Book review: The Overstory, admirably ambitious but ultimately overrated

Monday, August 26, 2019

Probably few people are yearning for a review of The Overstory a year and a half after it was published and four months after it won the Pulitzer Prize. But I just finished the book, after considerable struggle. And I think the many fawning reviews the book has gotten (Barbara Kingsolver’s in the New York Times for starters) could use some balance from more critical voices, even if mine will reach only a small fraction of Kingsolver’s readers. So here goes.

First, a bit about how I approached this book. When I was younger, I read a lot of fiction, but lately I’ve been immersed in nonfiction. The Overstory is, I’m ashamed to admit, the first novel I’ve read cover to cover in several years. I read it because it was about trees, a topic I’ve devoted a sizable amount of my own professional life to, and because everybody was talking about it. I understand through other reviews that the author, Richard Powers, is well-known and has been showered in awards, but I had never heard of him. But a novel (or any work) needs to reach readers where they are. So I write this review from where I am.

I will credit Powers with impressive ambition in attempting to create nine independent characters and weave a narrative that would bring them all together in a meaningful way. And in attempting to build a novel of action around trees, often thought to be static and passive.

But the book’s problems mushroom quickly. The characters are, mostly, not believable as flesh-and-blood humans in the world that I live in. Their actions seem driven not by the sorts of internal desires and fears that animate me and the people I know, but by the plot requirements of the story and the larger didactic imperatives of the book. Powers develops them not by putting them in situations and allowing them to respond, but by simply giving us, for each, a fairly tedious back-story of family history, childhood drama and essential character traits, violating one of the basic rules of writing: “show, don’t tell.”

The dialogue is bizarre. Here’s just one of innumerable examples, between a rough-around-the-edges Vietnam vet who gets a job planting trees and some guy he’s playing pool with in a bar:

“Who’re you planting for?”
“Whoever pays me.”
“Lotta new oxygen out there, because of you. Lotta greenhouse gases put to bed.”

I’ve never met a real-life person who speaks in this clipped, awkward manner, casually dropping obscure scientific concepts into barroom banter. Not even scientists speak this way! Amazingly, Powers bestows the same verbal tics onto almost all his characters, major and minor. Partly as a result, beyond their differing roles in the story, it would be hard to tell them apart by behavior or demeanor; they seem like slightly altered versions of the same Ur-person, presumably Powers himself.

All that said, a few of the characters I was finally able to accept as being complex or conflicted enough to achieve some distinction and verisimilitude. The over-achieving, world-traveling, never-at-peace, hard-shelled yet passionate Mimi Ma evokes a kind of character who inhabits real-life Washington, DC, where I live. Adam Appich, the successful but cynical psychology professor, resembles some academics I’ve met — trapped in a system that forces them to perform a role they know is ultimately hollow.

Other characters never develop beyond stereotypes. Patricia Westerford, the dismissed-then-celebrated scientist who reveals the hidden world of trees to clueless humans, is entirely virtuous, without a character flaw of any kind except perhaps propensities toward solitude and suicidal thoughts, which Powers seems to view as positive traits. Her dramatic denouement is totally out of character and not believable.

There is a particularly frustrating character named Ray Brinkman, a self-sacrificing lawyer whose development of a novel theory that trees have legal standing is interrupted by an incapacitating stroke. His theory could have been brought to bear on Appich’s eventual eco-terrorism trial, yet it isn’t, despite a supposed narrative structure wherein the individual characters’ lives intertwine via their relationships with trees. Brinkman instead spends the second half of the novel doing almost nothing except discovering how to identify trees with his long-suffering wife, who eventually takes the radical step of no longer mowing their suburban lawn and letting trees regrow there. Seriously? Why Powers spent dozens of pages setting up such an obvious connection between his characters, failed to capitalize on it, and settled instead for such a meager payoff is baffling.

Many reviewers have celebrated Powers for his ability to make trees into characters in the book. I call bullshit. With a few exceptions — a chestnut tree whose centuries-long life anchors the novel’s first chapter and returns later in the book, for example — actual trees make only brief cameo appearances and contribute little to the action. They are often described using all-too-common clichés rather than the nuance and depth I would expect from a decorated novelist. Again, just one of countless examples:

There are trees that flower and fruit directly from the trunk. Bizarre kapoks forty feet around with branches that run from spiky to shiny to smooth, all from the same trunk. Myrtles scattered throughout the forest that all flower on a single day. Bertholletia that grow piñata cannonballs filled with nuts. Trees that make rain, that tell time, that predict the weather. Seeds in obscene shapes and colors. Pods like daggers and scimitars. Stilt roots and snaking roots and buttresses like sculpture and roots that breathe air. Solutions run amok. The biomass is mad.

I would challenge any reader or reviewer to recall from memory even five individual trees that appear in this book. They come and go without making an impression. There is a difference between flash-bang, adjective-heavy writing and precise language born of close, patient observation, and Powers’ prose lands on the wrong side of this divide.

There is one other notable exception, Mimas, a massive redwood in whose canopy several characters spend time around the middle of the story. The tree gets a full, rich characterization before its inevitable demise at the hands of loggers. But I’m not sure Powers deserves all the credit here, because his description of Mimas is strikingly similar to those of another redwood describer named Richard (Preston) who actually followed scientists into the redwood canopy for his book The Wild Trees. Is it possible that Powers captures the essence of a tree only when another writer has blazed a path for him?

Ultimately I feel as though I viewed this whole story through a scrim, or at great remove. I never felt part of the action, feeling what the characters felt, if they felt anything at all. (Sometimes it seems like Powers’ humans are bug-ridden analytical machines tossing off cynical one-liners.) Scenes that should have been dramatic, like the tree sitters’ faceoff with the loggers or Appich’s trial, weren’t. Even when a principal character died, it seemed perfunctory. Little tension was built; never did I feel strongly invested in the characters’ fates.

