The Overstory


What's everyone's favourite genre? I don't think there are many people out there who would say ecofiction. The reason, of course, is time. With the exception of apocalypse novels maybe, you need at least decades if not longer to reveal the drama in nature, especially in plants, and even more particularly in trees. Our inability to see past our own short lifetimes is part of the reason why we are facing such overwhelming ecological crisis. However, perhaps Adam Appich, a psychology student in Richard Powers' The Overstory provides us with a clue as to the way forward; upon his initiation into an ecoterrorism group, he admits that 'The best arguments in the world wont change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story'.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to tell that good story, and by and large I think he succeeds. In fact I think this book is kind of magnificent, though I didn't enjoy every moment of reading it. Using the lives of nine people across America - from a biologist that discovers trees' secret behaviour (communicating with one another, protecting one another, migrating, experimenting), to a flighty college student who dies by electrocution only to come back saying redwoods are talking to her, to a genius game developer trying to recreate the Earth in all its glory through coding - Powers explores trees, how we feel about trees, how we use them, how absolutely integral they are to us and everything else. Through this he also ends up writing about language: its limits, its uses, what nature's language might sound/move/feel like. Of course he also writes about time. He explores capitalism and its bottomless hunger, and whilst he weaves together stories and science, at another level he is examining how the two interact and feed one another. I could go on but I'll leave all the other ideas packed into this novel for you to discover yourself, because I really do urge you to pick up this book.

The first part of this novel reads like a book of short stories, each introducing a character and their own relationship to trees or even one particular tree. Each story is carefully constructed and each could work nicely as an independent piece of literature. From then on the narrative slows down and begins to weave the characters together, and the latter parts have a much more forceful environmental message. Whilst I read them much slower than I did the first part, and though they didn't capture my attention quite as much as those initial snapshots, this is where Powers does his hardest work, and the most important. Its rewarding in a different way, but will likely push some readers away. After all, this is not a novel that is looking too closely at the everyday lives of its characters, or even their psychology; it's looking at ideas and also at plant life, which (at the risk of stating the obvious) functions in fundamentally different ways to our own. There is plot in the latter sections, but it is much looser and subtler.

A picky thing from me but something I have to mention; in order to keep its readers engaged, The Overstory has a tendency to edge into the sentimental. Every character suffers a tragedy of some kind that is designed to make the reader feel, and to pull them closer to the message Powers is trying to get across. I appreciate the reasons for this, but I'm always wary when the writing is trying to make me feel rather than just making me feel. Something to note, anyway, for anyone who is sensitive to this kind of thing. Ultimately though, it kinda works.

There is real beauty in this book and it's well worth the effort put into it. I don't know whether I'm more or less susceptible to its magic because of my recent interest in fictional explorations of nonhuman life, but I think it might be a great place to start if you're interested, and it might surprise you if you think you're not.