The Overstory: Beautiful, but…

Having married a person who works with trees, I regularly find myself in proximity when tree-related questions are tossed his way. Sort of what I imagine those working in medical fields must encounter: any social gathering is an opportunity to solicit advice (though with fewer on the spot requests to examine moles or rashes, I suspect). S. also suffers the ‘owl’ conundrum so brilliantly outlined by David Sedaris in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: should you ever express a passing interest in something, say owls, you will find yourself on the receiving end of owl-related gifts, gadgets and whimsy for the Rest of Your Life. So it is with those who work with trees. No shortage of tree themed tea towels, stationary, wall-art or coffee table books. Which is to say, we have many Tree things. (Which is partly owed, I think, to the relative resistance of S. to inquires about his desires when it comes to gifts and the what-else-can-we-do-throw-up-the-hands-lets get-him-another-Tree thing result).

So it was that Richard Powers’ The Overstory was recommend to me because it is all about trees and so I’d likely enjoy it because… S. (Of course the book has also been suggested to S., but given his Terrible Flaw in that he doesn’t like fiction (*gasp*) hardly a chance he’d be inspired to read it). Maybe also recommended to me because I/we spent a lot of time in the forest?

Whether or not I had any involvement with S. it should have been recommended to me for the beautiful writing. Powers has a delightful tone in the book – something that bridges poetry and prose, coupled with a sort of achronology where the characters and setting all feel somewhat out of time, or beyond time, (like a tree!) even while they are clearly situated in time and space (also like a tree!).

The first half of the book reads as a series of short stories. A character introduced each chapter who has some passing or central connection to a tree. Having not read much about the book before, I wasn’t sure whether these characters ever come together, or whether there was some wider plot we were working toward. But! In another instance of form marrying content, we do see these seemingly separate characters come together into one narrative arc (form-content in the sense that one point of the book is to illustrate that there are no singular trees, rather all trees are intimately connected) as some of them try to save the giant Redwood trees and others sort of glom on to the scene in efforts to understand, capitalize or undermine these efforts.

But. And I’m sorry there’s a but. I want to offer a full-throated endorsement of this book because the writing really is beautiful and the message of the Value (far beyond monetary) of trees and the forest ecosystem is essential. But it’s… pretty dull.

Like there are only so many pages you want to read about the connections of roots and moss and leaves. Even while you’re like this is beautiful writing! And isn’t nature incredible! And aren’t these trees Truly Miraculous.

It’s a strange feeling. To be so bored by something so magnificent. Maybe there’s a special prize out there we could offer Powers for achieving this rare balance of banality and brilliance?

Anyway. I’m at something of a loss in suggesting whether you should read it. If anything, I’d say read the first long part that has the chapters on each character. As a series of short stories they are excellent and well worth your time. After that… well, I won’t think less of you if you put aside the poetry and homage to nature and… read a Louise Penny mystery. Just as I did.

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, Prize Winner

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