The Overstory by Richard Powers
W.W. Norton, 2018; 502 pp
Reviewed by Sarah J. Schlosser
Richard Powers’s latest novel, The Overstory, is a commitment. It’s not just the size of the book, but the voice of it, drifting from toying with a third person limited point of view statement from each character to an omniscient perspective in the turn of a period or new paragraph. Still, the lyrical nature of all of the voices save the meandering camera lens; Powers drops a metaphor relatable and exclusive and reading feels like a reward stacking up and up on itself. The novel is accomplishment, the novel is a stumbled-on love letter, the prose so overwhelmingly delicious that the reader will want to pace the reading or face a risk of exhaustion. Powers’s story is a weaving of an American culture advancing on nature and either defending it or recreating it by reinvention of self or nature; artists follow their ancestors in documenting one tree, or inherited treasures of other countries that give them keys in other trees, or birth defects that allow them space to find voice in trees. Particularly in the passages of the character of Patricia, struggling with deafness and attacks on her reputation for insisting that studies she’s done have revealed the symbiotic nature of trees, Powers addresses both current climate change debates and age-old literary issues of Ruskin and his annoyance at the voice of nature in “pathetic fallacy.” Powers gives the impression of fighting all of the academics in science and literature, without getting violent in the process.
With all of the focus on nature, Powers has one monumental task on his hands: not to drift to the misanthropic side of environmentalism. The tendency of all people are the enemy of nature is an easy role for any writer to drift into, but Powers prefers to stay the course of stewardship; the character of Patricia starts a tree seed catalog for future generations, another drifter named Douglas plants trees on a roaming venture, and protesters Olivia and Nick live in a treetop for a time, keeping that giant from the loggers. Powers doesn’t insist that all humans drift to good or bad, but acknowledges the timelessness of missing civilization, as in the following exchange between Olivia and Nick during their tenure in the tree:
Yet, soon enough, an afternoon, half a word all feel the same size. They disappear into the rhythm of no rhythm at all . . . More time passes. A tenth of eternity. Two-tenths. When she speaks again, the softness shatters him. “I never knew how strong a drug other people are.”
“The strongest. Or at least the most widely abused.”
“How long does it take to . . . detox?”
He considers. “Nobody’s ever clean.”
Another particular aspect of this book, one that bears mentioning but is not a testament to Powers’s writing (but bears a strong relation to the interpretation of his message and prose), is his address of the irony of writing a book that make trees such a strong presence in a book of over 500 pages in length. If Powers has a message, should he really use so much wood pulp to deliver it? The copyright page, usually overlooked by readers, delivers a key to that concern; the hardbound edition of the book is printed on 100% recycled paper, which is saving “408 trees, 393,576 gallons of water, 132,288 pound of greenhouse gas emissions, 40,272 pounds of solid waste.” One imagines the book could also be exclusively purchased on an e-reading device and save even more resources, but that wasn’t Powers’s point in the story or the physical construction of the book; Powers is insisting humanity use what has already been harvested from the world. His characters, whether they are scientists or protesters or artists or code writers are finding forward momentum is using what can be spared or what was already taken or building back into natural growth; recycled carries more weight in words that depleting another resource elsewhere. Powers, too, gives us that familiar prose that might be recycled from our own experiences, but serves instead as a resurrection of our better angels.