I have a few confessions to make: climate change has kept me up for only about ten minutes in my lifetime. Deforestation, even fewer. The cracked remnants of plastic cups and cutlery often line the bottom of my kitchen trash bag like decomposed bodies buried in a common grave. I’ve rolled my eyes at more than a few peers obsessed with fossil fuel divestment, and I regularly print articles I could just as easily read on a computer. Save the few times I tried climbing one as a child, I don’t even find trees that interesting.
Richard Powers’ The Overstory makes me ashamed to admit all of this. The twelfth novel to emerge from the mind of this erratic author, who’s written on topics as diverse as artificial intelligence and Capgras delusion, tracks nine protagonists whose lives converge (and then often diverge) over the course of a sprawling, 500-page narrative.
Trees tend to play an important role in bringing these characters together. Some of them, like Patricia Westerford the dendrologist with ostensibly radical theories, are veritable experts on the subject; others, such as Olivia Vandergriff and Douglas Pavlicek, lead packs of environmental activists with the religious zeal of fearless martyrs; still others, including video-gaming tycoon Neelay Mehta, are inspired by near-mystical trees at key moments in their lives, much like the author himself, who has recounted the important role redwoods played in his creative process.
It is Powers’ unique contribution to American letters to take trees as seriously as people themselves. For if there could ever be a summary for this titanic novel, it would be that,
We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling. And what Douglas Pavlicek wants to know is why this is so easy to see when you’re by yourself in a cabin on a hillside, and almost impossible to believe once you step out of the house and join several billion folks doubling down on the status quo.
I have to admit that I’ve never pulled a Thoreau—whose legacy obviously lights the background of The Overstory—which is to say, receded into the wilderness. But for those like me, reading Powers’ latest novel is a close second to the end of realizing how irresponsibly humans are treating the planet.
It’s hard not to be affected by the determination of activists like Olivia, anointed Maidenhair by her band of soldiers fighting the war against deforestations, and near-boyfriend Nicholas Hoel, an artist who’s similarly taken up the cause, as they live atop a lofty redwood they’ve named Mimas. The treehouse constructed for this purpose is terrifyingly precarious, and they have to make do with scant food and the fecund odor of their waste composting. But for months they push on in this squalid existence until they can’t any longer, and at last they watch Mimas die at the hands of company henchmen wanting to make a fast buck in the present without concern for possible ruination in the future.
It’s just as hard, dare I say impossible, not to think that your indifference to environmental issues is seriously misguided when you read about ordinary, diverse people with no other predispositions towards so-called “radical” or masochistic behavior withstand the attacks of law enforcement officers pepper-spraying their eyes. Powers brings all of this drama, ardor, and vivacity—at several moments elevated to the cinematic, watershed narratives of war in Homer and Virgil—into stark relief with astonishing rhetorical panache and even didacticism. Always, we feel the urgency of a cause whose evangelist-warriors have to act soon before it’s too late.
As a result, the compelling convictions of deeply flawed characters, who nonetheless try to do the best they can in the face of nearly-insuperable odds, sometimes crystallize into pithy sententiae that Powers force-feeds down his readers’ throats: for instance, “The largest trees the world has ever made, saved for this final roundup” finishes one paragraph on the impending arrival of the loggers.
Yet I was willing to forgive him all his heavy-handedness for paragraphs like these—here, a description of Patricia’s testimony on the importance of preserving overgrown forests:
In the dark-paneled courtroom, her words come out of hiding. Love for trees pours out of her—the grace of them, their supple experimentation, the constant variety and surprise. These slow, deliberate creatures with their elaborate vocabularies, each distinctive, shaping each other, breeding birds, sinking carbon, purifying water, filtering poisons from the ground, stabilizing the microclimate. Join enough living things together, through the air and underground, and you wind up with something that has intention. Forest. A threatened creature.
Few other authors are as skilled at conveying unadulterated passion, the kind of love for one’s life work that, like thoughts of a new beau, sets the heart fluttering, all with immaculate control over the syntax and pacing of sentences that would easily become overweening in lesser hands. He’s a master of the paragraph and sentence alike, compounding heartrending, seemingly inexplicable human emotions into the most evocative of sentences: “[t]he woman’s screams collapse into bleating” he writes of one activist abused by police officers.
