Monday, September 28, 2020

The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory
by Richard Powers 
Source: checked out from my local library…twice 

Publisher’s Summary: The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of—and paean to—the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers’ twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

My Thoughts: The New York Times called this book “magisterial.” Ron Charles, of The Washington Post, called it “fascinating.” The notoriously cranky (at least in my mind) Kirkus Reviews called it a “magnificent achievement.” It won the Pulitzer Prize, for heaven’s sake. So, while I had no idea what the book was about when I picked it up, I knew it was supposed to be great and I had high expectations. But this was one of those books that made me wonder what I was missing that made everyone else love this book so much. Thank heavens for The Guardian, whose reviewer seemed to feel much the same way I did: “Richard Powers’ novel has its heart in a fine place, but it works by browbeating the reader with lectures and daft melodrama.” 

There are nine, count ‘em nine, main characters in the story. Powers introduces readers to them in what seem to be short stories, each having, at least peripherally, something to do with trees. Eventually their story lines will intersect, some much more than others. It was impressive that Powers was able to create nine characters that I found interesting and unique and that I came to care about. But some of these characters interact in such a small way with the other characters that they might well have been in their own books (and those would have been interesting books to read). But, as the reviewer from The Guardian says, “There’s nothing…Power doesn’t spell out for us. If there’s a moral dilemma, the characters will pick it over. If there’s something to spot, it’s always clearly signposted.” I kept thinking about that old adage about writing, “show, don’t tell.” 

In fairness to this book, my feelings about it are colored by the fact that I read half of the book before it had to be returned to the library and then it was weeks before I got it back again. It’s hard to pick back up where you left off – details have been lost, it takes a bit to remember who is who, and feelings about the book have faded. I can’t be sure what my final thoughts would have been about this book had I read it straight through. Well, that’s not entirely true. 

Guys, there is a lot of information about trees in this book. How they grow, how they communicate, what they give back to the universe, and lists and lists of the different kinds of trees. I learned a lot about trees, no doubt about it; but, golly, it often felt repetitive and I reached the point where I was skimming over a great deal of it. Powers have felt that he needed readers to understand all of that in order for us to understand his characters’ environmental activism but I didn’t feel like I needed to get hit over the head with it. Which was another area where I felt like things got repetitive and, to be honest, preachy. Although the reviewer in The Atlantic does point out “Most Americans do not understand the perils of climate change – or of deforestation, clear-cutting, habitat loss.” I can’t really argue with that; maybe Powers is right to believe that people need to be schooled on what the loss of trees is doing to the environment. Unfortunately, I’m fairly certain that the people who most need to learn those lessons aren’t the kind of people who will read this book. 

One of Powers’ characters says, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” The reviewer for the Atlantic says of that, “There is a term for stories written with the purpose of converting minds to support a cause. And it is the opposite of literature.” Powers is clearly trying to convert minds with this book. If that is the opposite of literature, I’m back to wondering how this book won the Pulitzer.

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