2018 Man Booker review: The Overstory

24th August 2018

The Overstory, Richard Powers

William Heinemann, London, 2018

Reviewed by Claire Steele

The Overstory, Richard Powers, William Heinemann, London, 2018

Richard Powers has a talent for creating visionary narrative structures on an heroic scale, and The Overstory is no exception. It opens with a challenge: past and present coming together in three sentences. “First there was nothing. Then there was everything. Then, in a park above a western city after dusk, the air is raining messages.” Creation happens in the dark, continuous, its signs as essential and transient as the rain.

The narrative structure of the novel is complex, providing not just an investigation into the structures of both life and literature, but also a meditation on the grandeur of the forest. Eight concentric stories form the trunk of the novel, each the arc of its own life, yet spiritually and historically rooted in the others. Overarching these eight human understories, the compelling details of the personal dramas which make up the narrative arcs, Powers proffers the breathtaking, oxygen-imparting Overstory of the language of trees. This is not just pathetic fallacy. The eco-critical tradition in which this novel is written advocates a literature that represents the natural world in its own right, not just as a romantic backdrop to or fount of human sensibility.

Formal patterning is a signal feature of Powers’ writing, at least as important to his writing as the storylines. For Powers, the patterns operate as a knowledge-bearing structure, a sort of DNA. The Overstory celebrates the way sequences are formed within a context wider and more majestic than a human life. If we can attend to the slow assertions of nature’s grandeur, Powers proposes, we can hear something magnificent, holy even. “All growing things alone disclose the wordless mind of God.”

Powers urges us to enter a world which we are exploiting, but which, if we can only attend to its signs, he is convinced will redeem us. He marshals the language of tiny details, the seeds of life and death floating on the air, in order to convey how enormous, unforgiving and wide-ranging are the effects of our current period of history, and our rapaciousness in particular. He elaborates again and again how greatly it shapes both international and personal relations, the impact it has on all the levels of our story.

The effect of these stories, layered over each other, is like time-lapse photography. Our lives speed up, hurtle towards their own undoing. Maybe all novels are about mortality, but here we encounter time in a new way and understand ourselves differently. Like the forests it celebrates, this novel is sonically rich, lit with wordplay and mythic reference. Ovid’s plea in Metamorphoses: Let me sing to you now about how people turn into other things, is a repeated refrain. We enter the world of The Overstory, charmed and charged. We read it slowly, not just because this is a long novel, but because it is like art. It requires our attentiveness, it requires us to be still. It takes time for truth to assemble itself. The effect is almost graphic, and Powers suggests as much with his narrative of the photographs of the Hoel family Chestnut. At the beginning of the novel Nicholas Hoel inherits a multigenerational photography project, which operates like a flip-book speeding up the life of the mighty Chestnut. He also dreams the central question of the novel: What is it that you really want to make?

At the end of the novel, the stories come full circle, to the word Amen, the single oldest word Nick knows, as he seeks to find something both useful and true in response to that question. We emerge from the novel transfigured from our time in the forest, slightly dazed by the experience, somewhat terrified by the implications, and totally humbled by so much life-sustaining joy.

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