Review: Richard Powers’s “The Overstory”

by Miles Raymer

The Overstory

I grew up and still reside in Humboldt County, California. My body-mind came of age amidst giant Redwoods and Douglas Firs, many of which grace my family’s six-acre parcel. It’s no exaggeration to say that these majestic beings were my companions and castles, brimming with all the mysterious life-energy a boy’s imagination could ever need. Now that I’m a man––entrusted not just with enjoyment of the land but its stewardship––these same trees populate my shortlist of reasons to keep living on my worst days. If I stick around a while longer, I tell myself, at least no one will come cut these beauties down. 

Given my background, Richard Powers’s The Overstory seems like the perfect novel for me. And it is, almost. Beyond its literal definition as “the uppermost layer of foliage in a forest,” the title contains at least two metaphorical meanings. The first derives from the notion of a master narrative, one from which all other stories take root. The second is a preemptive epitaph for a species that has gravely exceeded its natural limitations and stands at the brink of oblivion––our own. Lofty stuff, but from the opening sentences, Powers earns it.

As winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, it goes without saying that The Overstory is an accomplished piece of writing. But to articulate just how accomplished is tough. The book reads like a 500-page epic poem that treats every gorgeous turn of phrase as a fresh opportunity to engender love for trees and everything they offer. Here are a couple examples:

A thousand––a thousand thousand––green-tipped, splitting fingerlings fold over him, praying and threatening. Bark disintegrates; wood clarifies. The trunk turns into stacks of spreading metropolis, networks of conjoined cells pulsing with energy and liquid sun, water rising through long thin reeds, rings of them banded together into pipes that draw dissolved minerals up through the narrowing tunnels of transparent twig and out through their waving tips while sun-made sustenance drops down in tubes just inside them. A colossal, rising, reaching, stretching space elevator of a billion independent parts, shuttling the air into the sky and storing the sky deep underground, sorting possibility from out of nothing: the most perfect piece of self-writing code that his eyes could hope to see. (102-3)

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. (283-4, emphasis his)

Powers’s adoration for trees drives every page of The Overstory. They are his protagonists, with human characters as ancillary narrative necessities. That’s not to say the main characters are an afterthought––far from it. There are nine of them in all, each with their own fascinating backstory and journey into the world of tree appreciation and activism.

The tenderness with which Powers unwinds each individual’s story contrasts starkly with his antipathy for humanity as a species. This antipathy is so potent that it’s fair to call The Overstory an “anti-human” novel. What I found most disturbing about this wasn’t that one talented author decided the world might be better off without us, but rather how readily his passionate condemnation of our environmental aggression got me to agree with him. Powers never turns down a chance to ruthlessly lament humanity’s arrogance, pettiness and stupidity:

Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives. (56)

People are an idiot. There’s a big OUT OF ORDER sign hanging from his species’ pride-and-joy organ…Humans carry around legacy behavior and biases, jerry-rigged holdovers from earlier stages of evolution that follow their own obsolete rules. What seem like erratic, irrational choices are, in fact, strategies created long ago for solving other kinds of problems. We’re all trapped in the bodies of sly, social-climbing opportunists shaped to survive the savanna by policing each other. (61)

Exponential growth inside a finite system leads to collapse. But people don’t see it. So the authority of people is bankrupt. (321, emphasis his)

While he’s on the general subject of Failure, he can’t help probing the nearby, related topics of What the Fuck Went Wrong with Mankind…We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling. (386)

While Powers ultimately proves agnostic about whether humanity should commit collective suicide so the natural world can recover from our onslaught, anyone venturing into The Overstory should be ready for a heavy dose of existential self-loathing. There were times when I felt this went too far, and I was dismayed by Powers’s repeated willingness to minimize the humanity of two types of people: law enforcement officers and loggers. In a book with nine diverse characters, Powers doesn’t spare a single plot thread for serious exploration of the internal struggles of people who either harvest trees to make a living or arrest those trying to protect trees in the name of the law. In failing to do this, Powers ignores a critical layer of ethical complexity that would have improved this already-excellent novel.

Powers also exhibits a frustrating tendency to separate humanity from the natural world, with humans as vicious oppressors and nonhuman life as victims of our unquenchable thirst for environmental conquest. Yes, nature is beautiful and wondrous, but it is also brutal beyond belief. All human flaws are natural flaws, and depicting people as a cancerous force undermining the “peaceful natural order” is neither accurate nor helpful. Fortunately, Powers only goes half-in on this perspective, demonstrating in other ways how the needs and goals of humanity and nature are truly one and the same.

Another issue I had with The Overstory is that it entertains a handful of ideas that are scientifically dubious, at least as far my knowledge goes. I consider myself relatively receptive to theories of plant consciousness, communities and rights, but some of this content is likely to irk more skeptical readers. (For those seeking a more balanced and accessible treatment of similar ideas, I recommend Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.) There is also a near-death experience (NDE) component that is silly and unnecessary, except perhaps as an example of how environmental activists suffer from mental delusions like everyone else, even if their hearts are in the right place.

As the novel enters its final acts, Powers wrestles heroically with storytelling’s limitations as a mode of activism. Here are a few different ways he approaches it:

The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story. (336)

What do all good stories do?…They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t. (412)

The books diverge and radiate, as fluid as finches on isolated islands. But they share a core so obvious it passes for given. Every one imagines that fear and anger, violence and desire, rage laced with surprise capacity to forgive––character––is all that matters in the end. It’s a child’s creed, of course, just one small step up from the belief that the Creator of the Universe would care to dole out sentences like a judge in federal court. To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. (382-3, emphasis his)

This mixture of affirmation and suspicion regarding narrative’s potential to motivate action might strike some as contradictory, but I see Powers striving to authentically question what his story (or any story) can accomplish. He conveys an aspirational maturity that hopes for the best while acknowledging that the best, by definition, is wildly improbable.

Of course, The Overstory is ultimately about actual activism––the sacrifices, successes and idiosyncrasies of the few citizens who put everything on the line to honor their environmental creed. Regardless of your preexisting feelings about activists or activism, I recommend that you approach this story with an open mind; insight and value can be wrested from irritation as well as rapture. I have a personal aversion to the dogmatic certainty that often accompanies the activist mindset, but that’s partly because it is painful to confront my refusal to pursue my core environmental beliefs to their logical conclusions.

In the best case, readers who ascend The Overstory will be infused with wonder, curiosity, and affection for humanity’s treeish brethren, without which our hope of continued flourishing may wither and die.

Rating: 9/10