Tuesday 14 August 2018

Deep roots

Fiction: The Overstory, Richard Powers, William Heinemann, hardback, 512 pages, €18.25

Branching out: Richard Powers' latest novel centres on the lives and deaths of trees
Branching out: Richard Powers' latest novel centres on the lives and deaths of trees
The Overstory

Tim Martin

This extraordinary piece of environmental fiction follows eight characters through the late 20th and early 21st centuries against a backdrop of the American forest's destruction.

I had to look it up: the "overstory", the title of Richard Powers' 12th book, is the highest bit of a forest, the canopy that sets the conditions of life for everything beneath. But one doesn't need to spend long in this teeming novel about ecology, eco-terrorism and the natural world before the puns in the title start to put out shoots of their own: what would a planetary overstory look like? What happens when a planet's story comes to an end?

This book about the lives and deaths of trees opens with chestnut-planting Norwegian immigrants in the 1800s and grows steadily outward until it reaches the age of neural nets and virtual worlds; it whirls together so many characters, so much research and such a jostle of intersecting ideas that, at times, it feels like a landbound companion to Moby-Dick's digressional and obsessive whale tale. As with Melville's novel, however, this book about what humans kill is also a book about what kills humans; and the answer to that is, as ever, mostly themselves.

As a broadly realist novel with an environmental message, The Overstory occupies a strangely deserted corner of literary production. With a few exceptions, novelists tend to tell us about the end of the world when everything's done and dusted. Countless works of speculative fiction grimly lay out how we got there in the post-apocalypse: food crisis in John Christopher's The Death of Grass, gene-splicing screw-up in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, weather apocalypse in J G Ballard's element novels, and who knows how many "cli-fi" thrillers in which humans struggle through landscapes made arid by climate change or devastated by technological suicide.

Fewer writers apply the same imagination to the more sobering concept of how we're currently getting there: one might make a case for bits of Annie Proulx's enormous Barkskins (2016) about three centuries of rapacious loggers, but perhaps the only real classic in the environmental-fiction genre is Edward Abbey's 1975 The Monkey Wrench Gang, a story about bomb-throwing activists versus man and his machines.

Into this denuded territory, Powers, always a writer of big ideas, has dropped one of the most thoughtful and involving popular novels I've read for years. The Overstory's roots are broad, but it slowly comes to concentrate on eight characters whose lives "have long been connected, deep underground" and follows them through the late 20th and early 21st centuries against a backdrop of the American forest's destruction.

Among them are Patricia Westerford, a scholar who becomes convinced that trees are talking to one another, "linked together in an airborne network, sharing an immune system across acres of woodland" and who becomes a forest-dwelling recluse for the decades it takes her ideas to penetrate scientific orthodoxy. There's Neelay Mehta, the disabled son of immigrants from India, who dreams of creating a virtual world that will mimic the complexity of nature itself. There's Nick Hoel, an artist born beneath one of America's few surviving chestnut trees, who becomes an anonymous sloganeer in the battle to save the country's redwoods, and Olivia Vandergriff, a student who believes that higher powers are calling her to a life of environmental activism.

All these characters, and several others - a Vietnam vet, a Chinese businesswoman, a sceptical academic who equates habitat destruction with the psychological "bystander effect" - touch briefly, linked by their connection with trees and plants, then draw apart.

This long book is astonishingly light on its feet, and its borrowings from real research are conducted with verve. Readers of The Hidden Life of Trees, a surprise ecological bestseller by the German forester Peter Wohlleben, will recognise the germ of Patricia Westerford's academic philosophy, but Powers invests her character with a passionate grace: "She could tell them," muses Westerford at a tech conference, "about a simple machine needing no fuel and little maintenance, one that steadily sequesters carbon, enriches the soil, cools the ground, scrubs the air, and scales easily to any size. A tech that copies itself and even drops food for free. A device so beautiful it's the stuff of poems."

Olivia Vandergriff and her posse are similarly based on real-life activists - particularly Julia "Butterfly" Hill, who spent more than 700 days living at the top of a redwood tree in the late 1990s - but Powers' description of life spent in the forest canopy, as "highwire surveyors of a newfound land", vibrates with a near-psychedelic sincerity of evocation.

Several of Powers' novels have been slightly unsettling exercises in emotional distance, better at dealing with intersecting systems of grand ideas than with the characters.

The Overstory works on a similarly high level, but the propulsive style and the enthusiastic reverence of Powers' writing keep it whizzing through any amount of linked observations on literary criticism, political science and statistical analysis.

It's an extraordinary novel, alert to the large ideas and humanely generous to the small ones; in an age of cramped autofictions and self-scrutinising miniatures, it blossoms.

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