The Overstory by Richard Powers. W. W. Norton. 512pp, $27.95.
The Overstory displays some of the formal and stylistic ingenuity we have come to expect from a Richard Powers novel, from his acoustically adventurous prose to his multiple, intertwined narratives (even more multiple in this novel), so characterizing it as purely “agitprop” would be neither fair nor accurate, although the novel is certainly transparent enough in its effort to promote environmental mindfulness. And since Powers has always been willing to take on the weightiest of subjects, generally treated in an earnestly sincere manner, it would go too far to call The Overstory sentimental, although the passages invoking its characters’ often rapturous appreciation of the trees that threaten to replace the characters themselves as the novel’s true dramatis personae are surely full of passionate intensity.
Still, if The Overstory doesn’t stake all of its possible interest to readers in a mawkish story that often veers into melodrama and that doesn’t bother to hide its didactic intent, it comes closer to doing so than I, for one, hope any future Powers novel ever comes. In 2002, I wrote a review of Powers’s Plowing the Dark for a now defunct literary magazine in which I speculated that the then-current critical praise of Powers as a “cerebral” novelist entailed some misunderstanding of his more radical aesthetic strategies, strategies that might eventually be cited to explain a “perplexing loss of enthusiasm” for Powers’s work when they became more clearly understood. Ironically, I now find myself trying to account for my own waning enthusiasm for his fiction, not only in the current novel but in many of the books Powers has published since then, beginning with the novel that appeared immediately after Plowing the Dark, 2003’s The Time of Our Singing. I thought that the aesthetic formalism of Powers’s fiction would wear out its welcome with readers more insistent that a novel provide direct emotional engagement; as it turns out, it is apparently to those very readers that Powers now most wants to appeal, as if he too has come to agree with the criticism of his early work as too emotionally detached.
As The Overstory continues to illustrate, it is not that Powers has abandoned his stylistic explorations or his intricate braiding of multiple narrative strands, both of which in his best work embody “theme” indirectly and suggestively through juxtaposition and implication rather than directly communicate meaning through the usual symbolic devices supplied by a linear story. The Time of Our Singing shows Powers bringing this formalist approach together with a theme—the racial history of the United States in the 20th century—it complements only uneasily. However much Powers wants his unconventional structure to support and extend his kaleidoscopic survey of the struggle for civil rights, the theme itself inevitably overwhelms the structure, prompting us to wonder why this manifestly important subject should require such an overwrought design. Moreover, other themes that Powers has often provocatively treated, such as the nature of music and the place of “high art” in general, though present in The Time of Our Singing (its brother protagonists are both musicians), are ultimately overshadowed by the larger, more politically resonant subject.
In his two prior novels, Gain and Plowing the Dark, Powers had also addressed political subjects (Plowing the Dark more directly), but in both cases the political implications emerge connotatively, in the dialectical interplay of the interweaving narratives, which in each work retain their own integrity—political significance is inferred by the reader, not imposed as a heavy-handed rhetorical strategy. Powers has frequently enough been accused of too heavily stressing “ideas” in general, but at his best he actually juxtaposes multiple ideas (musical notation and DNA sequencing in The Gold-Bug Variations, for example) that in their often surprising correspondences create a kind of drama distinct from the sort that conventional storytelling can produce. Although The Time of Our Singing still attempts to make such connections (here using quantum physics), the effort seems mostly an expository device, an overly labored way of bringing historical perspective (albeit deep history, as it is determined by time itself) on the dominant story of racial conflict.
In the immediate follow-up to The Time of Our Singing, 2007’s The Echo Maker, Powers more or less abandons both the synthesis of ideas and the multi-strand narrative strategy, except insofar as there are three main characters and one of them is a cognitive scientist. The story is essentially unitary, however, as the scientist is brought in by the ostensible protagonist’s sister to help diagnose her brother’s brain disorder. The third-person narrator employs conventional psychological realism to bring together the perspectives of these three characters as we learn that the brother’s disorder is Capgras Syndrome, the exposition of the nature and symptoms of which is the novel’s primary focus, supplemented by an accompanying mystery plot as the brother tries to recall the automobile accident that induced his disorder in the first place. Although the character’s dilemma allows Powers to raise interesting enough questions about the fragility of human perception, The Echo Maker is otherwise a disappointingly monophonic novel that seems to show Powers partially surrendering to those critics who have demanded he write novels with more readily apparent plots and more emotionally engaging characters.
