to disprove this opinion, but then, as a planet, we seemed determined to close our eyes, cover our ears, and shout “la la la la la la”, so a strong, reinforced message is irrelevant. doubt more than necessary.
The common thread of the novel, the main perplexity if you will, is the education of a child. The little person who is part of you is not you at all, however. Theo’s navigation through trying to figure out what to do best for Robin is deeply touching. I have never had to make such a complex decision for my children, but the agony of trying to figure out the best course of action is skillfully portrayed. The difficulty of assimilating all the information. Try to make sure that your head dominates your heart, but also that your heart doesn’t stack the bridge against your head. Everything is here.
In the middle of the novel, Powers picks up another thread. Theo contacts an old friend, the one he and Aly once helped with a science experiment that examined brain function and emotions via MRI. After Robin attacks the thermos, Theo persuades the friend to let Robin get a CT scan, so they can better examine his brain function. The results bear fruit and lead to some kind of therapy. Again, a more fascinating science is wrapped in history.
This triggers a domino effect of reviews in the novel; on the ethics of science when ruled by money, the ripples of social media, and the problems of an island society with a reactionary government. It’s hard to imagine how they could all fit into one narrative, but they do.
If I had a review of Perplexity is that everything ends abruptly. But this is just another puzzlement for the reader. Things don’t end in the middle of a sentence or something, but the only thing that lets the reader know that Theo and Robin’s story will end soon is that the book runs out of pages. I feel like their story is one that could run and run.
Having been appalled at the abrupt finale at first, the more I thought about it the more I felt it fit the narrative. Life is confusing, and unlike most novels, her stories don’t end cleanly. A story is told as long as you tell it, but life goes on after the narrator is finished.
As you would expect from an award-winning author, Perplexity is a skillfully constructed novel. It comes in small sections that are easy to consume and very addicting. It’s an almost perfect novel for parents of geeks. It’s a fabulous mix of parenthood, science, and sci-fi (in a sense of ‘science fiction’, rather than spaceships and ray guns). You live every moment with the characters of Perplexity. The powers make sure that their happiness is your happiness, their pain is your pain. I loved it from start to finish. I have no idea what makes an award-worthy novel, but by the end of 2021 this book will surely have been one of my favorite reads of the year.
If you want to retrieve a copy of Perplexity, you can do it here in the US and here in the UK.
If you enjoyed this review, check out my other book reviews.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book in order to write this review.