Tag Archives: Richard Powers

Richard Powers’ Overstory

Richard Powers, The Overstory (William Heinemann 2018)

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilised on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

(The Overstory, page 385)

That’s the challenge Richard Powers has taken on: to write a compelling novel about the contest for the world. While I was reading it, the Australian Commonwealth Government was trumpeting the virtues of coal even while the memory of last year’s devastating fires was still fresh and temperatures in Canada reached staggering new heights. You don’t have to be particularly radical or visionary to realise that the climate emergency is upon us and decisive action is needed; but most of us go on, with occasional breaks for demonstrations or lockdowns, more or less business as usual. The Overstory resolutely turns its gaze on the crisis currently facing humanity, focusing on the world’s forests, attempts to protect them, and the catastrophic scale of destruction.

The opening section, ‘Roots’, reads like eight short stories, each more or less complete in itself, and with no obvious similarities or connections between them. It turns out that we are being introduced to the nine main human characters, and the role trees have played in each of their lives. A boy lives on a farm where his great-grandfather, his grandfather, and his father, have photographed a particular chestnut tree once a month for a century, so that he has a stack of photographs that can be flicked through to show the tree’s growth over that long time. Another boy becomes an early computer nerd, whose life changes dramatically when he falls from high in a tree. A girl is fascinated by what turns out to be a priceless scroll her father has somehow smuggled out of China when he left as a refugee.

In the second and longest section, ‘Trunk’, the main narrative is played out. One character develops a hugely popular and lucrative computer game. Another, who Wikipedia says is modelled on Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, makes world-changing discoveries about how trees communicate with each other. But the dominant thread is about five characters who become part of the ecological movement of the last quarter of the 20th century. There are brilliantly powerful accounts of front-line protests to save the forests of north west USA (of the kind that still continue today, as in Sally Ingleton’s 2020 doco, Wild Things. Avoiding extreme spoilers, I’ll just say that their activism doesn’t end well, and that it ends spectacularly.

The third section, ‘Crown’, is pretty much aftermath. That is, the sense of anticlimax never quite dissipates. Life continues. The activists build new lives. The computer game becomes more complex, more successful, and ultimately less satisfying to its creator. The scientist, whose work was initially ridiculed, is now validated and in demand.

In the fourth, shortest section, ‘Seeds’, the novel’s big question comes into focus. So much damage has been done, such a huge proportion of the earth’s forests has been destroyed, and attempts to prevent further destruction have failed. The damage is either irreparable will need more time to be repaired than we have left: where can we go from here? A number of possibilities are raised – seeds for the future, not all of them including human thriving – but I’m glad to report that the book’s final pages are neither glibly optimistic nor glibly despairing. There is no saying which of the seeds will take root or bear fruit. Trees will survive, but will humanity?

If, like me, you know intellectually how serious the climate emergency is but have trouble really holding that knowledge in your mind and heart, then reading this book will probably bring you closer to facing up to the reality. It is full of passionate love for trees, and for their interconnectedness in forests. I’m not a tree scientist, but my impression is that Richard Powers has immersed himself in the research, then produced his own lyrical, impassioned version, nudging it slightly towards science fiction/fantasy – at times crossing over to mystical communication between trees and humans – but still true to the spirit of the science. Likewise, when Nick and Olivia, now calling themselves Watchman and Maidenhair, spend a year on a platform high up in a threatened redwood, I read it as beautifully realised fiction, but trust that the fiction has solid roots in the realities of those ecological protests.

The Overstory is brimful of ideas: about computer technology, tree science, political organising, the function of art. It’s full of history – in particular of the destruction of the forests of North America by disease and rapacious capitalism in the late 19th and 20th centuries; and of US environmental law, environmental protest movements and, less overtly, land art. It also has nuanced, complex relationships among humans and moments of visceral violence. There are moments of devastating wit, not least the moment towards the end when a Native American perspective is sharply introduced. And all the way through, it rhapsodises about trees, and this, for me, is the engine that keeps the book alive when the plot sometimes loses momentum. Here’s the moment when Nick and Olivia first drive into the redwood forest:

The redwoods knock all words out of them. Nick drives in silence. Even the young trunks are like angels. And when, after a few miles, they pass a monster, sprouting a first upward-sweeping branch forty feet in the air, as thick as most eastern trees, he knows: the word tree must grow up, get real. It’s not the size that throws him, or not just the size. It’s the grooved Doric perfection of the red-brown columns, shooting upward from the shoulder-high ferns to the most-swarmed floor – straight up, with no taper, like a russet, leathery apotheosis. And when the columns do start to crown, it happens so high, so removed from the pillars’ base, that it might as well be a second world up there, up nearer eternity.

(Page 211)

When I’d hit Publish on this I went for a walk and as I passed the trees in the park near our place and in the surrounding streets, I realised that the main joy of The Overstory for me was that it reminded me of how much I love trees. There was a time in my early days in Sydney when I couldn’t talk about the trees near my home in North Queensland without tearing up. More recently, when we left our house for an apartment, it was the guava tree and the cumquat tree that I missed most. Again and again in this book, Richard Powers as narrator or through one of his characters gives unabashed expression to what I suppose should be called dendrophilia.

Here’s a eucalypt catching the afternoon light in our park just now, and some of its tree neighbours.

Richard Powers’ Orfeo

Richard Powers, Orfeo (Atlantic Books 2014)

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Margaret Atwood, no less, is quoted on the cover of this book as saying, ‘If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century he’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big.’ That’s probably taken out of context, and it’s a wee bit over the top, but, you know, only a wee bit. If Melville had been writing about the music scene rather than the whaling industry, he might have written this book. The digressions are just about as long as the ones in Moby-Dick, and for my money at least as interesting; the quest at the centre of the story is as doomed and self-destructive; the frame of reference as global.

