A colleague of mine once claimed that a critic’s opinions are worth less than his or her ability to convey what a book is like. If that’s true, never mind that I believe Richard Powers’ 12th novel to be a masterwork sculpted from sheer awe. Instead, know that reading “The Overstory” will convince you that we walk among gods every time we enter a forest.
“The Overstory” isn’t just about trees, it’s structured like one, too.
The origin stories for nine protagonists make up the first section, “Roots.” We meet an Iowa sculptor, a Silicon Valley coder, a Vietnam veteran and a listless undergraduate student who dies and is resurrected by “large, powerful, but desperate shapes.” These shapes (OK, they’re definitely trees) lead her to California, where a scientist has discovered new evidence for plant personhood and communication.
In the second and longest section, “Trunk,” the strangers whose “lives have long been connected, deep underground,” come together on the West Coast in the 1990s, where they attempt to save a virgin redwood forest from being destroyed. The group’s protests lead to violence, even death, forcing the characters to go their separate ways in “Crown,” like the diverging branches of an oak.
Powers might be the most polarizing novelist in America, winning the National Book Award for “The Echo Maker” in 2006 and getting roasted by critic James Wood of the New Yorker for “Generosity” in 2009.
In many ways, Powers is up to his old tricks again in “The Overstory”: threading various narratives together and making surprising connections between science and the humanities. I imagine Wood — who compared Powers’ fiction to a “dying satyr” with “a pair of spindly legs strain[ing] to support the great weight of the ambitious brain” — might find this novel more moving and personal than “Generosity,” or even the Booker-longlisted “Orfeo.”
But Powers’ greatest achievement here is his ability to convey the genuine magic of trees — specifically, their impenetrable intelligence and sensual delights. “Down in cool riparian corridors smelling of silt and decaying needles, redwoods work a plan that will take a thousand years to realize,” says the narrator, watching the human characters from the perspective of an omniscient tree.
Time will tell whether “The Overstory” makes a lasting impression on our awareness of the natural world. “But people have no idea what time is,” writes Powers in the voice of a sylvan god, “one spreading ring wrapped around another, outward and outward until the thinnest skin of Now depends for its being on the enormous mass of everything that has already died.”
Adam Morgan is editor in chief of the Chicago Review of Books and a contributing writer for Chicago magazine.
By: Richard Powers.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 502 pages, $27.95.