Wednesday, April 25, 2018

THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers -- NO PAYWALL FOR NOW -- Reviewed by novelist Barbara Kingsolver in the NEW YORK TIMES, with Kevin Berger at LitHub too

Monday, April 16, 2018 blogpost without a paywall

THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers

Reviewed by Barbara Kingsolver in the NEW YORK TIMES


Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees — to name one example — with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.

And for all that, trees are things to us, good for tables, floors and ceiling beams: As much as we might admire them, we’re still happy to walk on their hearts. It may register as a shock, then, that trees have lives so much like our own. All the behaviors described above have been studied and documented by scientists who carefully avoid the word “behavior” and other anthropomorphic language, lest they be accused of having emotional attachments to their subjects.

The novelist suffers no such injunction, but most of them don’t know beans about botany. Richard Powers is the exception, and his monumental novel “The Overstory” accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.

But: Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim. People will only read stories about people, as this author knows perfectly well. “The Overstory” is a delightfully choreographed, ultimately breathtaking hoodwink. The handful of readers who come to the book without benefit of reviews or jacket copy will believe it’s a collection of unrelated short stories. The opener is a gorgeous family saga with the texture of a Ken Burns documentary, and more plot. The Hoels are Norwegian immigrants whose vocations link them with our continent’s once-predominant tree, the American chestnut, as they all flourish and then are tragically cut back — both Hoels and chestnuts — to a lone scion. Pause for a moment to absorb this, then move on to the next immigrant story, in which Mimi Ma’s father invests too many hopes in a mulberry tree. Then, in the Vietnam War, Douglas Pavlicek is shot from a military plane and survives through a fortuitous intersection of his fate with that of a centuries-old fig tree. In another time, in Silicon Valley, an 11-year-old coding prodigy named Neelay Mehta has a much unluckier tangle with an ancient Spanish oak.

Trees are everywhere but incidental, it seems, until the seventh tale in the series, about an odd little girl who loves trees more than she loves most people and grows up to be a scientist. As Dr. Pat Westerford she spends years alone in forests doing her research, initially mocked by her peers but eventually celebrated for an astounding (and actually real) discovery: A forest’s trees are all communicating, all the time, via a nuanced chemical language transmitted from root to root. As this revelation dawns, the reader is jolted with electric glimpses of connections among characters in the previous stories.
And then we remember we’re in the hands of Richard Powers, winner of a genius grant, a storyteller of such grand scope that Margaret Atwood was moved to ask: “If Powers were an American writer of the 19th century, which writer would he be? He’d probably be the Herman Melville of ‘Moby-Dick.’”Photo

His picture really is that big. These characters who have held us rapt for 150 pages turn out to be the shrubby understory, for which we couldn’t yet see the forest. Standing overhead with outstretched limbs are the real protagonists. Trees will bring these small lives together into large acts of war, love, loyalty and betrayal, in a violent struggle against a mortgaged timber company that is liquidating its assets, including one of the last virgin stands of California redwoods. The descriptions of this deeply animate place, including a thunderstorm as experienced from 300 feet up, stand with any prose I’ve ever read. I hesitate to tell more, and spoil the immense effort Powers invests in getting us into that primal forest to bear witness. It’s a delicate act, writing about tree defenders: In an era when art seems ready to embrace subjects as painful as racism and sexual harassment, it still shrinks from environmental brutality. We may agree that deforested continents and melting permafrost betray the gravest assaults we’ve ever committed against anything or anyone, but still tend to behave as if it’s impolite to bring this up.

