Book review: The Overstory, by Richard Powers

Richard Powers  PIC: Joan Maloof
Richard Powers PIC: Joan Maloof
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On the front of this book is a red circle with the words of the novelist Margaret Atwood: “It’s not possible for Powers to write an uninteresting book”. This is true, to an extent. The book’s ideas are indeed interesting. It’s just that as a book it’s not that good.

The Overstory begins with nine characters. Nicholas Hoel is an artist whose great-great-great-grandparents planted chestnuts that succumbed to a disease. Mimi Ma is an engineer who once sat in the branches of a mulberry. Adam is a psychologist obsessed with the fact that people don’t do what is in their best interest. Ray and Dorothy are amateur theatre players whose marriage collapses and reconstructs, but they have seen Birnam Forest on stage. Douglas is a Purple Heart veteran turned environmental activist, who was once saved by falling into a banyan. Neelay is a programmer determined to make the branches and vines of his virtual world something better, especially since he fell from a tree and is now in a wheelchair. Patricia is a dendrologist whose “big idea” is that forests communicate just as Neelay’s bots do. Olivia is the real radical – the one who thinks only terror can stop agricultural businesses taking down the trees.

As the now disgraced Rolf Harris used to say on Cartoon Time – “Can you see what it is yet?” The symbolism here is loaded heavily. The book begins with rather good short stories about each of the principal characters, then branches (yes) into the environmental fightback and then raises into the “crown” and ends with the “seeds”. Georges Perec, the finest writer to come out of the OuLiPo school of writers, once said that a novel needed scaffolding, but the novelist needed to take it down afterwards. Powers – whose previous work, particularly Galatea 2.0 and The Echo Maker, I have enjoyed very much indeed – fails the test here. The scaffolding is always up. The building is not created.

This 500-page tome is 200 pages too long. The same images, phrases, insistent polemics occur with a monotony as regular as an oak tree forcing out a new ring of itself. One of Powers’ distinctive tics is how tense can be used and misused. We are always being told what has, is and will be happening. At first it is an intriguing technique. After 200 pages it is a song on repeat too long.

Instead of the technical quibbles, let us look at the moral ones. Most of the characters believe that trees should have the same rights as humans, for various and divergent reasons. But what of those who disagree – the loggers, the politicians, the opponents. It is here where ethics and form crash. Powers never once names one of the people who, for reasons right or wrong, are against his eco-terrorists. They are anonymous. They are faceless. They are not even dignified with a name. The novel ought to be a space where ideas are aired, not a bully pulpit from which they can be shouted.

For a novel about ecology and economy, it is remarkably verbose. There are back-stories and plot-twists that would embarrass a 19th century hack. There is one word which does not appear and one which appears often. Understory is a technical term for the underlying layer of vegetation in which seedlings can develop. Overstory is never mentioned, and yet the book is massively over-storied. Do we need the commodious sections on PTSD, on Norwegian immigration, on what it is like to be disabled by a stroke, on ceramics, on copyright law, on anything that seems to drift into view?

The ideas about interconnectedness are indeed smart, but the prose becomes smirkishly clever-clever. “Sausalito, Mill Valley, San Rafael, Novato, Petaluma, Santa Rose, Leggett, Fortuna, Eureka… Tendrils of data swell and merge, and up and down this coast and deeper inland. Oakland, Berkeley, El Cerrito, El Sobrante, Pinole, Hercules, Rodeo, Crockett, Vallejo, Cordelia, Fairfield, Davis, Sacramento…” It goes on more than I quote here.

There is also a kind of metatextual coyness. One character writes a memoir and then claims it is just a novel. FBI agents are described as “writing their own novel”. Another character ends up in an unnamed, but obviously Amazon, stock-house, “unpacking mountainous pallets of books, scanning their bar codes, then storing their precise location in the vast 3-D storage matrix”. I do wonder if there is a 4-D or a 2-D storage unit. Yet another character writes a book on trees that other characters read. Others read to each other in mutual solitude.

I am a fan of big, ambitious American novels, but I would not put this next to Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, The Recognitions by William Gaddis or Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth. It has a sour sanctimony about it, which reduces the genuine intelligence about how trees, fungi, animals, fire and humans might be necessarily connected. It is excellent on how wood is a ubiquitous material. Yet the irony is: how many trees were felled and pulped to make a book about felling and pulping?

The Overstory, by Richard Powers, William Heinemann, £18.99