Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Overstory: The Word for the World Is Forest

The Overstory: A Novel
 Richard Powers 
W.W. Norton

 “It’s a book about taking the non-human seriously,” author Richard Powers said in an interview, concerning his latest novel, The Overstory. It is an assertion that for much of human history, and even today in many parts of the world, would seem ridiculously unnecessary. What could be more serious than the “non-human”—everything from the weather and plants that provided food and medicine, to the animals that people hunted, or fell prey to?

 It’s true that our literature missed much of this unwritten but not unstoried history, but even in the 19th century there were still wolves at the gate in Europe (and in Tolstoy), and into the 20th century in North America the struggles of pioneers were central to the novels of Cather and others.

 But the deep sense of interrelationship with the specific environment of a place, its embedded animals and plants, escaped much literary treatment. (It can be found however in contemporary accounts of some surviving indigenous cultures, such as Richard Nelson’s books on the Koyukon.)

Literature missed it, while science and the economic system governing culture ignored and denied it. Nature became a controlled resource, and science joined in a simplistic analysis that conformed to ideologically-driven theories of nature as uniformly rapacious, violent and individualistic, mirroring the structure of dominant capitalism that mandated that other life had no value except as it served humans, and especially certain humans’ profits. Meanwhile the urbanized segment of humanity with pest control, running water, flush toilets and printing presses turned inward, and human culture became increasingly arrogant, ego-driven and delusional.

Like Naomi Klein to the climate crisis and Michael Pollan to expanded consciousness, Richard Powers is something of a Johnny-come-lately to forest issues and what forests represent in the non-human web of life that, among other things, supports humanity. But like them he brings fresh passion and perspective, as well as a contemporary voice with some power and moment, so that people—including those in the lit biz—may actually pay some attention.

The 502 pages of The Overstory are structured in four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. (Technically the crown or canopy is the “overstory,” though the title metaphorically suggests a meta-story, the story that makes all other stories possible.) This structure is a visually accessible metaphor, as the various strands of roots nourish a common trunk before branching out again in separate (if often interrelated) fates.

 "Roots" presents the backstory of the nine major characters, in some cases including several previous generations. In the next section, several characters participate in the protests here in Humboldt County in the 1990s, when a rapacious Texas company was clear-cutting as many of the last old growth groves as they could. The fates of these characters become especially intertwined. The actual history is somewhat fictionalized but given a depth and specificity that brings the experience alive. Especially the experience of being up a tree.

 Their transformations, at least as radical as those experienced by characters in other Powers’ books, move toward new relationships with the reality of the world, rather than only within a temporary human enclave.

Along with the stories of people over time and over generations, there are stories and histories of trees: of the American Chestnut, the eastern pine forests, and Johnny Appleseed. The scientist character commits temporary career suicide by showing that trees communicate with each other through the air, warning of predators and diseases, and that through their roots they nourish and protect each other.

 But what constitutes the figure and what constitutes the ground of the narrative is a very close thing. So the book is about people, some of whom are passionately involved with trees and forest, and others who stumble to their own recognitions.  “Our brains evolved to solve the forest,” says the one character who is a tree expert. “We’ve shaped and been shaped by forests for longer than we’ve been homo sapiens.”

But it is also about trees, and how people relate to them. “This is not our world with trees in it,” says that same expert. “It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” The figure and ground shift back and forth, when they aren’t essentially simultaneous.

 Powers provides some hope for the relationship. But humanity can no longer just affirm life—it must commit “unsuicide,” by radically changing the terms, before its own slow murderous suicide is accomplished.

The novel depicts the context of our American society and world civilization in which obsessive and dogmatic human self-centeredness destroys forests and the natural context that supports all life, enslaved by a suicidal geopolitical and geoeconomic system which mandates continuous growth on a planet of finite resources. That vision of the world has previously been expressed mostly by ecologists, poets and science fiction writers like Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Powers becomes one of the few so-categorized mainstream literary novelists (Barbara Kingsolver and Jim Harrison come to mind) to marshal considerable literary skills to explore it.

“Life has a way of talking to the future,”a couple of characters observe. “It’s called memory.” The extreme self-centeredness of contemporary civilization is likely to become a bitter joke in the near future. Today’s news that is most likely to be ignored or unabsorbed--like the melting polar ice, or the depletion of wildlife in the world (by 60% in the past couple of human generations, according to the World Wildlife Fund today, mostly due to climate and the obliteration of tropical forests, practically the last on the planet)—will have consequences that are destined to dominate the news not more than a few decades hence.

But that self-centeredness, that absorption in social media passions within the nuclear grip of global capitalism, also extends to readers. Powers obviously anticipated this, and puckishly embedded an anticipatory review: “She remembers now why she never had the patience for nature. No drama, no development, no colliding hopes and fears. And she could never keep the characters straight.”

 There are colliding hopes and fears in this novel, though it is hard at times to keep the characters straight. Still, the theme is a challenge to readers in much the same way that climate news gets ignored in favor of the outrage of the moment. The familiar emotions and presence of the strictly human world obliterates perception of the rest of reality.

But as one character will say to another (while both are swaying on the branches of a redwood) “The best argument in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” (I’m not sure that’s universally true, but maybe true enough.) Apart from the usual suspects of likely readers, I suspect Powers’ time at Stanford, his understanding of the tech world and a direct pitch to its conscience and potential to make a difference will pay dividends.

Beyond that it remains to be seen. The first big literary prize since publication was the Man Booker in the UK, for which The Overstory was shortlisted, and was said to be the odds-on favorite to win.

Yet an article in the Guardian quotes booksellers complaining that the Man Booker is not much help to sales these days. They opine on the marketable book they hope will win. “ But the book I think will win is The Overstory by Richard Powers.” one unnamed bookseller is quoted as saying. It’s not clear whose voice it is but the paragraph continues: “In case you don’t know – I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s read it – The Overstory is an idiosyncratic and, in the words of one plucky critic, “valiant” 500-page epic that is supposed to do for trees what Moby-Dick did for whales. Perhaps this is why my contact is laughing.”

The Man Booker was also beset with criticism because it’s traditionally been a UK prize but American authors have won the last two. Also there was anticipatory nervousness that with a majority of women writers on the shortlist, giving the prize to another male writer would be unseemly. That Powers is an American male author may have contributed to why The Overstory did not win, though the subject that had a Guardian reporter rolling her eyes may also have played a conscious or unconscious part.

 The prize went to Northern Irish author Anna Burns for her “Troubles-era” novel “Milkman.” The jury seemed to stress that the selection was unanimous. Burns has a compelling personal story, and the novel is widely praised (and now, a best-seller.) But worthy but often repeated topics such as the Troubles, the slave trade, child abuse and various human relationship have such a visceral hold on readers and writers that reviving that crucial, vital deep connection with non-human life and its peril remains a hard sell.

Still, there are the National Book Award and the Pulitzers to come. Regardless of its upcoming prizes fates, the literary reach of The Overstory suggests it can have that longer, more persistent life of study: formal study in the groves of academe, informal study everywhere. It may not live as long as a redwood but the lifespan of a paper birch could still imbue a generation with its ideas and emotions. For that process, the impressive body of interviews given by its formerly reclusive author should help.  In the meantime, it repays reading and re-reading.

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