Much the same could be said of Generosity (2009) as well, but in this case the characters do not as directly solicit our emotional response. Indeed, the main character is deliberately presented as an enigma, someone whose motivations are the object of analysis and debate among the other characters because her unremitting good nature otherwise seems so implausible. But ultimately the novel is an “examination” of its subject—human personality—in the same way The Echo Maker concertedly inquires into its protagonist’s medical condition, an approach we would not have expected of the author of Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance or Prisoner’s Dilemma. And while Orfeo is in many ways the most satisfying of Powers’s novels published in the 21st century, as the third of his books to take music as subject, it, too, is more conventionally structured—a present narrative with flashbacks—than those works that initially signaled Richard Powers might be an important successor to the initial generation of postmodern writers that rose to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s.
Orfeo shows, like all of Powers’s best fiction, that the supposed divide between art and science is spurious, gainsaid not only by his own novels, which depict how the latter can creatively accommodate the former, but by the very convergences between the two his encyclopedic narratives reveal. Orfeo’s composer-protagonist takes his explorations of the possibilities of musical expression to an extreme than lands him in very big trouble, but in sensing that music might be an emergent phenomenon at the microbiological sources of life, Peter Els follows up on the intimations first offered in The Gold-Bug Variations that life might be organized according to processes just as inherent to art (music being a particularly pure form of art) as to “science” narrowly understood as a collection of facts about the world. Powers’s most essential work is at least as much about art- and fiction-making (explicitly so in Galatea 2.2) as science or ideas or advanced technologies.
We might initially assume from its title that The Overstory could also be metafictional in this way, but while the novel does exploit the nomenclature that includes both “overstory” and “understory” as descriptions of forest growth, Powers uses them merely as an organizational conceit that works effectively enough to bring a broad order to a fragmented narrative that ranges widely in time and place and that includes a large number of important characters (unusual for a Powers novel). Thus the “understory” introduces us to these characters—and to the obvious importance of trees in their stories—in a sequential fashion that at first almost conveys the impression we are reading a series of discrete short stories. Eventually these stories begin to link up, however (some more directly than others), and the remainder of the novel represents the “overstory,” relating the ways in which the characters in some instances literally join forces, in others intersect from a distance, in their actions and attitudes toward the novel’s encompassing subject (the splendor and importance of trees).
It might seem condescending or reductive to say that finally The Overstory is a novel about trees and the people who love them, but the novel does little to persuade us that such a description is inaccurate. Although subsidiary themes inevitably arise through the accounts of the characters’ various activities—the consequences of zealotry, for example, as one group of characters take their environmental activism too far—that the novel is ultimately conceived almost exclusively to evoke our current state of environmental degradation and make evident the need to halt and reverse it seems unquestionable. Powers has been accused in the past of subordinating his characters to his formal devices and his big ideas. In The Overstory they have so plainly been subordinated to the novel’s polemical purpose that over the course of a 500-page narrative it becomes very difficult to find much interest in them beyond their roles in the author’s epic attempt to sanctify trees as symbols of the wonders of life beyond purely human enterprises, roles in which they function as humans able to come to some nascent awareness of the grandeur and resourcefulness of trees in their adaptations to circumstances.
