In an inspired plot twist, Peter Rock builds an entire novel around a quote: "They created in a single night a new situation...For the moment their bewilderment was their only etiquette." (Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea)
The scene is set in Portland, where the detritus of civilization encroaches upon the rural landscape, littering the once-pristine outdoors with garbage tossed carelessly about. The characters are eclectic: a trio of gifted, edgy teenagers, searching for a new definition in a system turning sour before they have tasted much of its wealth; Natalie, an eccentric, unstable woman with her own demons, who collects 1970s Playboy porn and hires the teens to steal copper wiring; and the world of the blind, as a peripheral character tries to adapt to the limitations of his girlfriend's blindness, to comprehend everyday life without sight.
In a time ever more devoid of personal entanglements, a ubiquitous lack of connection wreaks its own kind of havoc, an aimlessness that infects a population caught in the currents of change. Ensconced in Chinatown, a man surreptitiously tracks a group of people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by chance, existing in another reality than those around them, not the elite, but the "bewildered": "They are not a reflective people."
The loss of humanity in this subtly changed world is truly thought-provoking, but I cannot decide whether this novel is truly sinister or only somewhat frightening. The author writes with a certain detachment, as though technology has already leached part of the life force from his characters, leaving them part-human, part-techno. Although the teens aren't remotely slackers or disaffected dropouts, they are disconnected from their earthly environment, routinely seeking an escape route from the future.
The Bewildered fails to sustain its clever promise, especially in the closing chapters, although the idea is fascinating. But the characters' relationships are only tangential, touching briefly before returning to their separate lives. This novel is a strange mix of fancy, misplaced experimentation and a peek into Portland's underground tunnels, a vast network of the unknown, where anything is possible, but misconception proves the rule. Although innovative and creative, The Bewildered is ultimately bewildering, a netherworld transitioning to the dark side of the human psyche.