Review: The Overstory

The Overstory (2018) is Richard Powers' epic of ‘Arboretum America’– a novel about trees that branches in so many directions it threatens to split.

** Spoiler Alert **

The novel is structured as a tree: roots, trunk, crown, and seeds. In that order. In the opening episode, eight narratives work their way, inevitably, towards the trunk – perversely disregarding the direction in which roots progress outwards and away from the stem. The aesthetic ideal of a rooted structure is more important to Powers than the idea that that roots are exploratory (the preferred metaphor throughout the text itself). It feels as if Powers missed a trick by not having the roots and stem simultaneously unfold.

Some of these roots stand alone as strong short stories. The origins of Mimi Ma and Neelay Mehta could be read in isolation (and I’d recommend them). Both are concerned with the intergenerational gap between immigrant parents and their first-generation North-American children. In the final root,Olivia’s death (and resurrection) is a catalyst for deux-ex-machina ‘beings of light’ to guide her on a ‘quest’ that would make Christopher Vogler cringe. [1] Her sophomoric reflection on ‘how this fits into the mission she has just been given’ reads like a writing prompt. [2] (While we’re here: the ability of Ray’s brain to haemorrhage at key plot points is almost comical.)

Despite this, Powers’ narrative is epic in its thematic and temporal scope. It covers five generations of the Hoel family and at least 140 years of Adam’s incarcerated future. It spans continents and follows nine protagonists with almost equal weighting: Nicholas Hoel; Mimi Ma; Adam Appich; Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly; Douglas Pavlicek; Neelay Mehta; Patricia Westerford; and Olivia Vandergriff. (If you feel overwhelmed, then you’re in company.) More generally, The Overstory is concerned with the history of life on Earth and our late, rude, scramble to convert ‘most of the globe […] to row crops for the care and feeding of one species’. [3] The ambitions of the novel roughen its edges: from securitisation to cognitive bias; from AI and VR to adultery; from the immigrant experience to the Occupy movement; I occasionally lost sight of the wood for the trees. Sometimes it feels as if Powers is tending to too many lathe-spun plates at once. In fact, the novel takes so much on that it seems to fragment rather than cohere. The opening root reminded me of García-Márquez and by the 400th page I was expecting Jack Reacher. At times I felt like Patricia, lost in ‘close, choked thickets, where the beauty of solo trees gives way to something massed, scary, and crazed.’ [4]

The most salient feature of The Overstory is its concern with two legal propositions: whether personhood is exclusive to humanity (or whether non-humans have immutable rights); and whether violence (especially property damage) is justifiable as self-defence against the destructive logic of capitalism. The latter is addressed by Ray’s redefinition of ‘imminent’: ‘at the speed of people, [it] is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees.’ [5] The novel’s length supports this: at 502 pages and with a historical range of 150 years, it remains limited to the ‘thousandth of a click of the second hand’ on the ecological clock. [6] The Overstory is a testament to our need to experience the world at ‘the speed of people’.

To account for this bias, Powers frames the weight of environmental abuse in human terms. The falling towers of the World Trade Centre are likened to a felled Redwood; a suburban garden abandoned to ecological succession is, in the eyes of middle-class America, ‘up there with child-molesting’. [7] The latter is related less earnestly but both comparisons make me uncomfortable – which, I suppose, is the point. Furthermore, Powers illustrates Derrek Jensen’s premise that ‘industrial civilization […] is based on, requires, and would collapse very quickly without persistent and widespread violence’. [8] Maybe it’s the naming of Mimas (the redwood up which Olivia and Nicholas camp) that is the most effective way in which Powers foments empathy towards non-human nature. The act of naming Mimas narrativizes ecological destruction. In the words of Adam, ‘[t]he best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story’. [9]

The canopy in which Olivia and Nicholas nest is contextualised as being ‘most of the way up the Flatiron Building’. [10] I appreciate the migration of ecological issues to the concrete jungle; the reunification of effect and cause. Douglas’ epiphanic discovery of vista corridors performs the same function. Vista corridors are tree-lined roads comprising the ‘thinnest artery of pretend life’. [11] They shield drivers from coming face-to-face with deforestation. In conceptual resonance with this, The Overstory is the epiphanic raising of a vista curtain; it is the confrontation of the silently complicit subject and the consequence of industrial capitalism. Late in the novel, the memory of Mannahatta emerges from the palimpsest of Manhattan like the history of a canvas revealed by radiography. ‘Wilderness rushes down lower Broadway, the island as it was a thousand years back or a thousand years on.’ [12] The reality of New York is betrayed by juxtaposition. Fatalism brings the effects of environmental cataclysm back to ground zero.

Will The Overstory be to forestry what The Jungle was to animal agriculture? [13] Probably not. Upton Sinclair’s epic exposed the violent excesses of industrial capitalism and acted as an impetus for Roosevelt to pass both the Pure Food and Drugs Act and the Meat Inspection Act. [14] In the wake of the latest IPCC report, maybe that magnitude of public outcry and subsequent legislation is exactly what we need. [15] Sadly, The Overstory falls short. The issues it addresses are complicated and resist linear narrativization: explorative branching into securitization and AI muddy the message.

It would be prosaic to calculate the number of trees that Powers’ monolith has felled – analogous to Melville binding all his books in whale leather. Patricia operates on the principle that ‘what you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down’. [16] In this case, the jury is out.

Tell your mates.

Richard Powers, The Overstory (London: William Heinemann, 2018) 978-1-78-515163-7

[1] Richard Powers, The Overstory (London: William Heinemann, 2018), p. 177; see Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd ed. (Studio City, Michael Wiese, 2007) in which he outlines the archetypal journey that maps onto almost any narrative you care to name.

[2] The Overstory, p. 174.

[3] Ibid., p. 475.

[4] Ibid., p. 135.

[5] Ibid., p. 498.

[6] Ibid., p. 475.

[7] Ibid., pp. 397 & 467.

[8] Derek Jensen, Endgame: The Problem of Civilization (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), p.IX.

[9] The Overstory, p. 488.

[10] Ibid., p. 264.

[11] Ibid., p.87.

[12] Ibid., p.463.

[13] Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (New York: Penguin, 2006).

[14] Eric Schlosser, ‘Foreword’, in The Jungle, vii-xvi, at p. x.

[15] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Global Warming of 1.5°C’ (2018)

[16] The Overstory, p. 464.


©2020 paul cockburn