Peter Els, a 70 year old composer who has had very little popular or critical success, calls 911 when his dog dies. The police who come to his door have their security-threat detectors set off when they see that he is a DIY biochemist, and soon he is on the run with the full might of Homeland Security behind him. The story of his flight, which becomes a kind of Thelma-and-Louise flavoured 12-steps amends-making pilgrimage, is told in counterpoint with his back story. Folded into one story is the world of Homeland Security vigilance about real and imagined terrorist threats, media panics and the surveillance state; and into the other the history of 20th century US cutting-edge music in its broader world political context.

It’s a gauge of how well Powers writes that just as Els’s flight is reaching a critical moment, he stops off to give a lecture in an old people’s residence, and everything stops while we are told the story of the composition and first performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – and it’s so interesting that 17 pages later, when we return to the main narrative (‘That was the story Els told his eleventh-hour pupils … ) we do so as if waking up from a vivid, satisfying dream. There are other, shorter digressions, in which Els listens to a piece of music, and we are taken through it moment by moment: this is a book to be read, not just with Google on hand to chase up interesting references, but with access to a music library to listen along with Els to Mahler, George Rochberg, John Cage, Harry Partch, and on and on. And yet it has the pace and suspense of a thriller.

I scored (no pun) Orfeo at my book-swappng club. Since I’d had Powers’ Galatea 2.2 on my TBR pile for some years, I decided to read it first. If the creative and life crises depicted in the earlier book when author and character, both called Richard Powers and in their mid 30s, were based in reality, it seems that they passed. Six novels and 19 years later, I don’t know that Orfeo is any more cheerful than Galatea 2.2 but if Galatea 2.2 contemplated the abyss, then Orfeo is gloriously, operatically, romantically over the cliff.

Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2

Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2 (©1995, Harper Perennial 1996)

0060976926The narrator of Galatea 2.2 is a 35 year old ‘humanist in residence’ at a massive, cutting-edge scientific research centre somewhere in the USA. Recently returned from years in The Netherlands, he is still hurting from the end of his first great love relationship. When an odd, misanthropic scientist invites him to collaborate in a project to develop an artificial entity capable of producing literary commentary that will pass for human, he accepts the challenge. They are doing it for a bet, and start out thinking of it as an elaborate scam. The novel’s reference to the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his statue Galatea, which then came to life, sets up clear enough expectations.

A complicating factor is that the narrator’s name is Richard Powers, and as he tells the story of his past in a second, retrospective narrative strand, a good bit of that story (Powers’ previous four novels, the places he lived, a passing mention of time spent in south-east Asia as a child) is verifiably the same as that of the author Richard Powers. This narrative tells of Richard’s falling in love and the gradual deterioration of the relationship even as his career as a novelist flourishes: the love story may or not be drawn from life.

It’s a teasing mixture of memoir and speculative fiction. Add to the mix extended accounts of cognitive science and artificial intelligence debates, and a sometimes overwhelmingly dense play of literary allusion (Powers is educating the machine in the great canon of literature in English, and he and some of the other human characters can quote great slabs from that canon from memory), and you’ve got a very rich mix. Here’s a relatively straightforward literary bit when the machine, now called Helen, is well advanced in its/her ‘education’:

She wanted to know whether a person could die by spontaneous combustion. The odds against a letter slipped under the door slipping under the carpet as well. Ishmael’s real name. Who this ‘Reader’ was and why he rated knowing who married whom. Whether single men with fortunes really needed wives. what home would be without Plumtree’s Potted Meats. How long would it take to compile a key to all mythologies. What the son of a fish looked like. Where Uncle Toby was wounded. Why anyone wanted to imagine unquiet slumbers for sleepers in quiet earth. Whether Conrad was a racist. Why Huck Finn was taken out of libraries. Which end of an egg to break. Why people read. Why they stopped reading. What it meant to be ‘only a novel’. What use half a locket was to anyone. Why it would be a mistake not to live all you can.

I get quite a few of those references, and I expect you do too. It’s a Trivial Pursuit kind of  fun. You can imagine someone reading the novel with one hand and holding a googling machine in the other.

The scientific palaver offers a different kind of pleasure:

It struck me. Every neuron formed a middle term in a continuous, elaborate, brain-wide pun. With a rash of dendrite inputs and handfuls of axon cuts, each cell served as enharmonic point in countless constellations, shifting configurations of light, each circuit standing in for some new sense. To fire or not meant different things, depending on how the registers aligned at a given instant and which other alignments read the standing sum. Each node was an entire computer, a comprehensive comparison. And the way they fit together was a cupola itself.
Those weird parallaxes of framing must be why the mind opened out on meaning at all.

I leave it to cognitive scientist readers to decided whether this is Doctor Who-ish ‘timey-wimey stuff’ or something more substantial. Either way, it – and many passages like it – serves to impress on us how complicated the science is. And, though the going becomes tough at times for readers like me who don’t like to skip the technical paragraphs, a believable narrative emerges of a machine capable of increasingly complex responses.

The love story isn’t completely convincing, and some minor characters tend to fall just short of being prompts for reflection on the nature of intelligence: one character has a wife with advanced dementia, another has a son with Down syndrome, and a postgrad literature student for whom Richard conceives an infatuation is conveniently imbued with Theory. Oddly enough, the parts of the book that I found most convincing were the descriptions of life in a Dutch village, in which the author’s love of the Netherlands is almost palpable, and the narrator’s ups and downs as he learns Dutch ring completely, joyously true.