A look back at The Overstory by Richard Powers
by Z.L. Nickels
“Now the gods are dying, all of them.”
It takes only thirteen pages for Richard Powers to paint the lasting image of what might rightfully be called the most ambitious novel of the 21st century. Thirteen pages, and a Brooklyn boy heads West with his new bride while back on the Eastern seaboard, the American chestnut tree is going the way of the dodo. Neither husband nor wife recognize the significance of the six seeds forgotten in the man’s pocket, buried later in their front yard. Of these, one will grow and come alive, just as its brethren die by the billions some 1200 miles away. Stripped from life, the gods begin to girdle, inch by inch. You have to admit it—Powers’ image packs one hell of a wallop.
Start again. Reexamine the text. Replace Powers’ “gods” with “trees,” so that now “the trees are dying, all of them.” We lose the metaphor but gain the thesis: first, that the Earth is rich and abundant and beautiful, the way all necessary things are; second, that human beings are killing it with the ruthless efficiency of late capitalism, and it has to stop. Because if not, not only is this going to end much sooner than we expect, but we will end up losing the one thing that made any of it worthwhile in the first place.
Despite the more than 120 single-volume books Powers read in order to write it, The Overstory is not a non-fictional work. However, as a novel, it is persuasive in the way all great non-fiction is: it presents the reader with a depiction of the world and asks them to treat it as if it were real. Only Powers’ depiction is more literal than most. Across nine separate (albeit interweaving) personal stories, each containing a character whom Powers asserts has a rightful claim to his alter-ego, we come to discover how truly intertwined we are with the natural world. The resulting effect is, quite possibly, the most comprehensive book on human beings and nature ever written. And yet, two years removed from its publication, the question remains as to whether The Overstory managed to accomplish its primary goals.
To the extent that any of us believes in science, the first thesis is easy to accept. Is nature necessary? Just open your eyes and go outside. However, the second thesis is tricky. Really, really tricky. One of the themes of The Overstory is that there is a multitude of forces working against the Earth’s longevity and nearly every single one of them is by human hands. The second thesis says that, if our actions are the disease, then our intervention just might be the panacea; while a book of fiction may not be a Bono song, it is still as good a rallying cry as any.
Right now, we are living through a pandemic. It is a suitable time to reflect. Because as our activity has slowed, nature has begun to stir: wildlife has returned; emissions have fallen; smog has lifted; vibrations have waned; the air is cleaner; the water is cleaner; everything is cleaner. But despite the clamor of our most outspoken extremists, the Earth cannot be rid of the human element forever; sooner or later, we must rejoin it. The logical question, therefore, is the familiar one: How do we balance our needs against the planet’s? Seeking answers, we return now to the novel that was written to solve this question. How does Powers balance these needs in his work—the needs of the world with the needs of his characters? The answer is appropriately bleak: he chooses the world.
“The full force of human ingenuity can’t stop the disaster breaking over the continent.”
This is the next sentence, the one that follows directly after the dissolution of the gods. As a postscript, it seems notable. One hundred years after a virus swept over our continent, destroying the American chestnut, something analogous is happening today. Our country is suffering from its own widespread disaster, one that we are currently incapable of solving. But the relevance here extends beyond the point of comparison: notice, it is only after addressing the trees that Powers chooses to mention the people. It is almost as though they are an afterthought.
Shortly after The Overstory was published, Powers appeared on PBS NewsHour to answer questions about the book. In one answer, he mentioned that there are two forms of storytelling Western writers are interested in: the first involves conflicts an individual must face alone; the second involves conflicts faced between two individuals. He continued on to describe a third form of story—one that has been forgotten about—which involves conflict between an individual and the rest of the world faced over an issue that the latter is “at best indifferent to and may be hostile toward or at least incompatible with.” As Powers tells it, he wanted to bring human beings and nature back to the negotiating table in The Overstory. The problem is that, in any good negotiation, both parties have equal claim to the outcome; in this novel, nature has the upper hand. Once signaled, the thematic victory is never in question.