In the kind of meta-conversation that makes a Powers novel feel so famously intelligent, the narrative is seasoned with canny observations on this exact problem. The tree scientist frets about public indifference to her work: “Forests panic people. Too much going on there. Humans need a sky.” Elsewhere, a patent attorney becomes profoundly disabled and seeks solace in novels, even while he muses on the limitations of the form. “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one. … The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the worldseem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. … Though I am fake, they say, and nothing I do makes the least difference, still, I cross all distances to sit next to you in your mechanical bed, keep you company and change your mind.”Photo

Given that Richard Powers has swept the literary-prize Olympics, he should be a household name, but isn’t quite. Critics have sometimes blamed a certain bleakness of outlook, or a deficit of warmth in his characters:
As Atwood put it, the story going around is that he’s “not cozy enough at the core.” I suspect the complaint isn’t entirely Powers’s problem, but rather a symptom of the art/science divide and some potent cultural stereotypes. At the prospect of a science-y genius taking the podium, a lot of the audience expects to be frozen out, or bored.

“The Overstory” makes a strong case for expecting otherwise. The science in this novel ranges from fun fact to mind-blowing, brought to us by characters — some scientists, mostly not — who are sweet or funny or maddening in all the relatable ways. The major players number more than a dozen, all invested with touching humanity, and they arrive with such convincing, fully formed résumés, it’s hard to resist Googling a couple of them to see if they’re real people. (They aren’t.) This is a gigantic fable of genuine truths held together by a connective tissue of tender exchange between fictional friends, lovers, parents and children. A computer programmer brings his work home to spend hours inventing games with his son: “Now, Neelay-ji. What might this little creature do?” A cute Eastern European backpacker invites herself for a one-nighter in the vet Douglas’s remote cabin, and he warns that she shouldn’t be out there by herself, looking the way she does. “‘How I look?’ She blows a raspberry and whisks her palm. ‘Like an ill monkey who needs washing.’” Best of all are two aging misanthropes, Patricia and Dennis, who will wreck any unsentimental heart with their gentle discovery that just an hour a day together can make a marriage, providing the nutrient that’s been missing all along. Even when viewed from very high up, through the lens of a thing that’s been alive since before Jesus, all these little people with their short, busy lives and blinding passions are very dear indeed.

A tree’s-eye view on a planet can also be plenty unnerving, in life and in art. Powers doesn’t hesitate to give us wide-screen views of the machinery of his plot, so we can’t miss the roles his characters have been assigned as fulcrum and levers bent to a larger purpose. It’s a fair enough device in a novel meant to tell us that humans aren’t the only show on earth: that in fact we’re not much more than a sneeze to a bristlecone pine. In the end, “The Overstory” defies its own prediction about fiction’s limits, making the contest for the world feel every bit as important as the struggles between people. Even if you’ve never given a thought to the pulp and timber industries, by this book’s last page you will probably wish you weren’t reading it on the macerated, acid-bleached flesh of its protagonists. That’s what a story can do.





