W. W. NORTON & COMPANY. INC., 2018
Richard Powers, a National Book Award winner, has been writing science- and tech-related fiction for more than 30 years. In his latest novel, The Overstory, he displays his mastery of the craft with an innovative interplay of theme, structure and style. The first 150 pages trace nine characters – nine “roots” according to the section heading – each equally compelling. The story lines dive and lift, sweeping across years, depicting carefully chosen moments that build our perception of each character’s passions and wounds, all of them imprinted somehow with significant encounters with trees. Entirely in the present tense, the novel’s pace and perspective suggest a long view of time – a tree’s-life view, perhaps – in which a particular human life, with all its details, loves and struggles, passes by in a moment.
Powers’ prose simulates the sensory density of burgeoning life.
The deeper you sink into the novel, the more the human stories turn out to be, in Barbara Kingsolver’s phrase, “the shrubby understory.” We never lose our compassionate and detailed attention to each human, but their stories begin to intertwine in the “trunk” section of the novel, and our perspective widens further to the larger crisis of human survival on a warming planet. The Chinese-American ceramics engineer meets the Vietnam vet, both of them looking for some purpose and enraged by the legally sanctioned destruction of a woodlot.
The college student who has squandered her every privilege wakes up from an accidental electrocution and believes she hears voices calling her to save the trees. She encounters the Iowa farm boy/artist and the two wind up spending months tree-sitting on a Sequoia sempervirens.
A gentle intellectual property attorney, a psychology student and a fantasy-game developer round out the cast, allowing Powers to draw us, through the characters’ awareness, into several modes of reflection on why humans would heedlessly destroy their own planet – and why some would resist. The “trunk” section reaches a climax in a botched eco-terrorism scheme, indicating that while Powers is sympathetic to the tree-huggers, he also is clear-eyed about the effectiveness of guerilla activism. Despite these characters’ efforts and the tragic consequences they suffer, the destruction of old-growth forest goes right ahead.
GENIUS OF TREES
Through the character of Dr. Patricia Westerford, a botanist, Powers delivers much of the astonishing science at the heart of the book. Trees are “social creatures,” so forests are integrated communities. Through their vascular systems, pollen, respirations and other means, the trees communicate with each other, protect each other, adjust to changed environments, even move – ever so slowly – seeking better habitat.
The sheer gorgeousness and genius of trees everywhere saturate the story and the prose. Here’s Patricia exploring an uncut forest: “She presses on fissures of bark and her fingers sink in knuckle-deep. A bit of bushwhacking reveals the extent of the prodigious rot. Crumbling, creature-riddled boles, decaying for centuries. Snags gothic and twisted, silvery as inverted icicles. She has never inhaled such fecund putrefaction. The sheer mass of ever-dying life packed into each single cubic foot, woven together with fungal filaments and dew-betrayed spider web leaves her woozy.”
On every page, Powers’ prose simulates the sensory density of burgeoning life. While all the character strands are densely packed with swoon-inducing science, literary references also embroider the novel, including an evocation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things.” Indeed, the whole novel is concerned with liminal states between life and death, madness and sanity, freedom and imprisonment, human and nonhuman.
Individuals merge and separate; time stands still and rushes forward. Trees seem to be calling to the human characters across the species divide, patiently encroaching with their millennia of wisdom, embodied in a different form of being. At one point, Patricia observes, “It could be the eternal project of mankind, to learn what forests have figured out.”
Maria Popova once proposed that nonfiction writers fall into three categories: explainers, elucidators and enchanters. If there are analogous categories for fiction, Powers must surely qualify as an enchanter. Of all the characters, perhaps the most mesmerizing is Mimas, the redwood in which the tree-sitters live for many months, an ecosystem centuries old, full of its own music. Immersed in the wonder of trees for 500 pages, I have a new and solemn respect for my leafy and needle-y neighbors.
Power’s book is rhapsodic but also ambiguous about hope. Will humans survive our own destructive ways? There’s a tentative gesture at the end toward the power of artificial intelligence to consolidate human knowledge quickly enough to wise us up and show us a way forward. But mostly we’re invited to put human scrabbling for survival in the long perspective of life on this planet, a pulsing, irresistible force that will push on with or without us. The novel thus poses, tacitly, a question: Do we choose, still, to join in life’s ecstatic dance?
Debra Rienstra teaches English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. A version of this book review first appeared on the Reformed Journal’s blog, The Twelve.