Hey, preacher, leave those trees alone

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - EOIN McNAMEE THEOVERSTORY RICHARD POW­ERS Wil­liam Heine­man, 502pp, £18.99

The Over­story might be a good book, and it might be a bad book. It might be a novel that reaches out for the unattain­able and falls short of it, or a novel that over­shoots its own good in­ten­tions. You can’t say it works as a piece of prose and you can’t say it doesn’t work. You don’t know whether you should read it trans­fixed by the shadow of the fall of man, or throw it at the wall and run scream­ing into the for­est.

Nine char­ac­ters con­verge on an eco­log­i­cal protest and splin­ter away from it. There are sci­en­tists, ac­tu­ar­ies, Viet­nam vets and game de­sign­ers. There are epipha­nies and el­e­men­tal brain­storms. There are sins of an­thro­po­mor­phism and per­son­i­fi­ca­tion. Chap­ter one be­gins: “Now is the time of chest­nuts.” It isn’t the only sen­tence in the book that teeters on the brink. The Over­story is a ranter’s ser­mon. By the end of it you’ll know more about trees than you thought there was to know – bush­whacked with the won­drous.

You will ca­reen through this book. The prose is driven. You don’t really get to draw breath. For a book that ap­proaches a quar­ter of a mil­lion words, respite might be re­quired. But the writ­ing is steel-edged, laser-sharp when Richard Pow­ers wants it to be. When he sets out to nail mean­ing, it’s done. There are sen­tences you re­turn to and won­der at. Trees “are like the tip of a Ouija planchette, tak­ing dic­ta­tion from be­yond . . . they are in fact like noth­ing but them­selves . . . Like­ness is the sole prob­lem of men.”

The apex of the book is the protest against the felling of old-growth for­est.

Eco war­riors take to the tree tops. They are called Maiden­hair, Moss-eater, Grey Wolf. The bull­doz­ers and chain­saws are com­ing but there is an idyll in the tree canopy to be got through first. There is a Free Biore­gion of Cas­ca­dia. You won­der what hap­pened to the side-of-mouth pro­tag­o­nists of Amer­i­can fic­tion – dead-eyed iro­nists squint­ing at the end of the world through cig­a­rette smoke.

That’s not to say that Pow­ers isn’t em­pir­i­cal when he wants to be. He daz­zles and sand­bags you with mes­sianic end-of-time prose and then you’re an­kle-deep in the cor­po­rate sleight of hand involved in the de­liv­ery of old-growth forests to log­ging in­ter­ests, or look­ing at the le­gal struc­tures re­quired to grant ac­tual rights to trees.

Neu­ron­blast

Borges is there along with am­brosia bee­tles. Kant. You’re in the mid­dle of a storm of thought that has been wres­tled into the shape of a novel by a writer’s act of will. A neu­ron blast of high-mind­ed­ness. You get to the brink of whimsy, then you’re hauled back: “Reefs bleach and wet­lands dry. Things are going lost that have not yet been found.”

There’s Pow­ers him­self on the back fly-leaf. A 21st-cen­tury an­i­mist with the eyes of a re­vival­ist preacher. There are colours on his spec­trum that no one else can see. Or at least he be­lieves they are there.

Mar­garet At­wood says that, “It’s not pos­si­ble for Pow­ers to write an un­in­ter­est­ing book”, a sly quote with just a lit­tle bit too much con­de­scen­sion buried in it. You want to take Pow­ers’s side in all of this and then find your­self de­feated by the high-minded and naive. There’s a lean­ing to­wards the be­nign in the work, and this is given full rein when it comes to trees. Pow­ers can take a mar­riage apart in prose, strip it mer­ci­lessly down to its bare parts, but a for­est al­ways gets the full kindly light. You want to tell him that it’s a tree, not a kit­ten in a bas­ket, and it can look af­ter its own mean­ing even if it can’t stop the teeth of a chainsaw and the greed of the tim­ber mill.

Pow­ers lines up with the an­gels and to a point earns his right to do so. En­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion is a catas­tro­phe. There is a right and duty to op­pose it by any means pos­si­ble. The law lines up with the pow­er­ful and the mer­ce­nary. You want the book to work but have your doubts. Af­ter a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence, a young stu­dent hears the plan­e­tary mes­sage. The most won­drous prod­ucts of four bil­lion years of life need help. But if the uni­verse had a voice ca­pa­ble of speak­ing, you’d ex­pect it to be grav­elly and scep­tic.

Ser­monoftrees

His char­ac­ters are in the main ide­al­ists, and in the main they are un­ex­am­ined. They preach the ser­mon of trees to oth­ers and they preach it to them­selves when they are alone. This high-oc­tane earnest­ness is self-de­feat­ing. The au­thors lyri­cism thrown away in the pur­suit of an­other as­ser­tion of the es­sen­tial na­ture of trees, the tree lore, tree sci­ence, tree phi­los­o­phy, tree won­der, and their elab­o­rate vo­cab­u­lar­ies. Rap­ture is in­ward-look­ing. How Amer­i­cans see the ground un­der their feet, the colonis­ers’ un­ful­filled de­sire for ab­so­lute pos­ses­sion. An in­sis­tence on wrestling mean­ing from the land, shap­ing it to tem­plates, ex­pect­ing it to carry mean­ings, turn­ing na­ture into self-re­gard. The only re­sponse is to leave it to its own de­vices, and hu­mans can’t and won’t do that.

‘‘ You won­der what hap­pened to the side-of-mouth pro­tag­o­nists of Amer­i­can fic­tion – dead-eyed iro­nists squint­ing at the end of the world through cig­a­rette smoke

PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY IM­AGES

By the end of it you’ll know more about trees than you thought there was to know.

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