Richard Powers hates the hulking white Chevy Silverado pickup he’s driving. He apologizes after picking me up at the airport in Knoxville, Tennessee, on a cool evening in early April, that his Chevy Volt, an electric hybrid, is in the shop, and he has to maneuver this beast, with its 20 miles to the gallon, across winding country roads. He’s pretty sure the service-department guy at the Chevy dealer, having identified Powers as a treehugger, is still grinning at loaning him a four-by-four. I laugh off Powers’ apology, knowing he’s a good environmentalist, but am a little concerned when he veers into the opposing lane. “Holy, crap, sorry about that,” he says, nervously correcting an oversteer, as an oncoming truck whizzes by us.
A few miles from Powers’ home in the Smoky Mountain foothills, we stop at a scenic overlook. Powers strikes up a conversation with a Tennessee old-timer, who’s standing beside an immaculately restored 1935 Ford pickup. He opens the engine hood for us. “Ford’s early V8,” he says. “Look at that flathead,” Powers says. “A beauty.” Powers beams as the local septuagenarian, in a musical drawl, tells us about the days when the paved road we just drove up was dirt, dotted with farms. We climb back into the Silverado and head into Townsend, Tennessee, population 444. After a short drive up a winding road, Powers parks, and we walk down a gravel road. Around a bend sits Powers’ home, a dark wood, two-level chalet on stilts, encompassed by trees.
Powers moved here two years ago from Urbana, Illinois, to finish writing his new and 12th novel, The Overstory, about a disparate group of people who discover their inner activists and band together in the Pacific Northwest to save “the most wondrous products of four billion years of life,” trees. It’s an opera of conservation, with emotions ranging across a panorama of American thought and industry. Henry David Thoreau meet Georgia-Pacific. The cast includes an acerbic Vietnam vet, a feckless psychologist, and a partying college student who accidentally electrocutes herself to death only to recover a minute and ten seconds later with visions.
As in many Powers novels, The Overstory stars a scientist, this time a dendrologist, Patricia Westerford, who discovers trees biochemically talk to one another and behave as members of a community, one now entwined with humans. Determined to get the science right, not for a superficial verisimilitude, but to animate his characters and readers with the “awesome and amazing connection” to nature that science brings, Powers read deeply in dendrology and botany, and traveled to see as many trees as he could. When he arrived in the Smokies, he says, “I just felt healthy. Literally healthy. When you live in the Midwest, you’re living in the middle of the chemical-additive business. My formulation is: ‘Buy a house, get an irreplaceable old-growth forest.'”
The Overstory just came out and has already sprouted a bouquet of glowing reviews. Powers has read them all and can recite sentences from each. As delighted as he is with the praise, though, he still spots in the reviews the received wisdom about his work—all head, no heart—which follows him around like a scolding teacher, waving a ruler at him.
To be sure, he has plenty of brainpower. Since he published his first novel in 1985, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, about unseen connections among people through history, Powers has synthesized his stories with philosophy and science, embodied in a host of erudite protagonists. A decade before the genetic revolution made front pages in 2003, when scientists fully decoded human DNA, the biological data of our behavior, Powers published The Gold Bug Variations, about a geneticist who unravels a key function of DNA. While our culture now frets over artificial intelligence gaining autonomy, Powers illuminated the fear, with a poetic resolution, in Galatea 2.2, released in 1995. Yet after writing a long and rich story about a bi-racial classical music singer in The Time of Our Singing, and winning the National Book Award in 2006 for The Echo Maker, about a sister lovingly caring for her brother, afflicted with a neurological disorder that causes him not to recognize her, Powers figured he may have slipped free of his critical reputation.
Alas, he now says, over the stove in his kitchen, preparing eggs and grits, no such luck. With a dash of sarcasm, he intones the collective voice of his critic. “Powers is best known for his brainy, cold, distant, nonhuman, and impersonal narratives.” He forces a smile but the rap clearly infuriates him. His goal has been to show that apprehending the world through the so-called cold intellect can “produce a deeper affective, emotional response to it.” At the same time, he is anxious because he hasn’t heard anything yet about a New York Times Book Review of The Overstory. “That’s the big one,” he says.
Powers may strike dissonant notes about his novels’ public image, but in conversation he never resorts to fanfare. Still charmingly lanky at 60, with a boyish face, he articulates his views with an intelligence so free of self-importance that you wonder if there’s something wrong with his wiring. He listens patiently and respectfully, then dazzles with quiet authority.
