James Womack

Into the woods

His 500-page novel The Overstory carries a sobering message. But a pithy essay might have been equally persuasive

Into the woods
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The Overstory

Richard Powers

Heinemann, pp. 505, £

This is a novel about trees, written in the shape of a tree (eight introductory background chapters, called ‘Roots’; a ‘Trunk’; a ‘Crown’; some ‘Seeds’), and which unashamedly references every tree you might half-remember, from Eden to Auden (‘A culture is no better than its woods’). It revolves around various efforts to save trees, whether by seedbanks or political activism, and details the ways in which its group of protagonists becomes radicalised and willing to put their lives on the line, or even kill, to save the few remaining patches of old forest in the USA.

One of these protagonists, Olivia, turns towards the forest when she has a near-death experience and starts to sense the spirit of the trees calling to her. Another one, Douglas, ends up Unabomber-ing away in a ghost town in the woods. Towards the end of the novel, a third protagonist, Nick, known for much of the novel by his ‘forest name’ of ‘Watchman’, starts to make a large-scale piece of earth art out of various fallen trunks and branches. He is helped in this by a couple of Native Americans, who speak ‘in a language so old it sounds like stones tossed in a brook’, and who seem to exist primarily to allow clumsy ‘mystic Indian’ scenes to take place:

Nick’s hand goes out, gesturing towards the conifers. ‘It amazes me how much they say, when you let them. They’re not that hard to hear.’ The man chuckles. ‘We’ve been trying to tell you that since 1492.’

So, a novel with a fair degree of tolerance for what Lord Business calls ‘hippy-dippy baloney’, and one that fits neatly into the various permitted patterns of white American guilt, where characters’ motives are always seen and interpreted in their best possible light. (It would be an unthinkable plot twist for the Native Americans to tell the land artist to sod off.) Also, yet another novel that is unafraid to take a metaphor and spend 500 pages working on the reader with it.

The Overstory is a roman à thèse, and it approaches its main intellectual point, that man’s actions are ruining the dendrosphere, from a number of different perspectives: the activists are a group of people with various skills and backgrounds (artist, engineer, veteran, psychologist, university dropout), and the novel also makes space to tell the stories of Patricia, a botanist whose research reveals the extent to which trees are conscious, and Ray, an intellectual property lawyer who at one point is asked to consider Christopher Stone’s famous essay on legal rights for natural objects, ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’.

All this makes the book sound over-determined (which it is). But two things stop it from absolute collapse, from becoming a didactic work of non-fiction with some human beings thrown in. First, Powers pre-empts a lot of objections in a plot thread. Yet another protagonist of The Overstory is Neelay, a computer game designer, whose sandbox video-game series Destiny grows into a rigid microcosm of the upper fictional word of the book: a way of offsetting critique by showing that on one level Powers knows he is working to a formula.

Secondly, the issues and ideas which Powers raises are obviously important: every fact he puts into someone’s mouth is demonstrably true, and the scale of the human destruction he describes is sobering, for all that it comes from implausible characters. The Overstory is a book you learn from, even as you remain unsure why it had to be a novel rather than an essay.