On a structural level, perhaps the best tool we have to make sense of The Overstory is the author’s allusions to Ovid. I don’t say this just because I’m a Latinist: Powers actually invokes the Roman poet’s dazzling Metamorphoses, which is given to Patricia Westerford for her fourteenth birthday by her tree-loving father. She devours the epic’s fifteen-book catalogue of hundreds of myths “that seem to be less about people turning into other living things than about other living things somehow reabsorbing, at the moment of greatest danger, the wildness inside people that never really went away”.
Few other critics, classicist or poet alike, have ever summed up this poem about humans changing into new forms—trees, plants, animals, rocks, birds, water—quite so creatively, and I have no doubt that one of these days an inventive Ovidian scholar will reflect upon what insights Powers’ tome can yield about the most delightfully devious of Latin poets. For the moment, however, it’s worth pausing over the focus on “other living things,” “the wildness inside people,” and how the fables are “fluid, as old as humankind.” These are keys to unlocking The Overstory’s most important thematic doors.
For people are not the only, or even the most important, living things in the novel. Even more surprisingly, they’re not all that different from the trees that claim this title. With every twist and nob in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Powers follows in Ovid’s footsteps to undermine regnant dichotomies between human and botanical non-human. Trees have names, feel, communicate with one another and live in communities. Trees need advocates—as children, defendants, or other vulnerable members of our society do—and they can give back as well as the best-natured altruist.
To underscore this central lesson, the novel even has its own Daphne—transformed into a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s rapacious pursuit in book one of the Metamorphoses—which Patricia comes across in her quest to preserve the seeds of trees quickly becoming extinct:
She comes behind the excited men and gasps. No one tells her what to see. A child could make it out. A one-eyed myopic. In knots and whorls, muscles arise from the smooth bole. It’s a person, a woman, her torso twisted, her arms lifting from her sides in finger branches. The face, round with alarm, stares so wildly that Patricia looks away.
Descriptions like these may seem only to play into Powers’ propensity for heavy-handedness, but they also give us a glimpse into the wild ambition of The Overstory and the grand literary tradition to which it aspires, half epic, half Dickens in its sprawling plot-lines that would have Aristotle rolling his eyes for all their bloated variation in time, action, and place.
Divided into sections called “roots,” “trunk,” “crown,” and “seeds,” the novel itself becomes a sort of tree that changes as it grows like the best of Ovid’s characters and like trees themselves, which might as well develop ex nihilo for all a seed seems to be in the way of substance. It starts out as a collection of short stories, each focused on one of the protagonists mentioned above before they begin to collide in ways that shift from the benign to heartwarming to tragic, often with consummate finesse.
I say “often” because the storylines never completely coalesce into what can safely be considered a novel, never mind how the cover describes the following book. But then again, this generic indecision makes sense in a book where even the “ground liquefies” as loggers obliviously go about their work. Everything is fluid, including the earth itself. And yet, The Overstory always holds out hope that trees will survive in spite of our best efforts to obliterate them. Powers’ is the kind of fictional admonition that never totally deconstructs into fatalism.
Besides his wondrous prose, what saves this messaging from devolving into the tediously political is the psychologically-complex characters upon which it depends for narrative propulsion—characters whose motivations are at times as oblique as Iago’s. Admittedly, Powers sometimes has the frustrating habit of attributing major pivots in behavior— like Olivia’s decision to leave college for the environmental movement—to fantastic visions or overpowering gut feelings (often in life-or-death moments), which saves him the trouble of probing any further. But often, these elisions feel less like a short-cut and more a strategy for conveying the unfathomable depth that only the best of writers can capture. Powers’ principal figures partake in relationships that defy easy categorization (romance, for instance, rarely blushes even between those for whom it seems inevitable); they commit crimes for reasons even they don’t understand; and these apparently heroic soldiers end up fleeing the consequences of their actions to devastating ends.
Unfortunately, however, Powers generally fails to extend the same nuance to the police officers and lumberjacks with whom his protagonists contend. He identifies none by name and creates most as one-dimensional sadists who verge on the murderous. This is not to say, of course, that these groups should be sacrosanct from criticism; simply, that the novel’s homiletic tendencies might have been curbed had Powers taken the time to complicate his descriptions of people so obviously the enemy that the credibility of the narrative itself begins to slacken. “The loggers, triumphant, swing their saws. Protesters fall back, like deer from a fire,” he writes of one altercation, while during another, a “child cop yells, ‘Stop where you are and sit down. Now, now, now!” When the attempts of activists to prevent trees from being cut down are thwarted, “[n]earby loggers cheer.”
