May 14, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

On Richard Powers’s The Overstory

It’s an almost universally accepted notion now that good literature comes down to character. Scholars have long argued that the rise of the novel in Europe coincides with the rise of the individual, while contemporary critics often judge literary fiction in terms of how realistic its characters are and how well a reader will connect to them emotionally. James Wood begins his 2008 craft book How Fiction Works with a discussion of free indirect discourse, thus framing his whole argument about good fiction with the idea of point of view, and then later dismisses postmodern fiction for flat and unrealistic characters. Even John Gardner, who’s much more sympathetic to metafiction and postmodernism, argues in his classic craft book The Art of Fiction that “in all great fiction, primary emotion (our emotion as we read, or the characters’ emotions, or some combination of both) must sooner or later lift off from the particular and be transformed to an expression of what is universally good in human life—what promotes happiness for the individual alone and in society; in other words, some statement on value.” Gardner is more interested than Wood in fiction’s moral capabilities, but even he places character and the individual at the center of this morality.

But what if character wasn’t the only thing fiction could be about? What if a novel could be about other things instead—the world, science, ideas, the environment? In his 2018 novel The Overstory, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize, Richard Powers demonstrates that a novel doesn’t have to come down to human emotion—and even argues that from a moral point that, given our world’s impending environmental doom, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Powers has been writing novels consistently since the 1980s, and even though he’s won a National Book Award and a MacArthur Fellowship and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, his novels are often dismissed by contemporary literary critics for being too based in ideas and not enough in character. A 2014 review of his novel Orfeo, though overall somewhat positive, opened with what felt like a cruel discussion of the “Powers Problem,” the idea that though his novels are “cerebral” and “ambitious,” they also possess a “surfeit of ideas at the expense of life” and ultimately have “more head than heart.” “For Powers’s severest critics,” the review notes, “the aim at which he signally fails is that of creating fully human characters with interesting motives and emotions.” James Wood, meanwhile, wrote in The New Yorker in 2009 a broad critique of Powers’s entire oeuvre, arguing that Powers “makes beautiful connections between concepts (genetics, music, computers, consciousness, memory), but primitive and mechanistic connections between his characters” and that his novels are ultimately “unwitting, even anxious confessions of their own inability to animate his characters.”

For some writers, a 3000+ word takedown by the nation’s preeminent critic in one of the nation’s preeminent magazines might lead to an agonizing reconsideration of aesthetic priorities. I certainly might wonder if maybe the critics were right and I was just bad at character. But to Richard Powers’s credit, he doesn’t alter his fundamental view of fiction, and with The Overstory, he responds to critics like James Wood by demonstrating that perhaps their view of fiction is simply too limited. The Overstory follows nine characters who all in various ways and to varying degrees come to understand the importance of trees. For many of these characters, these epiphanies border on religious conversions (possibly not unlike the moment Powers’s himself describes as his inspiration for writing this novel), and several of them eventually meet and commit themselves to a radical environmentalist movement.

Many of the characters are interesting and well developed in their own right—Douglas Pavlicek, for example, a conflicted and cynical Vietnam veteran and participant in the Stanford Prison Experiment, or Patricia Westerford, a scientist committed to getting humanity to understand that trees are sentient beings—and the chapters which introduce many of them could exist as effective short stories by themselves. But not every character is necessarily complex, and some function more as mouthpieces for certain worldviews, in particular Olivia, a young woman who becomes a sort of prophet guiding the others towards radical environmentalism. But while a critic like James Wood might criticize certain characters for their flatness or their lack of human depth, Powers is clearly interested in something beyond these characters’ verisimilitude: this is not just a short story collection that looks at nine people who happen to be affected by trees, but a novel that weaves these nine characters into a larger story (an “overstory” shall we say) that goes beyond their individual human lives. Powers says as much early on in the novel in a wonderful passage that describes a series of photos of a single tree over the course of the twentieth century, contrasting the lives of the Hoel family during that time with the slow and steady growth of this single tree in their yard:

The photos hide everything: the twenties that do not roar for the Hoels. The Depression that cost them 200 acres and sends half the family to Chicago. The radio shows that ruin two of Frank Jr.’s sons for farming. The Hoel death in the South Pacific and the two Hoel guilty survivals. The Deeres and Caterpillars parading through the tractor shed. The barn that burns to the ground one night to the screams of helpless animals. The dozens of joyous weddings, christenings, and graduations. The half-dozen adulteries. The two divorces sad enough to silence songbirds. One son’s unsuccessful campaign for the state legislature. The lawsuit between cousins. The three surprise pregnancies. The protracted Hoel guerrilla war against the local pastor and half the Lutheran parish. The handiwork of heroin and Agent Orange that comes home with nephews from ‘Nam. The hushed up incest, the lingering alcoholism, a daughter’s elopement with the high school English teacher. The cancers (breast, colon, lung), the heart disease, the degloving of a worker’s fist in a grain augur, the car death of a cousin’s child on prom night. The countless tons of chemicals with names like Rage, Roundup, and Firestorm, the patented seeds engineered to produce sterile plants. The fiftieth wedding anniversary in Hawaii and its disastrous aftermath. The dispersal of retirees to Arizona and Texas. The generation of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photo’s frame. Inside the frame, through hundreds of revolving seasons, there is only that solo tree, its fissured bark spiraling upward into early-middle age, growing at the speed of wood.

Throughout the novel, Powers continually emphasizes this contrast—the shortness of a human life versus the sheer scope of a tree’s (“There are, in fact, redwoods thirty stories tall and as old as Jesus,” he writes at one point). Such contrasts remind us that though this novel might focus on individual human beings, there is life on this earth, and even consciousness, that exists on a much grander scale. And by the novel’s end, Powers suggests that the solution to Earth’s environmental woes might lie with this other consciousness rather than with humans alone—if only we could learn to empathize with trees in the same way we’re able to empathize with other humans.

Towards the end of the novel, Powers takes this idea of the myopia of the human perspective and explicitly applies it to fiction: one of the characters, Dorothy Brinkman, is reading to her dying husband, and Powers uses this as an opportunity to comment on the limitations of certain kinds of literature:

The books diverge and radiate, as fluid as finches on isolated islands, but they share a core so obvious it passes for given. Everyone imagines that fear and anger, violence and desire, rage laced with the surprise capacity to forgivecharacteris all that matters in the end. It’s a child’s creed of course, just one small step up from the belief that the Creator of the Universe would care to dole out sentences like a judge in federal court. 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 mobilized 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.

It’s hard not to read this as a direct response to James Wood’s critique, an argument that Wood’s obsession with character and character emotion is actually a limitation. I’ve made similar arguments on this blog before, that perhaps our literary culture overvalues realism in characters, and I’ve critiqued James Wood disdain for postmodernism in particular—but it’s something else to see such arguments embodied in a whole novel, and to see such a novel rewarded by the Pulitzer. It gives one hope that perhaps fiction can move beyond the simplistic and myopic notion that character is the fundamental core of literature. After all, even though Powers writes that “no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people,” the irony is that The Overstory does just that.