The Overstory by Richard Powers

 William Heinemann, April 2018, 502 pp

William Heinemann, April 2018, 502 pp

Richard Powers’s twelfth novel, The Overstory, is a gigantic 500-page ride filled to the brim with questions about our society in relation to the natural environment. It has nine leading characters, which at the onset seem unrelated to each other, but in a way or another (but somehow always via trees) come together over the course of the novel. Just like many of the novel’s characters experience a sort of a revelation regarding trees, I find myself reconsider the milieu I live in after finishing the last page. I presume this is the intended effect. When readers of a literary text are moved to the extent that they view the world outside in a new light, even just slightly, it is surely a sign of a job well done.

The author himself has talked about the importance of “level-three stories” in a recent interview with Los Angeles Review of Books. He argues that there are three different levels of narrative conflict, the first of which is an internal (psychological) battle, the second a battle between people (societal), and, finally, the battle between the human and the non-human (environmental). With The Overstory, Powers attempts to question the privileging of level-one stories, which, in general, have higher chances of being acclaimed as great pieces of literary fiction:

There’s a paradox here. While the challenge to our continued existence on Earth has never been greater or clearer, literary fiction seems to be retrenching into an obsession with the challenges of private hopes, fears, and desires. Granted, those challenges lie at the heart of everything we try to do, but a retreat into belles-lettres when human activity is unraveling the climate, exhausting the soil, and killing off 40 percent of the world’s other species is simply reactionary solipsism. We need level-three stories and myths, and we need lots of them fast, in all kinds of forms and flavors.

And this is what he does in his own novel by giving so much space to the natural environment. It has hues of Jon McGregor’s superb novel Reservoir 13 from last year in that it views humans in a less exalted position and often, instead, conveys a sense of man’s brief and frivolous, yet dangerous, existence on Earth. In one of Powers’s analogies, the planet is born at midnight and runs just for one day, and the “modern man shows up four seconds before midnight.” Elsewhere in the novel, it is often pointed out how trees outlive men: one of the environmentally enlightened characters compares a 140-year prison sentence merely to the lifespan of two different trees (“A black willow plus a small cherry”).

So, what is inside these pages beyond the obvious themes? The novel is divided into four sections (roots, trunk, crown, and seeds, respectively), the first of which presents eight separate short stories, which start to overlap in the second part of the novel, which is also the longest section (the trunk – see what he is doing there?). For instance, there is a young coder, Neejay, who falls from a tree, becomes disabled, and spends the rest of his life as the creative director of a hugely successful game company; there is a soldier who, unlike the coder, is saved by a banyan into which he falls from a plane that is shot down in the Vietnam War; there is a young woman who dies of electric shock in a bath but is revived and finds a new life amidst trees… All this might seem implausible and incoherent, but the unlikelihood of the events does not matter, because from these pieces Powers somehow manages to pull out an extremely engaging story.

The Overstory belongs to the tradition of big novels in true American fashion, but it is completely worth the effort of reading, not only because of its invaluable environmental message, but because it is such a well-told story. Almost all of its eight storylines hold the interest throughout, as we follow their lives for decades. Perhaps the best of them all is the story of Patricia Westerford, a biologist whose early article on the communication of trees is disdained in a follow-up article written by three men. Done with humans, Patricia retreats into the woods, where she spends most of her life thereafter. Meanwhile, her thesis starts to gain new attention, a recognition Patricia is unaware of. Not wanting to give out too many spoilers, even the story of the solitary Patricia is soon intertwined with that of the disabled, rich, and lone Neejay, who sits at his city office, dreaming of an even more realistic and addictive game to be developed. Delivering a keynote at a prestigious conference near the end of the novel, Patricia sums up many of the novel’s ideas, including human exceptionalism and what I belive is James Gibson’s theory of environmental affordance: “We scientists are taught never to look for ourselves in other species,” she proclaims, and continues:

So we make sure nothing looks like us! Until a short while ago, we didn’t even let chimpanzees have consciousness, let alone dogs or dolphins. Only man, you see: only man could know enough to want things. But believe me: trees want something from us, just as we’ve always wanted things from them. This isn’t mystical. The ‘environment’ is alive – a fluid, changing web of purposeful lives dependent on each other. Love and war can’t be teased apart. Flowers shape bees as much as bees shape flowers. Berries may compete to be eaten more than animals compete for berries. A thorn acacia makes sugary protein treats to feed and enslave the ants who guard it. Fruit-bearing plants trick us into distributing  their seeds, and ripening fruit led to color vision. In teaching us how to find their bait, trees taught us to see that the sky is blue. Our brains evolved to solve the forest. We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been Homo sapiens.

Is Powers, then, lecturing us in the guise of a fictional character? One could argue that The Overstory is a good example of what the critic James Wood calls hysterical realism, the sort of literature that verges more on social theory than fiction. Whether this matters, whether it is a good or a bad thing to give so much space to urgent real world matters, is all up to the reader – I, for one, belong to the yes camp.