“There was a time when our myths and legends and stories were about something greater than individual well-being.”
We sit down at the table. Every window in the house looks out on the forest. After 11 novels, I ask, why trees? “I wanted to bring in the plants,” Powers says. “Those previous 11 books were very much human-centric books. They were about human exclusivity and human independence. In The Gold Bug Variations, I was trying to reach outward toward a vision of awe and wonder at the process of natural selection and evolution, but I never entirely brought onto the stage the nonhuman world the way I’ve always wanted to do.”
Powers wants The Overstory to immerse readers in the world of trees and pierce them with injustice as timber companies bulldoze them. He wants to show that fiction can be about a lot more than omnipresent bipeds with big brains.
“Literary fiction has largely become co-opted by that belief that meaning is an entirely personal thing,” Powers says. “It’s embraced the idea that life is primarily a struggle of the individual psyche to come to terms with itself. Consequently, it’s become a commodity like a wood chipper, or any other thing that can be rated in terms of utility.” Literary fiction is like anything else that arrives from Amazon, he says. It may be a buzz when it shows up and we read it, but the effect wears off soon, leaving us feeling lonelier than before.
“I want literature to be something other than it is today,” Powers says. “There was a time when our myths and legends and stories were about something greater than individual well-being. When the Cherokees lived here, and told how the Smokies were formed, they said an enormous bird flapped its wings, and every time the wings touched the ground, they beat down a valley. I picture kids today sitting around and saying, ‘Oh, five stars, I loved it,’ or, ‘Three stars, it didn’t really hold my interest.’ We’ve just come so far down that path of thinking the use of a story is just for our private consumption, our private manufacture, the creation of internal meaning.”
The challenge Powers set for himself in writing The Overstory, he says, is nothing less than what now faces humanity. Treating plants and trees solely as materials to sate our appetites doesn’t fare well for humans in the long run. It also diminishes us in the short one.
“A huge part of human anxiety is fomented by what psychologists call ‘species loneliness,’ the sense we’re here by ourselves, and there can be no purposeful act except to gratify ourselves,” he says. “We have to un-blind ourselves to human exceptionalism. That’s the real challenge. Unless forest-health is our health, we’re never going to get beyond appetite as a motivator in the world. The exciting challenge is how to make people plant-conscious, make them realize happiness depends on understanding and reintegrating into this astonishingly complicated and robust way of being that we have exiled ourselves from.'”
That’s an incredible challenge, I say. How do you even begin? “Start looking,” Powers says.
The late morning sun beams through the Smoky Mountain woods. As we hike up a trail bending through the forest, it’s clear Powers has missed his calling as a nature guide. But not any guide. There’s not a single note of singsong-y condescension in his voice. He describes the trees and flowers with muted care and wonder. He wants me to see and feel them as he does.
So far on the trail I’m doing pretty well at identifying the trees, thanks to an earlier tutorial by Powers on his front porch. I spot an eastern white pine, based on its cylindrical needles, which sprout in a bundle of five, wrapped at their base in what looks like a little paper sheath, affixed to the branch.
“And how about this one?” Powers asks. “What’s that?”
“Um, it looks like a fir.”
Powers smiles. “You’re going back to school, mister.”
In fact, it’s a hemlock. Powers instructs me to turn over the flat needles and see the two blue stripes on them. The needles are attached to the twig on tiny pegs. “If you pull the needles off, the peg stays on the branch. Pretty cool, isn’t it?”
A few hundred yards down the trail we stop again. “What do you see this time?” Powers says. Smooth, whitish bark, I say, and brown dead leaves with newly unfolding copper-colored ones. “Good. But what’s it doing with brown leaves on it in April? One possible explanation is that a deer trying to browse this tree will get a mouthful of dead leaves and won’t like it. That tends to discourage grazing on the American beech.”
The lessons continue along the trail, and I enjoy them at every stop. “Check out this tulip poplar that’s just riddled with woodpecker holes,” Powers says. “See how all the holes are in a straight line like that. That creates little sap flows and the bugs go in there. You know what? That may be what spared that tree’s life from the loggers. It loses its commercial value if it’s marred up like that.”
“We have to un-blind ourselves to human exceptionalism. That’s the real challenge.”
