The Overstory is a lengthy tome that was largely responsible for my absence from this blog during June. The book bogged me down, and had me questioning my resolve to finish the thing. When my library loan came to the end I buckled and bought a kindle copy. Ever the optimist, I thought the end might justify things. And, I just had to see what happened
But despite its attempt at a philosophical and redemptive ending of sorts, The Overstory didn’t do much to grow my confidence in human nature, much less in our collective capacity to solve the dilemmas of our day; specifically climate change. Read this book and know for sure we’re doomed by greed, shortsightedness, stupidity.
But, read The Overstory and be impressed by both the intellectual rigour of Richard Powers and his concern for the environment. He tells the story of our collective futility in the face of relentless consumption through nine different characters. Each main character, except perhaps for Neely, who escapes into an alternative digital world of his own creation, is linked by their concern for the future, their willingness to take risks to save trees, and to some extent their determination to alert others to the plight of our planet. The connections between the characters works rather like the way trees and creatures in a forest are connected. They draw strength, knowledge, and resolve from each other. But in the end they are defeated. Just as the forest of this novel is vanquished.
Each character is fully realised, each drawn with detail and compassion. I did have my favourites, particularly Patricia Westerford, the scientist:
A secret suspicion sets her apart from the others. She’s sure, on no evidence whatsoever, that trees are social creatures. It’s obvious to her: motionless things that grow in mass mixed communities must have evolved was to synchronise with one another. Nature knows few loner trees. But the belief leaves her marooned. Bitter irony: here she is, with her people, at last, and even they can’t see the obvious. (location 2044 Kindle version)
Rejected and ridiculed by the mainstream scientific community Patricia continues to beaver away, breaking new ground in the study of forests. She is the one who holds the faint and only hope in Powers’ imagined future. But Powers allows no fanciful thinking. Even her ark — a large seed bank built up over decades—will likely prove useless without anyone to access it.
There is no doubt The Overstory is the work of a master. Few writers would be able to assemble such a cast, or present such detailed and up to the minute research on the ecology of forests. But Powers wears his environmentalism on his sleeve. This is a novel with a an overt and loudly proclaimed message. For me the story would have benefited from a lighter, gentler touch. I would have appreciated being left to work out a bit more out for myself, to draw my own conclusions.
Finally, although I think this book worthy of its Pulitzer, I found the absence of any real hope in Powers imagined future brutalising. In a month when one by one local councils in my part of the world declared climate emergencies, this was unhelpful.
The Overstory is Richard Powers 12th novel but the first I have read. I’m undecided whether I’ll seek out others.
Opening Sentence: “First there was nothing. Then there was everything.”
The OverStory (2018) Vintage, by Richard Powers Winner Pulitzer Prize 2019
Categories: On Books