Richard Powers is an adventuresome, humane, erudite author whose novels explore the frontiers of science, the stunning richness of the natural world, and the roles and struggles of humanity in relation to both. His latest novel, “The Overstory,” centers on a small cast of characters whose stories are interwoven to varying degrees. But the novel’s primary characters are trees.
Rest assured, Powers does not anthropomorphize trees. Indeed, to do so would be to undermine the grandeur and complexity of the plants. Powers instead digs deep into the history of trees and the extraordinary hidden lives they lead while humans largely ignore or — worse — exploit them for unsustainable short term gain. This is a novel in which so-called eco-terrorists — those who might disrupt the logging industry at high personal cost — are the short-lived human heroes, but the trees themselves are long-lived heroes of another order entirely.
Powers, as always, delivers beautiful, gripping prose that is lyrical and propulsive. Befitting its themes, “The Overstory” is long — just over 500 pages — but never feels bloated or overwritten.
At one point, Powers seems to reflect on his own project via the thoughts of Ray, a man felled by an aneurysm whose wife now reads to him:
“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 the surprise capacity to forgive — character — is all that matters in the end. It’s a child’s creed, of course, just one small step 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.”
That may be so, but Powers certainly comes close. “The Overstory” asks us to look again at the trees and to consider their storied past and the ways in which their future is being undermined — which may, in turn, undermine our future, as well.