The Overstory by Richard Powers
This ambitious, arborescent novel is a towering achievement – I haven’t read prose fiction with such reach, depth, and impact for a long time. Powers’ Booker-short-listed magnum opus attempts the maximalist grand narrative of the classic Victorian novel, as the title, The Overstory, suggests. Shattered by Modernism, and scattered by Post-Modernism, perhaps it is time for its rehabilitation and return in an atomised age when people are seeking stories that make sense of the world around us (hence the popularity of high concept books like Sapiens that create a meaningful narrative for humankind in a time of increasing meaninglessness). What is radically refreshing about Powers’ book is that the grand narrative it offers is not an anthropocentric one. It is a sylvan one – for trees are at the heart of this book. The provide a thematic structure (Roots; Trunk; Crown; Seeds), are intrinsic to the novel’s thesis (in a nutshell: trees as a species are far older than us, contribute collaboratively to the ecosystem, and will probably outlast, even as we denude the priceless woods of the world at an unprecedented rate). Powers has a cast of 8 main characters – an outsider artist; a Chinese-American engineer; a property lawyer (and his restless wife); a veteran drifter; a games designer guru; a bioscientist; and back-from-the-dead undergrad who hears voices. Each of these initially disconnected lives are associated with a tree through upbringing, serendipity, or temperament. We watch these fictional birth trees grow, mature, flower, and fall, over several decades. Different paradigms, aptitudes, and agendas all intersect through the growing environmental crisis in some way. As the Earth’s resources are depleted and climates change, some of these characters will become radicalised through the concern for what we are doing to our irreplaceable home: the rapacious devastation of the very biodiversity which may save us; the resources that will sustain us; the species that we share our home with and possible sentience. Thus far, the novel could have still existed within the tradition of mimetic ‘realism’, but Powers boldly imagines a non-anthropocentric perspective, and an even a post-human future – one that destabilises our (imagined) pole position in the ecosystem, the hubristic apex-predator, but does not estrange us from the interlacement of nature. Rather, it restores us to – babes in the wood, still to learn the art of being, of mutuality, and respectful co-existence. As in the Transcendentalist tradition of American nature mystics and thinkers like Whitman, Thoreau and Muir, Powers sees beyond the petty concerns of man, finding renewal of meaning and purpose in nature. Yet the vision it offers it not naïve – the complex problems of the world are ever-present, and no one here gets out alive – but profoundly subtle, sophisticated, and sustaining. The novel looks to the future continually, often sending messages back as it leaps into full omniscience. The Overstory dares to shift emphasis and empathy beyond the brief lives of its protagonists, and ‘the real world’ (i.e. the finite, flawed human world) of the here and now. Temporality and spaciality are recalibrated to a different scale. It is a Promethean project, and perhaps one destined to be consumed by the fire it seeks to seize. Powers acknowledges the challenge:
To be human is to confuse a satisfying story for a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is falling precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.
And yet Powers achieves just that. The – fully-realised lives of its human protagonists unfold in an engaging way, but just as gripping is the great drama unfolding on a transhuman scale: Nature becoming conscious of itself, or waiting for us to realise it has been so all along. The novel brings that compassionate act of attention to the minutest and vastest miracle of the natural world. To read its 502 pages is akin to the ‘forest-bathing’ popular in Japan, it provides fictional shirin-yoku. The Overstory is of a novel of vaulting ambition – it makes the forests walk (and talk). It manages to achieve what few novels even dare, these days – it makes us look beyond ourselves (increasingly rare in an Age of Selfie and the enforced narcissism of social media). It makes us look up, look down at the earth beneath our feet, breathe, and wonder. The Overstory casts a long shadow, and its story may outlive ‘the novel’ itself (and perhaps even the people who read them).
Kevan Manwaring 2019-01-10