The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory: A Novel BY Richard Powers. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 512 pages. $27.
The cover of The Overstory: A Novel

In his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh argued that contemporary fiction—at least the literary, realist kind—has failed to imagine and represent our “deranged” relationship with the natural world. Science fiction, he maintains, has done a better job of critiquing our world and imagining it differently. The realist novel’s preoccupation with individual morality and everyday normalcy has left it ill-equipped for a world in which the improbable is the norm.

Richard Powers’s latest novel seems like a response to Ghosh’s call for serious fiction of the Anthropocene. Focusing on the 1990s “timber wars” in California’s redwood forests, The Overstory treats the idea of agency as a collective one, and depicts the human realm as inextricable from the natural world. It’s not speculative fiction, though: Powers works in the American narrative tradition of the social protest novel—in particular turn-of-the-century naturalists such as Jack London, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair—in order to tell his story of social, political, and climate change.

Divided into sections titled “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds,” The Overstory adopts a botanical structure in order to trace migrations of various kinds. In this novel, the life cycle of various trees provide both plot points and handy metaphors for time and family, nature and culture. One narrative strand follows Norwegian Jørgen Hoel as he sets off for Iowa with a pocket full of chestnut seeds: the resulting tree will survive the early-twentieth-century blight that nearly wiped out the species, and his late-twentieth-century descendant, artist Nick Hoel will later paint it. In another vignette, Mimi Ma grows up barely paying attention to the mulberry tree that her Chinese immigrant father planted, cherished, and eventually kills himself beneath. Neelay Mehta, the Indian-American son of an engineer who will become a billionaire coder, is paralyzed after falling from a oak tree as a child—before losing consciousness he glimpses in the branches above him “the most perfect piece of self-writing code that his eyes could hope to see.”

The novel is not just concerned with the majesty of trees, however. The book also focuses on the suffering of individuals, though its aim is much higher than any one character. Powers wants to retell the history of America as one in which environmental devastation is inseparable from war, ethnic prejudice, and individual trauma. Powers reminds us again and again that trees and humans share a quarter of our genes. Therefore, we also share a history—one too often characterized by conquest and pain. The plots of these stories weave together subtly, and a number of them converge explicitly in a long set piece about California redwoods, which are targeted for deforestation. Nick Hoel and Olivia Vandergriff camp out in tree-house colony a few hundred feet above the forest floor; they and other activists clash local loggers and police officers—at first peacefully, then violently, then tragically so.

Powers’s other novels, like The Time of Our Singing and The Echo Maker, have been criticized for being more interested in ideas than the characters they revolve around. The same critique could be leveled at The Overstory, and yet there is something more going on. Here, the ideas have a living, humming force of their own—they’re alive, almost like full-bodied characters in themselves. The book is interested, that is, in how people become interested—how the books they read, the people they meet, and the conversations they have cause them to change their minds or their lives. Plant biologist Dr. Patricia Westerford is laughed out of academia for her work on the social lives of trees but rehabilitates her reputation by writing The Secret Forest, which tells the millennia-long saga of trees: the book then circulates among activists, read aloud at the forest canopy where two of them are camping out. Later, a wife reads The Secret Forest to her husband—a formerly intellectual property lawyer—after he has a stroke, and he comes to understand “theft” differently than merely imminent harm.

“Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things,” begins Ovid’s Metamorphoses, one of the book’s many intertextual touchstones. Such transformations, whether from dying trees to living underbrush, or from aimless college student to activist, ask us to consider the various forms that an individual’s political awakening can take—as well as the extent to which localized activism can propel structural change. But The Overstory also reveals the difficulties that the realist novel faces in representing and narrating these relationships on such vastly different scales: from individual protest to powerful and faceless institutions to the faceless forces of climate change. Some of these questions stretch back to turn-of-the-century literary naturalism, a genre which sought to yoke literary form to social change. Frank Norris, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair—whose 1906 The Jungle famously exposed the horrors of the Chicago meatpacking industry and led to legislation—were deeply concerned with the relationship between individual agency and larger social and cultural forces. If we are determined by our environment, these authors asked, how could we ever change such an all-powerful system from within?

In The Overstory, one character neatly sums up the narrative problem that Powers faces, as she explains her preference for fiction over natural history. The latter, she observes, lacks direction: “No drama, no development, no colliding hopes and fears. Branching, tangled, messy plots. And she could never keep the characters straight.” Manufacturing a narrative arc out of the brambles of history always requires emphasizing some agents at the expense of others, choosing certain strands and ignoring others. While Powers is eager to show that forests might know things we don’t, his novel risks forgetting a history that is known, one which no one can responsibly plead ignorance. Amid the large cast of characters—both human and non-human— indigenous and black histories are glaringly absent. It’s an omission that is all the more disappointing in a novel that urges us to imagine all kinds of stories as intricately, if invisibly, linked.

Victoria Baena is a writer and PhD candidate in comparative literature based in New Haven, Connecticut.