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
This book was raved about last year on some of the more American booksites and forums, but I found it a little (200 pages) too long and pretty bog standard, I can't really see where all the fuss comes from.
The novel tells the story of a brother and sister in their thirties, he is involved in a crash which leaves him unable to recognise that his sister is really his sister - he knows that she looks, acts and talks like his sis but he has no emotional recognition with her. Then in steps an overly caring nurse and a famous neurosugeon....
It has to its credit got some gorgeous descriptions of cranes migrations and mythical stories linking to cranes - but I felt this had a very loose conection to the story