“Listen. There’s something you need to hear.” This early line from National Book Award winner Richard Powers’ vast, magnificent and disturbing new novel could be its epigraph. These words are spoken in the voice of the trees, who are the real protagonists of the story. The beauty of the trees, their antiquity, their shocking imperilment at our hands, their desire to communicate to us the imminent threats to our mutual survival—all these truths join in one song of celebration and lament.
The first half of the book presents a set of individual stories—an array of human temperaments and predicaments as manifold as Charles Dickens’ or Leo Tolstoy’s. There’s a maverick botanist and a cynical sociologist, a billionaire video-game inventor and a wounded Vietnam veteran, an artist from Midwestern pioneer stock and a burned-out undergraduate. And more. The trees deliver to all nine characters an annunciation as epoch-making as any in the Bible: We bring you tidings of great joy, and also we are all totally fracked. Through this forest of interconnected human beings, Powers never loses the trees.
Each human character suffers a deadly ordeal of some kind. One literally dies for 70 seconds. Others come very close to dying or (no less terrible) bear witness to the violent death or near-death of a loved one. These dreadful brushes with mortality allow them to hear the trees’ difficult truths.
In the second half of The Overstory, the individual stories become intertwined and contrapuntally complicated. Laws and lives are both broken. There can be no happy ending. But to paraphrase Václav Havel, hope is not the same thing as optimism. The Overstory dramatizes this idea on the grandest scale. I have never read anything so pessimistic and yet so hopeful.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Powers for The Overstory.