I think it's fair to say that when Richard Powers gets an idea, he runs with it. The Overstory is a novel about trees. Every other sentence mentions a tree. The main characters each have a signature tree. And most of them converge to protect trees. The structure of the book itself is designed to resemble a tree - each character has a backstory that is a root; the stories converge in the longest section - the trunk; the characters diverge again into the crown; and then in the smallest section they produce the seeds of a future world.
And my goodness the book is long and involved. Most of the eight roots stories (featuring nine characters since two of them share a root - figuratively and literally) are novellas in their own right. We have a retired war veteran; a student; an academic who works out that trees communicate; a computer games designer; an intellectual copyright lawyer; a conceptual artist; a young Chinese American; and a psychologist. It should be a job of work to remember who they all are, but they are so well delineated and re-introduced that it is seldom a problem. Occasionally a couple of the characters blur but for the most part, they are quite distinct.
And most of them play some role in defending America's ancient forest from the logging corporations. They take on the might of business, government, law enforcement agencies and a sceptical wider public. They call into question the wisdom of using non-renewable natural resources; on the one hand it seems churlish not to use the bounties that nature provides; but on the other hand what happens when they are gone? For all the examples through history that Richard Powers calls into play, the one he doesn't reference is Easter Island - the people who cut down all their trees to lever up giant statues, offering no future source of wood to build boats. It's all well and good to assume that something else will turn up, but what if it doesn't?
Where some of the stories intersect, a couple of them don't. The computer games designer and the lawyer seem to have parallel narratives that are engaging, but somehow tangential to the overall novel. And those tangential links come right at the end. It is odd, but it does offer some relief from what would otherwise be some pretty intense eco-warrior battle stories.
The stories are deeply hooking. The strength of the worlds that are created; the complexity of the characters is quite wonderful. There is an overall editorial narrative, but for the most part the eco-message is done through the characters and the story. Many books fall into the trap of telling, not showing. The Overstory shows.
For me, the full power of the novel came through by the end of the Trunk section. The pressure built and built; we reached a glorious and terrible crescendo. After that, the timelines started to stretch and it felt as though the pressure had been let off. That doesn't mean the story didn't continue to develop - it did - but some of the passion that had driven the characters in their eco-crusade had gone. At first this felt like a disappointment, an anti-climax. But a few days after finishing the novel, it feels like a real strength. It shows the ageing and the decay which, as the book illustrates with trees, is what nourishes other species and future generations.
I came to The Overstory with no great love of Richard Powers (I struggled through Orfeo); and no great sympathy for tree-huggers. I surprised myself by loving the novel; being persuaded by the message; and getting ever so emotionally attached to some of the characters. The Booker Prize has its critics, but if it can get me to read novels of this quality - against my natural instincts - then it is a wonderful thing.
Richard Powers can clearly write. In Orfeo, we find a semi-retired avant garde composer, Peter Els, filling his empty days setting up a home laboratory and cultivating bacteria. He has only his dog, Fidelio, for company. Fidelio dies and Els’s life starts to unravel.
Most specifically, the Federal Government starts to take an interest in the bacteria.
Els doesn’t trust the Government to accept the innocence of his experiments in these days of heightened sensitivity. So Els does what every rational 70 year old would do: he sets off on a literal journey across the country and a metaphorical journey through his past.
And what a dull past it is. Els had a brief romance at university; he had a wife and a daughter; and he had a friend. His friend liked his wife. His wife liked someone else. Els composed music. On his own.
Like I say, Powers can write and for a while, he created quite an intriguing storyline with the bacteria. He seems to have a delicate touch with words, managing to get the tone just right and allowing the reader to fill in a whole picture on the back of one perfect phrase.
But then comes the music. I do not know the music being described and I do not want to know it. I do not need dozens of pages telling me what Shostakovich sounds like, but at least Shostakovich music exists; at least I could get in touch with the real thing if I wanted to. But dozens of pages describing fictional music?
Describing music is a pretty pointless activity anyway. To this reader, it just looked like endless lists of adjectives; endless lists of composers; endless lists of instruments; endless lists of technical jargon. It was clearly supposed to counterpoint or emphasize situations in the here and now. On the rare occasions (towards the end) where the parallel or contrast was there to be observed, it felt obvious, clunky, heavy handed. Whenever the story had managed to recapture the attention, we drifted off into more music. Truly it was soporific.
Buried in the swathes of drivel, there are interesting (though perhaps obvious) points about government surveillance, personal freedom, paranoia, stymied dreams. At the end, though, these feel just like ingredients sprinkled in according to a recipe. The same too with Els, who manages to veer between perspicacity and gaucheness; pragmatism and naivity with abandon. Orfeo lacks humanity; it lacks credibility.
