Ev­ery branch fore­shad­ows earthly de­cline

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

We in­habit a mo­ment of pro­found plan­e­tary cri­sis. More than half the world’s wildlife gone in the past 40 years, rates of land­clear­ing still ris­ing, in­sect pop­u­la­tions in Europe and else­where in col­lapse, ocean biomass drop­ping fast.

Mean­while our de­mands on the planet con­tinue to es­ca­late. Af­ter a brief lev­el­ling off in re­cent years car­bon diox­ide emis­sions are ris­ing again, and in April CO2 con­cen­tra­tions reached 410 parts per mil­lion, an in­crease of 30 per cent in just six decades. The five hottest years on record have all oc­curred in the past decade. And hu­man pop­u­la­tion is still ris­ing rapidly.

Yet in a way the most star­tling thing about these fig­ures is that we have some­how willed our­selves into ig­nor­ing the scale of the dis­as­ter that is bear­ing down on us. Like ad­dicts on the world’s big­gest ben­der, we are burn­ing through our chil­dren’s and our chil­dren’s chil­dren’s in­her­i­tances so fast it should make our heads spin, yet no­body talks about it.

This pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­so­nance lies at the heart of Amer­i­can author Richard Pow­ers’s poly­mathic new novel, The Over­story. In some ways this may seem an ob­vi­ous place for Pow­ers’s writ­ing to fetch up. Over the past 30 years his fic­tion has nav­i­gated the in­ter­sect­ing worlds of art and sci­ence, ar­tic­u­lat­ing a lan­guage that is at home ex­plor­ing the sci­en­tific un­der­pin­nings of art and mu­sic or the po­etry of sci­ence.

In his best books, such as the ex­tra­or­di­nary The Echo Maker (2006), a Na­tional Book Award-win­ning ex­plo­ration of brain in­jury, per­son­hood and the shadow state of post-9/11 Amer­ica, he in­ter­fuses these el­e­ments in ways that re­veal of­ten dizzy­ing con­nec­tions, as well as un­cov­er­ing how his char­ac­ters are shaped by the world they in­habit.

Like many of Pow­ers’s nov­els, The Over­story is struc­turally au­da­cious, open­ing with an ac­count of a 19th-cen­tury Nor­we­gian im­mi­grant’s de­ci­sion to carry the seeds of a chestnut tree west with him to Iowa. As the trees grow — and fall — the nar­ra­tive arcs for­ward into the present day, and the sort of mo­ment of wrench­ing tragedy that re­minds us all apoc­a­lypses are es­sen­tially per­sonal, be­fore split­ting off and be­gin­ning again with a sec­ond char­ac­ter, and then a third, a fourth, and so on.

This process might be alien­at­ing if it were not for the sheer in­tel­li­gence and in­ten­sity of feel­ing Pow­ers in­vests in his con­stantly restart­ing nar­ra­tive.

The nine char­ac­ters are a dis­parate group: the artist great-grand­son of that orig­i­nal Nor­we­gian; the en­gi­neer daugh­ter of a Chi­nese im­mi­grant; a “so­cially re­tarded” boy fas­ci­nated by in­sects who grows up to be­come a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy; a drift­ing Cal­i­for­nian who en­lists for Viet­nam, only to be shot down and re­turn an al­tered man; a cou­ple who can­not con­ceive; a crip­pled com­puter ge­nius and game de­signer fas­ci­nated by the trees beloved of his Ra­jasthani fa­ther; a reclu­sive, deaf fe­male botanist; and a dis­so­lute ac­tu­ary in the mak­ing who ac­ci­den­tally elec­tro­cutes her­self, only to be jolted back into life be­liev­ing she can com­mu­ni­cate with in­vis­i­ble be­ings of light.

Yet they all find them­selves con­nected, ei­ther di­rectly or through a sense of ab­sence, to the trees that sur­round them.

In the novel’s sec­ond par, the seem­ingly un­con­nected strands of the nar­ra­tive be­gin to fold back into each other, as sev­eral of the char­ac­ters find them­selves be­com­ing in­volved in protests to save the forests of the Pa­cific

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