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Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Overstory: What Is Our Place In This World?

Look, I realize talking you into a 500-page novel about trees could be a tough sell. But what if I told you that Richard Powers' new novel The Overstory could quite literally change your life. It's that powerful; as immense and magisterial as the trees it's about. If the measure of a good novel is one that gets you to see the world differently, or think more openly, then this is an absolute masterpiece. Powers writes: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

And wow, is this a good story. Through the interconnected tales of nine characters, Powers asks us to really think about our place in the world. How should humans see where they belong in nature, much of which has obviously been here long before humans were? Indeed, near the end of the novel, Powers presents us with the famous thought experiment: If the time frame of the Earth's existence is thought of as a 24-hour day, humans in our current form have only arrived four seconds before midnight. Four seconds! 

And so thinking in those terms helps you frame the central question about our place in the world generally but living symbiotically with nature specifically. As Powers writes, "This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees where humans have just arrived." I don't know about you, but I get chills when I think about that. If you've read the brilliant novel Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, a an oft-cited, foundational piece of environmental literature, Powers' message here builds on an idea presented in that story as well: That we are made for nature, not nature for us.

But it should be made clear that this novel isn't just 500 pages of high-minded environmentalism. It's a fascinating story of people, each of whom is affected by trees in different ways. We spend the first 150 pages meeting each character, in a summary of how each got to the starting line of the story. And then the story starts — and what a story!

An artist and a college student who has a near-death experience find each other and their way into activism — spending several months living in a tree. A woman named Patricia spends her entire life studying trees, and is constantly amazed at how trees in a forest protect each other and can even communicate. She writes a hugely influential book title The Secret Forest that finds its way into the hands of all the other characters at some point. A computer programmer named Neelay falls out of a tree as a young boy, is paralyzed, and then spends his life building computer games in which players can inhabit a fully digital world. There's a psychologist who studies activists, a married couple, and a young Chinese-American woman who spends the novel shifting career paths several times.

All of these characters' intersect with each other at some point in the story, mimicking the idea that not only are we all connected in some way or another, but so is nature. But one of the more interesting character-driven aspects of the story is the role of activism. What causes a person to become an activist, to see what others don't or can't or refuse to? And further, what causes that activist to turn violent? At what point does a person talk himself into the ends justifying the means?

I intensely loved this book. And it's not just me — it has an average rating of 4.38 on Goodreads, which is nearly Harry Potter-level high. And Ron Charles, The Washington Post's book critic, says The Overstory "soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction," among many other very nice things. Every year or so, there's a novel for which I become a borderline-annoying book evangelist. This one is it. Read it!

(If you want to read a long exegesis of this novel, Nathaniel Rich, whose novel King Zeno I really enjoyed as well, wrote this piece in the most recent issue of The Atlantic. He's firm and fair and points out some of the flaws and potential logical shortcomings in Powers' argument. But my issue with Rich's piece is that I never got a sense of the simple question of whether or not he liked the novel.)


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