Is it possible to achieve the environmental call to action of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in a work of fiction? Richard Powers is resolved to find out.
Powers’s “The Overstory,” which made it onto the 2018 Man Booker shortlist, is his first attempt at literary environmentalism; it is reasonably and enjoyably successful. While the novel was not predicted to transcend the English prize’s shortlist, “The Overstory” remained a 2018 favorite. The novel, clocking in at just over 500 pages, features a near-overwhelming eight central characters, the likes of which range from a Vietnam War veteran to a loveable patent attorney to an unruly college senior. The curvation of all eight stories are brought together (or at least near one another) over the course of the novel by trees — which appear spiritual and conscious, intervening in the characters’s lives and thoughts — when they sound a call to environmentalism.
The environmentalism that all eight characters, through varying spouts of time, succumb to, take disparate shapes. For Patricia Westerford, it is scientific research; for Nick Hoel and Mimi Ma, it is joining a radical environmentalist group working desperately to preserve trees still standing in the United States. When a sampling of the characters break the law in the name of the environment and things go unsparingly wrong, they are forced into shadows. The intensity of the story slowly defuses here. Implications ensue for some characters. For others, less so.
Powers is most heralded for his ability to capture such a large narrative arc in a novel. “He (Powers) would probably be Herman Melville of ‘Moby Dick’,” writes Margaret Atwood. “His picture is that big.” And yes, “The Overstory” is surely substantial. Not only does the novel incorporate so many characters, but Powers devotes generous prose to each, allowing for considerable backstory and development of psyches. This shines brightly in the first 150 pages. The introduction of each character — with each cast member consuming about 20 pages — is well paced, calculated to appear almost as separate short stories. Especially striking are passages about Adam Appich and Ray Brinkman. Powers details a blushing love story and a complex childhood that bring the novel to life for readers. These lengthy, brave introductions make the characters sticky and easy to form loving attachments.
This praised and intense narrative capacity, however, is also why “The Overstory” stumbles. Once the interweaving of the eight narratives begins, switching routinely between different characters’s perspectives, readers are left grappling for a central thesis or story to follow. Unfortunately, one is not found. It is too difficult to be moved by one event or character when these scenarios are merely glimpsed at, disregarded as the narrative flits to another plot. Thus, while the characters are well crafted upon exposition, they are left behind as Powers takes on too large an idea in too small a space.
Conceivably the only central body in “The Overstory” is Powers’s refrain of environmentalism. It involves trees, trees and more trees. This is certainly an interesting and narrow selection of plot to choose as the factor to propel a reader through a novel. At times, this environmentalist focus is interesting. Powers traces over wonderful descriptions of nature and its power, scientific prose about flora’s communicative traits and, of course, forces readers to glare head on at deforestation and, implicitly, climate change. However, there is little emotional investment here. It is perhaps easier to be moved by the activists themselves — in the small pieces of them readers see — than by the destruction of the environment. If there is something profound and new that Powers is trying to express in his work, especially with respect to environmentalism, it remains behind the curtain.
Despite its shortcomings, “The Overstory” probably deserved its place among the other shortlisted novels for the Booker Prize. The story is undeniably bold, undertaking (with moderate success) a fascinatingly broad narrative with a well-meaning cast of characters. Powers’s writing is clean and consistent, and his literary environmentalism is original and intriguing. Still, these feats subdue potential character intimacy and the novel fails to stand by a robust, explicit thesis. For a paradigm of these latter features done well, see the prize-winning novel, Milkman.