We make our way up the mountain and the rather uniform spacing of the trees—a sign of second-growth forest, trees that grew after logging—gives way to fatter and taller maples and pines, dogwoods and beeches. The forest gets denser and more chaotic. Huge fallen logs, covered in mosses, sleep in the thickets. Powers loves this higher elevation. “This is the way the forest looked before white people cut it all down,” he says. “Some of these trees predate the arrival of white people on the continent. I love it up here.”
During our descent, I ask Powers if he could join his activists in The Overstory and burn down sawmills and more. “Set fire to a resort under construction? It’s hard for me to imagine,” he says. “But to write a book where activists are not condemned, to write in a genre that expects me to step back morally, be dispassionate, find pros and cons of all positions, and instead say their actions are completely understandable, well, I am being radical in my way. I’m breaking the law of literary good taste. I’m saying there are things more interesting than people, more essential than us. The whole book is a simple question: What would it take to make you give the unquestioning sacredness that you give to humanity to other things?”
We walk without talking for a few minutes. Then Powers offers, “So much of the first part of my life was spent reveling in the best things that humans could make, those beautiful cities and the greatest monuments, and the greatest works of art.” Powers grew up in suburban Lincolnwood, just north of Chicago. As a teenager, he lived in Bangkok, where his father was a principal at an international school. He’s lived in Boston, Palo Alto, the Netherlands, and England, but most of his life in Urbana, where he taught writing and literature at the university; he’s an emeritus professor. “Now I’m listening to that bird, smelling the air, hearing that water, and looking at these crazy trees and wildflowers, and I’m thinking, if the second half of my life is spent reveling in what nonhumans make, it would be a pretty fair trade.”
Powers’ phone buzzes. “Holy crap, 18 new emails,” he says. He scans the subject lines. “All I see is ‘NYTBR,’ and ‘Wow, fantastic, congratulations.'” “Sounds like a rave in theNew York Times Book Review,” I say. “Yep,” he says. If he’s relieved or elated, I can’t tell. “Who wrote it?” I ask. “I’m out of range now and can’t see. We’re going to have to wait till we get back in range.”
We mount the Silverado and make an hour-drive from the trailhead to Power’s house, with a brief roadside stop to look at two black bears ambling in the woods. We learn theTimes review was written by the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, and is featured on the front page of the Sunday book section. Inside his house, Powers forwards me his email with a scan of the review in the newspaper; it’s not online yet. “Would you be averse to screening it for me?” he asks.
Powers watches me read as he makes us a tomato, spinach, and anchovy-paste pizza. The oven’s not working and so he heats up the pizza in the barbecue grill on the porch. “Hmmm, wow, OK,” I mutter as I read. “Which is it?” he asks. “Hmmm or wow?” “Oh, it’s wow,” I say. I don’t want to take away anything from Powers reading the review himself, and so I say, “I can assure you this review is safe to read.”
The next day, Powers seems beside himself with gratitude to Kingsolver. “I just feel so lucky,” he says. “She makes a case for a broader way of reading me.” Taking issue with Powers’ reputation for cold, science-y novels, Kingsolver writes The Overstoryaccomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.”
When he read the review, Powers says, “It felt like companionship. When she asserts the two domains of science and art are not separate, I felt like I’ve found my people.” Powers has one regret about the review. “Kingsolver was my mom’s favorite writer,” he says, quietly. His mom died in 2009. “I just wish she could have read this review.”
Powers takes me on one last hike on a trail famous for its spring wildflower blooms—it lives up to its billing—before settling beside a stream in beach chairs he brought. I read him a short passage from The Overstory describing Patricia, the scientist, sitting alone at her desk, writing about the community of trees: “The solitary act of sitting over the page and waiting for her hand to move may be as close as she’ll ever get to the enlightenment of plants.”
“I really like that,” I say. “What’s going on?”
“It’s like photosynthesis,” Powers says. “Open up to the sun and let the sun do the work. That’s how she writes. She sits there until she is in communion with some prior, passive understanding she has gathered simply by looking.”
“Is the same true for you?”
“It is,” he says. “Since moving to the Smokies, my method is increasingly like hers. When I lived in cities, I wrote out of a tremendous work ethic. I felt if I were to be a serious writer, I needed to produce 1,000 words a day. When I didn’t, I was tremendously anxious. But since coming down here, and committing myself to communication with the plant world, I’ve been much more comfortable in letting an hour or two or more go by in a reverie state. I don’t feel compelled to have a word count at the end of the day, but rather to prepare myself as a ready receptacle for whatever might happen.”

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