And most egregiously, one officer shoves a “canister [of pepper spray] up into Douglas’s groin and sprays. Liquid fire spreads across his cock and balls—a cocktail amounting to a few million Scoville heat units. Douglas hangs, dangling from the cuffs, breathing in short little aspirated gasps.” Here, we have ‘Jesus from the cross’ and the most diabolical of pharisees personally seeing to his torture, but neither extreme makes for a particular interesting character worthy of our interpretive energies. Thankfully, this is only one point in Douglas’s narrative arc. The police officer, in contrast, gets no others.
Powers himself seems to realize the error of his ways, and occasionally talks of “decent people loving the land in irreconcilable ways,” going so far as to tell of one instance when “three loggers appear at the foot of Mimas. “You two all right? A lot of windthrow last night. Big trees down. We were worried about you,” they tell Olivia and Nicholas. But these are mere dots within a capacious pointillistic painting, isolated and ultimately negligible. What would have gone a long way towards fleshing out the conflicts between the two camps—environmental activists and their foes—that segment the longest section of the book, “Trunk,” would have been making one of the nine central figures of the novel a police officer or logger. He wouldn’t have had to be likable, but his storyline would have at least contributed much-needed context to the others and maybe show that they’re caught up in their own systems of inescapable exploitation (think capitalism).
In the end, this is a minor complaint. Others could be made: for starters, that Powers rapidly introduces too many characters who become increasingly difficult to remember and keep track of as the book ramifies across the decades.
But both of these pale in comparison to the author’s troubling obsession with disability, which becomes a key indicator of how bodies are always changing, reverting to wild, atavistic avatars of their former selves. Of course, the metaphorical valence of impairment has long been a staple of literature: blindness and mobility limitations have featured in esteemed works from Oedipus Rex to Richard III and from Jane Eyre to Moby Dick, all of which prioritize the interpretive potential of disability over the lived experiences of their disabled characters. So too in The Overstory with a figure like Patricia Westerford, whose hearing loss counters her inability to understand people with a heightened capacity for listening to trees. If this is where Powers’ depiction of impairment ended, it would be easy to accuse him of sloppy writing—could he not find an image less on the nose?
Yet, disabled individuals also become an integral part of his platform to reconcile the gap between humans and trees, and in doing so, he dangerously strips them of their humanity, foregrounding only the most garish aspects of existing with an impairment. Perhaps now’s a good time for another confession: I live with a spinal-cord injury. I walk with a cane and a brace. I deal with neuropathy and partial paralysis on a daily basis.
But I don’t think it’s just because of my personal experience that I recoil from a sentence like this one about Neelay, whose life was permanently altered when he fell from a tree as a child: “From scores of applicants, he hires the ones who flinch the least when they see his stick-figure body sprouting from the motorized chair.” I’m no stranger, of course, to my own share of perplexed, anxious, even derisive looks, and I give Powers credit for bringing attention to the sometimes-agonizing able-bodied gaze. But to revel in the otherness of the disabled body so haphazardly is to confirm the logic that leads people to flinch in the first place.
The author’s diction degrades into the downright offensive later when he refers to Neelay’s “worthless legs piloting a modified van with his freakish bony figures.” Moments like these evince a startling lack of insight into the troubling history of disability representation and exploitation—the freak shows at which people like me were once paraded—without any of the irony to suggest that Powers means to problematize common assessments of disabled bodies as in fact “worthless.”
The “freakishness” of corporeal abnormality is similarly highlighted vis-à-vis Ray Brinkman, whose brain aneurysm leaves him paralyzed and wishing that his wife would leave him for a more ambulatory, virile man. “The muscles on his unfrozen side thrash” and “[h]is warped mouth, stiffened in terror, looks like a Greek tragedy mask.” Powers’ usual generosity is here in short supply, when, for instance, he notes that a “shrub [Ray] and Dorothy must have put in years ago is clumping in shaggy yellow flowers, even with all its leaves long dead. High drama to a paralytic”—as if they’re a different species altogether. In another moment, Ray “can’t help feeling his paralyzed variant of joy,” but why his should be a different variant than anyone else’s remains unclear.
These objections to The Overstory will not likely prove as concerning to others as they do to me. Even so, dehumanizing the disabled to humanize trees seems perverse. While this odd pathology in a book that otherwise affirms the value of all kinds of life doesn’t detract from Powers’ masterful power over language, as glorious as any writer’s living today, it does represent a logical inconsistency that keeps this great book from breaking into the highest echelon of American classics.