The Overstory. Richard Powers.

Powers, Richard. The Overstory. Norton & Co, New York, 2018. F;12/18.

I fell into this long novel trolling through current (2018) prize-winners, and it passed the Kindle free-sample test, holding my interest past the teaser they offer. The cover did say “A Novel” but I thought after about half of the early chapters (each named after one of the eight or so main characters) that it was a collection of short stories. Eventually it dawned that these very diverse people were going to end up, most of them, connected. The plot is a huge ambitious thing, which is a Powers trademark. And it seemed at times like this story might almost be in the form or scope of Infinite Jest, except, eventually, for two things: fuzzy coherence and deadly seriousness.

Now good writing and plot interest outrank for me things like my suspicion of fiction based on overvalued ideas (LBGTQ, Holocaust, child abuse, etc. etc.) and the environmental slash treehugging centre of this story seemed as good or bad a basis as any for Richard Powers’s lovely language and story-telling creativity, so I was fine carrying on past the characters’ introductions. There was even some reasoned credibility to theories about trees communicating with one another and developing strategy. But the grand finale stumbled for me as we tried to cross ethereal verbal bridges between for example the community of trees and a universally-encompassing computer game, and finally no coherent dramatic whole emerged. And nowhere was there any wee tiny edge of irony or ambiguity. Just dogged taking-of-everything seriously.

Eight characters (one is a couple) are introduced in those first chapters. One is a young midwest guy of artistic bent who inherits a century of photographs documenting the growth of a chestnut tree on the family farm. Another is a Chinese girl who becomes an engineer. Then there’s a maybe slightly autistic fellow fascinated by insects who grows up to be a professor of psychology, a young couple (he a lawyer and she a free-spirited girl who has an affair with an older man), a bit of a low-lifer who knocks around and gets injured in the military, a brilliant East Indian boy who falls out of a tree and hurts himself but then invents fabulously successful computer games, an extremely bookish young woman into tree botany, and finally a girl university student mired in sex and drugs who survives electrocution by a bedside lamp but at that point sees the light so to speak and becomes obsessed with saving trees.

Most of them meet in the Pacific Northwest and form a cabal of aggressive anti-logging radicals, some barely escape disaster in one of their arson capers against a massive tourism project which replaced a first-growth forest. And so on.

It was toward the end of the character-introduction chapters that I got most excited about Powers’s writing. Patricia Westerford (the tree botanist) was captivating in her perception of the world tree community: “plants eat light and air and water, and the stored energy goes on to make and do all things.” Yes! Maple trees are “linked together in an airborne network, sharing an immune system across acres of woodland.” Intriguing…  In a book she writes she points out people and trees come from a common ancestor, parted ways a billion and a half years ago but still share a quarter of our genes. Unarguable. But Patricia goes underground when her paper on the human characteristics of trees gets panned by serious biologists.

Neelay (the computer games inventor) recognizes that “the point of the game is to keep playing” and that “the branch wants only to go on branching”. I thought I heard echoes of Damasio telling us that we “are the music while the music lasts”.

Along similar lines I liked Powers’s appreciation of the stuff dreams are made on:

She descends into the real anguish of imaginary beings. She lies still, trying not to wake him with her sobs. What is this, grabbing at my heart, like it means something? What gives this pretend place so much power over me? Just this: the glimpse of someone seeing something she shouldn’t be able to see. Someone who doesn’t even know she’s been invented, staying game in the face of the inescapable plot. (My emphasis)

Lots of nearly-great fiction misses the mark by not very much. When it’s a young author I make a note of the name and watch for what comes next. Richard Powers is 61 and although he has a spectacular way with words and ideas (he’s quite familiar with science) I’m guessing he’s done his best in this big ambitious book. I won’t be holding my breath for his next try. 8.6/9.1.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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