The Overstory is not a book to please everyone. It has a couple of things going against it. At over 600 pages it requires a bit of a commitment from its reader to tackle its unconventional narrative. Its environmental message is also overtly political and confronting: the world will be better off without humans; humanity is a passing glitch in the history of the natural world from which nature will recover, if somewhat changed; capitalism is a form of species suicide. And there is no subtlety in this messaging. The reader is told through the narrative voice, through the voice of characters, even via lecture material introduced by Dr Patricia Westerford, one of Powers’ protagonists, about the destruction of trees, about the rise of farmlands, the loss of diversity, the lost potential of pharmaceutical drugs and the spiritual potential of trees. I don’t think anyone sympathetic to environmental messages and who felt compelled to read this book would argue against the environmental message Richard Powers is offering, but much of Powers’ political and environmental message is unsubtle and suffers from clunky exposition. The repetition of the message throughout the whole book, often to the detriment of other novelistic needs, makes the problem difficult to ignore. Powers is clearly knowledgeable about trees, but the wonder that should arise from his material is sometimes leaden by repetition or a feeling that it is part of a list of expositional waypoints. Trees are the centrepiece of this novel. Information about trees – the wonder of trees, their variety and many somewhat speculative assertions about the life of trees – permeates the narrative. Characters study trees, photograph them, live in them, talk to them, try to save them, even become criminals in the interests of trees. There is not a single character relationship in this book that isn’t moderated through its connection with trees.
The ideas in the book are compelling. Nevertheless, I felt its weakness lay in that its most fascinating storytelling happens in the first 190 pages. This is where Powers introduces us to his various characters whose paths will cross in the latter sections as they are drawn to campaign for the natural world. There is Nicholas Hoel who inherits several generations of photographs of the family’s chestnut tree, each photograph taken from the same place each month by family members, forming a flip book that animates the tree in its growth. There is also, Douglas Pavlicek who falls from a military plane in the Vietnam War only to be saved by a softish landing in a tree. Like Olivia Vendergruff and others, he will experience an epiphany through the agency of trees that will lead him to advocate for their protection. Olivia Vandergriff actually dies from electrocution one night and believes she is brought back to life by trees who intend her for a special purpose. Like Joan of Arc hearing the voice of God, she becomes a rallying point for several of the major characters in the novel.
While The Overstory has some weaknesses it is also dramatic and fascinating in many of its scenes, as well as in the slow and inevitable creep towards its denouement. One of the strengths I found in Powers’ writing was his ability to find metaphors for the life of trees in the actions of humans. After all, we are reminded several times throughout that we share a common ancestor and still share genes with trees. There is Neelay’s computer code which evolves like life and is structured like a tree. There is Ray’s slowed interior time, like the timescale of a tree, as he is forced to endure years of paralysis. There is also a scene around the middle of the book in which Mimi Ma and Douglas take part in a protest. They use steel-bar black bears (steel tubes with interior carabiners) to lock themselves as a group in place. Their strength comes from the immovability the connection with each of the other protestors provides. We are again reminded in this scene of the interlocking networks of trees and their root systems that Patricia Westerford’s studies have revealed. But in the pepper-spraying of the protestors we are also reminded of the brutal methods to destroy these systems in nature. I looked online, thinking Powers might have taken inspiration from an actual incident. The closest thing I could find was the use of pepper spray against protestors at the University of California in 2011. But it’s still a graphic example of Powers’ metaphor.
Despite its strengths, the book might have been shorter. Some of the characters are only tangential to the main plot and slow the narrative, for instance. The story of Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly seems unnecessary in its mundane domesticity: the genesis of their relationship, the inevitable affair and Dorothy’s later decision to nurse Ray after he is paralysed and bedridden by a stroke. Their connection to the main plot exists only through their watching of the news as well as their decision to let their garden return to a more natural state. Neelay Mehta, a computer genius who introduces a phenomenal game, Mastery, to the world, is likewise tangential. He may speak to the same giant Redwood that inspires Olivia, and the complexity of his programming may be likened to evolution and the natural world, but the linking of the later development of the game in the closing sections of the novel to finding a solution for the ills of the environment seems poorly conceived and a latent attempt to inject some hope into what can only be described as an essentially pessimistic novel (on a human scale). Professor Adam Appich, jailed for his part in environmental protests, can only conclude from his studies that while people may see future destruction attendant in human treatment of the environment, consciously acknowledging this is akin to a betraying one’s own species. Patricia Westerford sees no other solution than for nature to wait for humanity’s final destruction.
I think the problem with these more marginal characters is that Powers has not provided the novel with competing ideologies. He tends to preach through the narrative or the characters, rather than allow the reader to make up his or her own mind. Rather than developing characters with opposing views, he has allowed his rather long work to paradoxically become simplified in its point of view. As a result, while the novel has a depth of knowledge and philosophical insight, it nevertheless feels like a diatribe rather than a fully-rounded artistic achievement.
What the novel achieves well is a strong sense of humanity’s place in the world and our temporal insignificance. While Powers’ emphasis of the age of many of the trees in the novel may sometimes be overdone – we are often reminded that this or that tree is older than Christianity – the longevity of trees puts humanity’s modern world into perspective. There is Patricia Westerford’s lecture that uses an old metaphor of the 24-hour Earth: humanity has turned up in the last four seconds. The sense of timescale is also there in the giant redwood, Mimas, which Olivia and Douglas live in for over a year to protect (
wider across than his great-great-great-grandfather’s old farmhouse) The entirety of their lives are encapsulated in only the very last outer layers of the tree’s rings. The Hoel family’s photographs of the chestnut tree over several generations also capture the slow life of trees: all those years captured on film just to see the tree wave. In the meantime, the family experiences trials and tribulations that would be the subject of many novels, including its final loss of the farm after a gas accident. The timescale is also there in the slow interior life of Ray, bedridden, who has nothing to do but to stare out into his garden. His epiphany, that the threat to the environment needs to be measured
imminent at the speed of trees reminds us of the limited perspective of humanity.
There is a sense, over and over in this novel, of the insignificance of human lives to the vast theatre of the natural world and its timescales. The overstory is not just the upper levels of vegetation in a forest, but a metanarrative the natural world provides for Powers’ story – the history of the natural world which is concurrent with the story of humanity, but also precedes it and will outlive it. Powers wants his readers to be humbled by this, and while some of his exposition borders on proselytising, the thought is truly humbling. To achieve this Powers foregrounds the very weaknesses of his own art:
…the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.
I imagine that many people might enjoy extracts from this novel. Its length suggests Powers was deliberately imposing a slower, more philosophical approach upon his readers; to contemplate the future of trees and nature. But the reality is that human timescales are much shorter, and patience with the many repetitions in the book and the unsubtle expository passages may be too trying for some who may otherwise have been open to the philosophical points Powers is making. In my opinion, one of the most engaging sections of the book was the story covering Nickolas Hoel and the fate of his family and chestnut tree at the very beginning of the novel. Everything Richard Powers has to say is really said in that section. The story of Mimi Ma which follows it is equally engaging. But like each character story at the beginning of the novel, the message is the same: humanity is doomed. I’d recommending reading those first two sections of the book to anyone who was unsure of their commitment to reading it, and then make up their minds from there.