Granted, the large cast of characters doesn’t really allow us to witness much development in them, which is not inherently a flaw in a work of fiction, but in this case it only exacerbates the novel’s most serious, ultimately debilitating, conceptual flaw. Aside from some perfunctory attempts to flesh out the characters through their personal relationships (love affairs and marriages), Powers so obsessively focuses on the characters’ raised environmental consciousness it often becomes difficult simply to sustain interest in the incessant expository passages and extended reveries. Passages that might otherwise remind us of the aural and rhythmic effects of Powers’s prose come to seem just more verbal underbrush in a novel-long thicket of exposition and rhetorical exaltation of trees:
There are trees that flower and fruit directly from the trunk. Bizarre kapoks forty feet around with branches that run from spiky to shiny to smooth, all from the same trunk. Myrtles scattered throughout the forest that all flower on a single day. Bertholletia that grow piñata cannonballs filled with nails. Trees that make rain, that tell time, that predict the weather. Seeds in obscene shapes and colors. Pods like daggers and scimitars. Stilt roots and snaking roots and buttresses like sculpture and roots that breathe air. Solutions run amok. The biomass is mad. One swing of a net suffices to fill it with two dozen kinds of beetles. Thick mats of ant attack her for touching the trees that feed and shelter them.
This passage occurs on page 390, but by the time I had gotten to it (and other passages immediately following that depict one of the characters on an expedition to Brazil), the repetition of such wide-eyed evocations throughout the novel had already induced such a state of weary impatience that I wanted simply to skip over it. Suffice it to say that I have never before experienced such a reaction while reading a Richard Powers novel.
If this novel has a dramatic “arc,” it is in the movement toward the ill-fated act of sabotage carried out by five of the character once their lives begin to converge and they find themselves participating in Earth First!–like protest against clearcutting, its aftermath a denouement of sorts. One member of the group (its leader) is killed when an explosive device detonates accidentally, and after the four survivors scatter to face whatever fate awaits them (for a considerable period of time they appear to have escaped discovery), we follow them separately until one of them is revealed to the FBI through an unlucky encounter with a young woman who happens upon his diary of the events. He, in turn, is persuaded to identify one of the others, and so he chooses the one he perceives to have been the least committed to the cause and has gone on to have the most successful post-tragedy career. Powers attempts to bestow some belated dignity on this latter character through his refusal to snitch on anyone else, but since the character’s motivation to join up with group in the first place was never made very clear, this seems an essentially empty gesture that only makes Powers seem to equivocate about whether we are to deplore the group’s act of violence or feel satisfaction that some of those involved got away with it.
Some of the characters exist outside the orbit of this band of militants who give the novel its most extended action: a forestry scientist who makes an important discovery about how trees communicate with one another, whose life is chronicled from her original research as a student (which is at first rejected, then celebrated) to her apparent suicide at the lectern while making a conference presentation; a lawyer and his wife, who, after the husband’s stroke, are ultimately reconciled to each other through a fascination with the trees in their own yard; a builder of video games, who suffers from a disabling injury after falling out of a tree as a teenager but who takes inspiration from the genetic code of trees in devising his own computer code.
All of these characters reinforce the central emphasis on the marvel of trees, but the computer scientist, Neejay, fits most uncomfortably in the novel’s overall scheme. Neejay’s circumstances and his idealist belief in computer programming arguably make him the most interesting and well-developed character in The Overstory, but his story seems largely detached from the others, as if it belonged to another novel on another subject. At the book’s conclusion, a force of inchoate “learners,” apparently self-organizing as emanations of the coding activities of people like Neejay, manifest themselves in what seems to be an evolutionary move away from human beings and their destructive habits. It is a peculiar device that seems intended to provide a happy (or at least hopeful) ending in circumstances that otherwise do not appear to permit one. It is not reassuring.
I share all of the concerns animating The Overstory and agree with its implicit arguments, as well as the explicit arguments Powers himself has made, often eloquently, in interviews regarding the subject of this book. But I do not read novels to have my already existing beliefs affirmed; if anything, I read fiction hoping to have my unexamined beliefs challenged, fiction that compels me to view those beliefs from a productively skeptical distance. Most essentially, I want to read works of fiction that offer an aesthetically abundant reading experience, that remind me there are still unfamiliar practices and undiscovered forms to encounter in fiction. Until recently, I was able to find all of these things in Richard Powers’s novels, and it is the greatest disappointment of The Overstory that it suggests they may no longer be available there.
Daniel Green is a literary critic whose essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. He also maintains the literary weblog, The Reading Experience, which he started in 2004.
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