At least at the outset, this appears to be otherwise. The first section of the novel (roughly one-hundred and fifty pages long) is comprised of personal narratives drafted in breathtaking detail. Like a series of intimate New Yorker character sketches, these accounts twist and wind their way through the lives of men and women who have all been touched by trees. This is where Powers’ characters are at their strongest. The conflicts that arise are of the usual variety—the novel has yet to address the inherent tragedy of the third form. Instead, we immerse ourselves in the descendants of that Brooklyn boy; the daughter of a lauded engineer; a precocious psychologist; the improbable romance of an oil-and-water couple; a former Stanford prison experiment inmate; a computer programming genius; the rise and fall of a cutting-edge biologist; and, finally, the death of a college student. It is during this last story that we start to notice the writing. Whereas before we were being eased into Powers’ world, we are now suddenly confronted with The Big Idea. Turning the page to the next section, we quickly learn that, in fact, the college student did not die. She is alive. She can now hear the voices of the trees and must save them.
In a novel where characters irreversibly die, get thrown in jail, get thrown in jail again, become paralyzed, consider suicide, get sentenced to one-hundred and forty years in prison, and more, this is easily the most jarring development. It transitions the novel from its original conception—a book about our relationship with trees—to a new work, which inevitably loses this thread. In The Overstory, the broader narrative is prioritized over the individual stories of these characters: they become vehicles for the discussion Powers wishes to have regarding our ecological predicament. The resulting effect is predictable: it undermines the reader’s ability to relate to the text.
As we continue through the novel, the essential relationship these characters have with trees begins to weaken. For four of these characters—Nicholas Hoel (a fine artist), Mimi Ma (an engineer), Douglas Pavlicek (the Stanford prison inmate) and Adam Appich (the psychologist)—this relationship is replaced with an inexplicable attraction to Olivia Vandergriff, the college student. Together, these five characters abandon the promise hinted at in their opening sections and commit their lives to Olivia’s ideals. Over time, their actions escalate from ideological protests to ecological terrorism, their desires having been replaced by the voices in her head: “Olivia needs only lower [sic] her chin and the others fall silent. Her spell over them has grown with each crime.” This unflagging devotion continues until they must choose between themselves and her ideals. At which point the novel begins its long, slow march to the end.
Meanwhile, there are four other main characters who never, or who barely ever, interact with this core group of five. Patricia Westerford, the biologist, spends her time making revolutionary discoveries and advocating for her results in the courts of law and public opinion. Neelay Mehta, the computer programmer, builds a virtual empire that soon becomes more popular than the world it was based on. And Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, the couple who begin their marriage by planting a tree every year on their anniversary, are reduced to staring out a window by its end, gazing upon a world with which they are unable to interact. It is almost as if the novel is running on two separate tracks: the Cult of Olivia, which maintains its prominent voice until the final page, and those original character sketches, which never make it off the ground and never really go anywhere.
Presented this way, one might wonder: Why read a novel that treats its characters as if they exist solely for the purposes of an ecological mission? Perhaps we find it refreshing to see these familiar roles finally reversed. Or perhaps it is because Powers draws the world so beautifully that we tend to forget the novel’s underlying problems. The truth is that Powers probably could have written five-hundred and twelve pages of tree descriptions, and we would have come along for the ride. But therein lies the issue.
Shortly after the release of The Overstory, Richard Powers conducted an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books wherein he said, “If I could have managed it, I would have tried to write a novel where all the main characters were trees.” This is remarkable admission. Remarkable, first, in the sense that we are so rarely gifted an author’s true intentions: Richard Powers did not want to write a book about people fighting against one another, he wanted to write a book about what was in the background while they did. He wanted to write about the world, and when you see how gorgeous his world truly is, you can recognize why. But this admission is also remarkable in a second sense. He continued on to admit, “Such an act of identification was beyond my power as a novelist, and it probably would have been beyond the imaginative power of identification of most readers.”
It could be the case that such a novel would be beyond our ability to grasp. But we were not given that novel. Instead, the one we received includes nine main characters who are not trees: they stand collectively as the alter-egos of Richard Powers. He might not believe that our survival can be separated from the world’s, but his characters can; although they may speak for the trees, they can hardly speak for themselves. But maybe that is to be expected. When tasked with balancing the needs of nature with the needs of his characters, Powers chose nature. This is not a common choice. Perhaps the true lesson of The Overstory is that, if we are unable to strike a balance, it is better to err on the side of nature. It is a lesson that we should not soon forget.