Where some novels try to do something that doesn’t work or doesn’t appeal, it is difficult to see what Richard Powers was actually trying to do here. At my most charitable, I can only imagine it was a self-indulgent exercise in seeing whether he could create music from words. His answer is that he can’t.
I resent pretty much every minute I wasted reading this novel. *0000
The American novelist Richard Powers is one of those writers who straddles both commercial and critical success. His last novel – his ninth, Echomaker – won the US National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer, while his other works have gathered armfuls of other awards and acclaim. Generosity, his tenth novel, published in the UK in January 2010, comes emblazoned with praise for his work from the likes of Margaret Atwood writing in the NY Review of Books and the late John Updike in the NY Times, while the accompanying blurb is equally full of plaudits.
Powers blends fast-paced, action-packed storylines with intelligence and a ferocious imagination. In Generosity he tackles the world of genetic engineering. The novel is set in current time but in a parallel world, one in which 20% of human genes have already been patented. Russell Stone is a failed writer whose brief glimpse of fame faded when he realised the unforseen human consequences of his cutting articles: he toned his work down to avoid hurting more people but was deemed to have lost his bite. He is now working as a ghost writer for a confessional website while teaching part-time. When he embarks on his new course as lecturer in an evening class on writing, he is mystified by an Algerian woman in his class. Thassa is a twenty three year-old refugee who has tragically lost both her parents and experienced brutality first-hand in her home country. Yet she is so full of natural radiance that everyone around her is magnetised.
Simultaneously, Thomas Kurton, a famous geneticist is toiling away at his research. He has previously produced transgenic cows which produce milk containing proteins capable of curing some human illness. His most recent work is isolating the genes responsible for happiness. Thassa inevitably becomes embroiled in the hunt for the chromosomal key to human joy, and her life changes irrevocably.
I am the wrong person to review any adventure novel leave alone one based in the murky world of science, combining as I do an aversion to adventure/events-driven fiction with scepticism. My love is for books which centre around people rather than events. But I recognise that Powers creates tight, well-researched populist fiction. In Generosity, Powers parodies the concept of the omniscient narrator: so many commercially successful writers use the third person narrative in an all-knowing way, lazily telling us details about characters that they could easily have conveyed through the story. Powers turns this on its head by employing a first person narrator we’re really aware of, one who makes his presence known by passing comments on the characters( eg on Russell: ‘He’s just thirty-two, I know, although he seems much older’) and yet who is blatantly not a character in the story himself. So as well as knowing all about the characters, the narrator reads over Russell’s shoulder, declares that he has a photocopy of the document Russell is holding, and so on. This device is odd and a little disconcerting, and at times feels knowing and pedantic, but it’s certainly original and has the desired effect of evoking discomfort.
My main problem with Generosity was in the implausibility of the premise that everyone adores Thassa. I have no problem with the fact that some people are unnaturally joyful whatever life throws at them, nor with the idea that these people are universally loved (although it has to be said that many people are irritated by Polyanna types, seeing them as foolish/shallow or, worse, messianic and beatific.) No, it was more with the creation of Thassa. I didn’t find her magnetic or lovable. The trouble with novelists creating enigmatic characters is that they usually have to show the reader why the character is so intriguing by giving examples of what they do and say. And Thassa doesn’t come across as the adorable person she’s meant to be. Her essays about Algeria are certainly upbeat and chirpy, but her interactions with others left me tepid. At one point Russell asks Thassa how she’s coping with the local Arabophobia. She grins and replies that she’s not an Arab but a Kabyle, then says that Russell’s surname is a good Arab name when translated, adding ‘Hey! Are you planning any terror, Mister?’ While this is a valiant attempt to expose the racist stereotypes many people have (dark skin=Arab=terrorist), it’s clumsy and Thassa’s ‘quip’ wouldn’t garner more than a lame smile in real life. But in the story, people are mesmerised by her. Another time, during a student assessment, Russell is advising Thassa while she scribbles away in her note book. He assumes she’s taking notes but after a while she turns the page to show him a cartoon of him. Taddaa! How many teachers would be charmed by this, as Russell obviously is, and how many infuriated/irked? There isn’t even the excuse that Thassa is beautiful – in real life, however unfair it is, beautiful people often manage to hypnotise others and are sometimes attributed positive personality characteristics because of their physical beauty. This isn’t the case with Thassa.
Still, this is a small nit in an otherwise accomplished work. The scientific research is impressive, with the psychologists and doctors sounding plausible on the brain chemistry of and genetic predisposition to happiness. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Thassa’s home country, Algeria, is also convincingly portrayed, as is Russell’s growing obsession with this rootless refugee who confounds his expectations by remaining chipper in the face of terrible adversity. I’m prepared to accept that the reason I wasn’t seduced is because it’s a genre I’m not keen on, but those readers who are drawn to imaginative thrillers which explore the potential results of science taken to extremes may find this a compelling work.