The Overstory: A Novel
This is an ambitious author. His is a marvel-filled book. The 12th novel by the much-celebrated Richard Powers—compared by Margaret Atwood to “the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick”—is perhaps his most accessible and, in a meditative manner, urgent; our species if not planet feels at stake.
Powers, whose awards include the National Book Award and the MacArthur Genius Grant, first came to the reading public’s attention with Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance, (1985). Since then such novels as The Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2, The Time of Our Singing, and The Echo Maker (which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2006) have solidified his reputation as a writer tackling capacious problems, both scientific and moral: our DNA, artificial intelligence, neurological disorders, and classical music are among the topics he explores.
His new book deals with trees. In its table of contents, there are sections serially titled “Roots” and “Trunk,” and “Crown” and “Seeds.” The overstory itself is a technical term for the canopy of a forest, the foliage at the top of trees—some of them more than three hundred feet tall, and crucial to the tale.
Powers displays a naturalist’s flair for observation, detail, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the sylvan world; trees are the true heroes of his narrative and everywhere at risk. In that sense this is an impersonal story, and a singular narrative strategy. The title instructs us that there’s more than standard tale-telling involved, and the reader is invited—even required—to pay attention to the non-human world.
Here are some examples:
“And down its cool riparian corridors smelling of silt and decaying needles, redwoods work a plan that will take a thousand years to realize—the plan that now uses him, although he thinks it’s his.”
“Watching the man . . . Patty learns that real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze.”
“What’s crazier? Believing there might be nearby presences we don’t know about? Or cutting down the last few ancient redwoods on Earth for decking and shingles?”
“It’s the grooved, Doric perfection of the red-brown columns shooting upward from the shoulder-high ferns and moss-swarmed floor—straight up, with no taper, like a russet, leathery apotheosis. And when the columns do start to crown, it happens so high, so removed from the pillars’ base, that it might as well be a second world up there, up nearer eternity.”
This sort of rhetoric can startle; words such as apotheosis and eternity are not the standard parlance of a naturalist. And yet, as Powers puts it in an interview with Kevin Berger (Literary Hub, April 23, 2018), “There are things more interesting than people.”
Further, “There was a time when our myths and legends and stories were about something greater than individual well-being.” Though there are many characters and much human intervention in The Overstory, no single protagonist or antagonist takes stage center; it takes a while to adjust one’s sights to that over-arching canopy. The people matter but in ways that defy expectation, and central players die.
Perhaps the most efficient summary of the dramatis personae is provided by the publisher’s publicity release and should be quoted here:
“There is Douglas “Fir” Pavlicek, a former Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War who is shot out of the sky and saved by falling into a banyan; Mimi Ma, an engineer who becomes involved in environmental activism after meeting Douglas; Nicholas Hoel, an artist and the last descendant of a Midwestern farming family that has for generations photographed a lone American chestnut tree that escaped the catastrophic blight; Olivia Vandergriff, a hard-partying undergraduate who camps out with Nick in a redwood hundreds of feet above the forest in a standoff with the loggers below; Adam Appich, the graduate student who documents the protests of these eco-warriors; Dr. Patricia Westerford, a field biologist who’s mocked by her profession for arguing that trees are intelligent creatures that communicate with each other, and Neelay Mehta, a computer genius who forsakes his gaming fortune to reimagine and recreate, virtually, the entire natural world.”
Each of the people referred to above has her or his own section and, though the narrative vantage is always third-person, a distinctive point-of-view. The way that Nicholas Hoel, an itinerant artist, views the world is, for example, very different than the sight-line of the wheelchair-bound inventor, Neelay Mehta; the way that Mimi Ma, an engineer, thinks of tradition and mortality is very different than the vision of Olivia Vandergriff, who electrocutes herself and dies in a drug-induced stupor, then comes back to life with a wholly altered way of seeing and hearing the world. Her silent communion with trees (and, not incidentally, her physical beauty) sets the engine of the plot in motion, and these individuals organize into a protest group.
Their activism turns lethal in a foredoomed attempt to halt the progress of civilization, which means the for-profit destruction of forests and the killing of old trees. In one vivid scene, a clear-cut hillside comes tumbling down and threatens to engulf a campsite and its people. The landslide is halted by a stand of redwoods that serve as a protective bulwark, yet bright blue X’s have been spray-painted on their trunks and they will not survive. Nor, Powers suggests, will we.
There are additional witnesses. Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, for instance, are a childless married couple who (in a characteristic move of this author) have to deal with non-verbal communication after Brinkman’s stroke. That stroke is in part engendered by Dorothy’s torrid affair with a luthier, and here too the author utilizes his expertise in the business of instrument-making; there’s nearly nothing, it would seem, he fails to know or, when dealing with society, deploy.
Much time and space is covered; many balls are juggled and kept, by and large, aloft. The novel starts with settlers moving west and establishing a family farm that, generations later, becomes a casualty of agri-business; it describes an airborne incident during the Vietnam War, the start of the computer age, the attack on the World Trade Center, priceless Chinese artifacts, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a good deal more. Its central action has to do with eco-protest; Nicholas and Olivia—dubbed “Watchman” and “Maidenhair”—spend a year in the high fork of a tree until a helicopter and a set of chainsaws take them down.
The Overstory is elegantly written and intensely felt; it ends with the long view. Though most of the landscape Powers describes is blighted, bleak, and under assault, his final assessment is hopeful: a group of strangers emerge from the woods and help Nicholas Hoel construct—out of decaying logs and fallen branches—the brave assertion: STILL.