About halfway through the book, I stopped reading it as realism and switched to reading it as allegory. In the Bible, larger-than-life characters such as Abraham and Job may not feel entirely believable, but we accept them for embodying timeless and profound lessons. Perhaps The Overstory‘s characters need to be read this way.

In that case, Powers had better have some damn profound ideas to deliver. Here I give a mixed grade. Powers does powerfully evoke the role of time — that our misapprehension of trees owes in large part to the differing paces and lengths of their lives and ours. It’s not a new observation, but in how he places his frenetic humans amid long-lived, patient trees, Powers brings it to life perhaps better than any other writer I’ve read.

But Powers’ view of human-tree relations ultimately proves stunted. He builds the story around the timber wars of the 1990s, when radical activists attempted to prevent logging of some of the remaining old-growth out West. Everything is conflict; there’s no moral ambiguity: activists and scientists are the good guys and gals; cartoonishly evil loggers, cops and bankers appear and vanish as needed. This is especially odd because many of today’s environmentalists see promise in sustainable logging, as practiced, for example, by the Menominee of Wisconsin. Powers’ all-or-nothing take feels simplistic and outdated.

In the end, Powers bestows the possibility of redemption onto a crippled Indian-American computer programmer, who, I guess, finds a way to use big data and artificial intelligence to reveal nature’s truths. I say “I guess” because the conclusion is so sketchy and hasty that it’s hard to tell what’s really going on.
I gather that Powers has previously written about computers and tech. Perhaps that explains his turning back to this world to escape the narrative and conceptual thickets he’s wandered into. But to me, it seems lazy. There are alternative narratives about humans and trees besides conflict and the vague hope that tech might help us find a way out. Powers should have known about one of these, because his author bio states that he lives at the foothills of the Great Smokies, among the largest protected forests in the East. Even during the boom days of logging, enough humans recognized the noncommercial value of these trees to cordon off hundreds of thousands of acres. Yet such truths obviously complicate Powers’ narrative of conflict and human blindness toward nature.

There’s a much more profound and powerful alternative narrative even than that of federal protection. Before white people arrived in America, when the great forests Powers’ characters yearn for grew widely, the continent wasn’t unpeopled. In fact, it was heavily peopled. But these people had a relationship with trees and forests that allowed both to thrive — in fact, they had the kind of relationship Powers seems to want us to have. The descendants of these people are still here, and in many cases, they are trying to reclaim their ancestral relationships with other species. If the rest of us were to listen to them today, it could go a long way toward healing our fractured relationship with the natural world. Yet Powers does not seem to be listening too closely. Exactly one Native American makes an appearance in The Overstory, on page 492 of 502 (in the paperback). He doesn’t get a name or dialogue. He’s just a helper to a white male artist who has apparently figured out what nature is trying to say.

If The Overstory is today’s great novel, I found myself wondering what has happened to the novel. In Anna Karenina, to cite just one example from literature, Tolstoy created believable characteristics, put them in ordinary situations and crafted an enduring masterpiece. Here Powers creates unbelievable characters, puts them in extraordinary situations and accomplishes significantly less.

There’s another book lurking in the background: The Hidden Life of Trees. (My review here.) The author of that work, Peter Wohlleben, even shares initials with Powers’ fictional scientist (hat tip to a commenter on this Guardian review for this observation, which I hadn’t noticed.) That book too presented a simplistic view of trees, yet earned wide plaudits and massive sales. It makes me wonder if it’s become all too easy for authors to spoon-feed us simple ideas of human-nature conflict and environmental beneficence — and trees. Powers has previously won a Macarthur and a pile of other awards. He presumably has what most writers can only dream of: freedom from the pressure of having to hit deadlines and earn paychecks. That this artistic liberation didn’t generate a better book is disappointing.

When I think of books that achieve a more nuanced look at the relationship between people and the environment — that engage the complexities and the ways in which relationships in nature are just as fraught as those of our human society — my thoughts turn instead to Annie Dillard’s celebrated Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, a book that deserves at least the same recognition as Powers’ and Wohlleben’s.

Lastly, a word about the writing. I found it often clunky, awkward and inelegant. There’s no question that Powers feels strongly about his subject. What he seems to struggle with is molding those feelings into effective language that will help us feel what we need to feel to do the difficult, society-changing, Earth-saving internal and external work Powers clearly wants us to do.

As a writer whose own work is often driven by ideas more than characters, I do sympathize with Powers. It’s a tough trick to get humans (real or imagined) to embody ideas as cleanly as we would like. And it was a thrill to see a mainstream fiction author take trees seriously.

The Overstory, as the Guardian reviewer writes, contains ideas that are interesting and important. But the novelist’s job is to use the tools of fiction — characters, plot, dramatic tension — to animate ideas. In this, The Overstory mostly fails.

And yet: It’s easy to critique another person’s effort. It’s far harder to produce something better. In The Overstory, Powers has attempted something big, brave and risky. Though he falls short of greatness, the world is still surely better for having this book in it. Enough readers have said it moved them and changed their view of trees that I must acknowledge it has succeeded in important ways, even if it did not succeed for me.

I have yet to write anything half so ambitious, or half so impactful. If I’m dissatisfied with what’s out there, then, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, it’s my duty to produce the work I wish to see in the world. I’m writing this partly to hold myself accountable. The ultimate success of this review will be not whether it persuades anyone of my view of The Overstory, but whether it leads me to think bigger and aim higher.