The Overstory by Richard Powers

The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.

A book club pick I was pretty unenthusiastic about: prize winners always disappoint me, and I am impatient with fiction by white men. Intellectually I understand the dangers of climate change but find myself unable to connect with stories about it. This book felt like it would be a slog.

The opening vignettes intrigued me -- they were great! -- but I just could not fathom how they would encompass 502 pages when each one was such a brief, and seemingly complete, sliver.

I should be less judgy, I know.


The Overstory by Richard Powers
W.W. Norton & Company, 2019
Personal copy


Powers pulled together these small slivers into a book that hit me with surprising impact, a story that left me breathless and a little teary. As a tween who was obsessed with the radical environmental activists of the 1980s and 1990s who grew into an organizer whose work with Greenpeace was monitored when Ashcroft added them to the terrorist watch list post-9/11, the central plotline of this book resonated (with minor irritations I'll share later).

While I found the arboreal voice lacking -- the blurbs on the book made me think that trees would be actual characters, a la Delicious Foods making cocaine a POV -- I still enjoyed the intimate connection between characters and trees. It was reminded of the kind of popular nonfiction about nature I read in college -- Barry Lopez for example -- and writers like Wendell Barry. Not my favorite, but with enough poetry in description to sate me.

And I loved the characters. I was genuinely surprised and how some of their stories turned out, and it was a delight. The range of passion and pain anchored this and made it far more pleasurable and less preachy than Flight Behavior.

I read this alongside Laura Lam's Goldilocks and noted that Lam has a nearly five-page acknowledgement and sources section for all the people and things that inspired her book. Powers has none. The unfairness of that irritates me because I spotted so much in Powers' book that was clearly drawn from real life -- someone else's research and imagination -- and the co-opting of it for his book, for another reader to possibly mistake as his own original idea -- well, it feels ... not right. Elements I noticed:

The character of Olivia was clearly inspired by Julia Butterfly Hill's actual life -- right down to her experience with death and spiritual rebirth (even Hill's wiki notes that, although flagged for needing a citation since Powers hasn't acknowledged it).

The character of Adam felt strongly shaped by the life and experiences of Bill Ayers. This one I'm less angry about since it didn't feel like Powers took wholesale from Ayers, was just inspired by. Olivia's character and the lack of acknowledgement that she was inspired by Hill is more upsetting to me.

Mimi's therapeutic practice of deep looking is literally Marina Abramović's performance piece 'The Artist Is Present' from 2010. The passage of the experience of the client read to me like one of the reflections from someone who sat across from Abramović.

Neelay's Mastery game seemed very much like Sid Meier's Civilization series, mashed up with World of Warcraft; the expansive, consuming crawlers of Neelay's readers like early go-no-evil Google. As with Adam's character, this was a little more forgivable to me as it feels more general, but still.

I'm sure there were other small nods or characters based on real life that I missed; these jumped at me for their familiarity and it disappointed me to see that Powers doesn't honor them as a source.

In the end, almost no one from book club came to the discussion, but I enjoyed this enough that I'm not betrayed. It did remind me of my yard, to look at the trees a little more closely, and it reminded me of my resistance to considering climate change (despite my passion for justice and societal change) and what I could do to right that.

Comments

  1. I really enjoyed this one, but I had no idea it was based on so many real people--now I have to go research them!

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