About ten years ago, Richard Powers began to try his hand at short stories. His novels, starting with Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985), had brought home honors of all sorts, including the 2007 National Book Award for The Echo Maker. Praise-singers, among them Margaret Atwood and Colson Whitehead, hailed his ability to wring drama out of hard science, for instance in The Goldbug Variations (1991), which played Bach even as it unraveled DNA helixes. Yet this combination also had its naysayers. For some, the fiction rendered matters of the heart like a computer schematic, and no one was more unforgiving than James Wood. In a takedown of the 2009 novel Generosity, in the New Yorker, the critic assailed Powers as “banal,” his handling of the passions “trashy.” The author made no response, wisely, but meantime dabbled in shorter work. Beginning in 2002, he placed stories in Zoetrope, Playboy, and elsewhere—including, in 2011, the New Yorker. “To the Measures Fall,” a dappled panorama of a woman’s life, went on to make the Best American anthology. It looked as if the artist, despite his accomplishments, was trying to learn something new.
Now comes The Overstory, at first glance nothing like a short story. Powers’s heftiest tome since Goldbug, it features his biggest canvas, with nine major characters from all over the US. We follow these men and women from childhood to old age—excepting one, who dies young, and shockingly—and into a wide variety of careers, romances, and more. Breadth like this is a departure for Powers, though roving among different points of view is his usual MO. Still, he’s never been so Tolstoyan, plucking dreams from so many heads. A reviewer faces a steep challenge trying to show how things come together.
In the woods would be the simple answer: everyone in the novel winds up trying to save the planet’s dwindling forests. This time, the science Powers works with often proves gloomy; all that’s left of Earth’s original wilderness, we learn, is “no more than two or three percent.” Such data take a toll on the characters: the statistic about lost woodland, for instance, emerges in the trial deposition of the book’s tree expert, a woman whose studies leave her on the verge of suicide. The trial’s outcome puts other players at risk, as they seek to protect the old growth in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, the struggle over those forests provides, among the many storylines, the novel’s defining trajectory.
For a cadre of protesters, five of the novel’s principals, their work escalates into eco-terrorism. Halfway into the book, they begin blowing up the loggers’ equipment depots. The violence—in its extremity unlike anything the author has done—makes the skin crawl. The tragic consequences linger for years, affecting even the peaceable figures. Powers keeps the connections subtle, as in a teeming woodland, where interaction takes place “always as much belowground as above.” Two Midwestern stay-at-homes find themselves drawn into the bombers’ legal defense, and a Silicon Valley whiz, though wheelchair-bound, gives the tree scientist reason to live. In their own ways, every character confronts the question raised by a tree-sitter: “Do you believe human beings are using up resources faster than the world can replace them?” The answer, for everyone, comes “like an unblinding: ‘Yes.’”
This then is the main action, the forest that emerges from the trees. Amid the many lines of development, the many paths to protest, one of the miracles is how intensely we root for these people. Perhaps the most sympathetic is the Vietnam veteran Douglas Pavlicek. A kind of Holy Fool, squeaking through one deadly scrape after another, Pavlicek stands apart from the author’s usual protagonists, polymaths and high achievers not unlike himself. As for the tree-sitting sequence, in which a young couple risk their lives repeatedly, I believe even James Wood would find it gripping. More moving still is the worst of the violence, the bungled bombing of another equipment depot.
The five “eco-warriors,” at this point, include the former tree-sitters, known in the cadre as “Maidenhair” and “Watchman.” The bombing is intended as their final action, which lends a classic tension to the preparations. But out in the woods, two men “mis-time their movements,” triggering a massive “concussion wave,” and in another minute Watchman sits cradling the mortally wounded Maidenhair:
Her eyes squeeze shut. Then they open, wild. She stares, unsure what she’s looking at.
“How long can it last?”
“Not long,” he promises.
She claws at him, an animal falling from a great height. Then she calms again. “But not us? This will never end—what we have. Right?”
This cataclysm, all the more terrible for the intimacy of its portrayal, has, as I say, lasting consequences. The denouement finds Pavlicek doing hard time and Watchman living off the grid, making subversive environmental art. Happy endings, in the ordinary sense, have no place in a text that renounces ordinary notions of human progress. The Overstory, rather, treats its bipedal omnivores as just another strand in the ecosystem. This vision also informs the many literary references, from medieval Chinese poetry to Thoreau’s Walden, and gives the text its four parts: “Roots,” “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” Along the way, there are glimpses of the world before humanity, and at times the trees themselves function as dramatic personae. The first of the “Roots,” tracing the rise and fall of an Iowa farm family, gains dramatic momentum from a devastating blight of the early 1900s: “A country watches dumbstruck as New England’s priceless chestnuts melt away.” Another early passage notes that “everything a human being might call the story happens outside” a tree’s lifecycle.
To put it another way, this is a novel founded on the notion of our lives as short stories. The author’s experiments in that form clearly helped him develop the skills for this drama. Each section of “Roots” is itself a contained narrative. Each introduces a person in some way marooned, and identified with a tree: a mulberry for the out-of-touch immigrant, a maple for the boy too smart for his own good. Such material takes us back to myth—the primordial short story. Not surprisingly, Ovid’s Metamorphoses emerges as another central text.
This Olympian perspective finds different expression in the brief, mysterious passages, italicized, which introduce each section. “Roots” for instance opens with an old woman in a park, in imaginary conversation with a tree. She may be one of the main characters—as seen five hundred pages later, at novel’s end—or perhaps Alice Walker, who wrote about similar encounters. In any case no names are given, neither here nor in the other interstitial snippets. Though such inserts fit the overall conceit—they view humanity through the eyes of an arboreal God—they veer toward mumbo-jumbo. They leave small smirches on an otherwise magnificent leviathan. The Overstory needs no mystic palaver, given the prayerful impact of a walk in the woods:
Clicks and chatter disturb the cathedral hush. The air is so twilight-green she feels like she’s underwater. It rains particles—spore clouds, broken webs and mammal dander, skeletonized mites, insect frass and bird feather…Everything climbs over everything else, fighting for scraps of light. If she holds still too long, vines will overrun her.
Passages like that glimpse death everywhere, in the skeletons and “frass,” yet cheek by jowl with verdant striving. Every verb conveys such striving: “rain,” “climb,” and “overrun.” The rhetoric throughout the book—other than in its few lapses into blather—enjoys the same leathery snap, a nourishing toughness, and seems another benefit of the author’s work in the short story. Taken as a whole, the language establishes The Overstory as Powers’s new high-water mark. Plainspoken yet heartbreaking, the author renders even turns of thought sinewy: “It occurs to [him] where the word radical came from. Radix. Wrad. Root. The plant’s, the planet’s, brain.”