Review 1626: The Overstory

Best of Ten!
When I read Richard Powers’ Orfeo a while back, I remember thinking he was quite a bit more intelligent than I am, perhaps a little intimidatingly so, yet I enjoyed his book. Reading The Overstory hasn’t changed my impression of that, except that it blew me away.

The novel is about trees. When am I ever going to write that sentence again? The metaphor for its structure that I’ve seen used is that it’s like the rings around a tree as you go inward, but that’s not the metaphor Powers actually uses. He starts in a section called “Roots” and works his way up the tree.

That doesn’t sound very interesting, but it is. He starts with a group of characters who have all formed an interest in trees. Nick Hoel’s ancestor planted some chestnuts on their farm in Iowa, and his father began a giant project of photographing the last one standing every month for years so that you could see its growth if you used the photos like a flip book. Nick, an artist, has re-created these photos as drawings. Mimi Ma’s father Winston brought with him from China an ancient scroll about trees and took his family out to enjoy the national parks. Adam Appich is a budding natural scientist until judges in a science fair think he cheated and he ends up in psychology. Still, his father planted a different tree for each of his children. Douglas Pavlicek is saved by a tree when his plane crashes in Vietnam, and so on. These lives are described as fables on the cover of the book, but the characters felt authentic, which they seldom do in fables.

In the next section, “Trunk,” Powers begins to intertwine the lives of these characters with each other and with the issue of what is happening to the trees in our world and what the consequences will be. Along the way, Powers tells us all kinds of interesting and astonishing things about trees.

The novel takes place between about the 50’s and 60’s to the present, but the meat of it is in the 70’s or 80’s when there was a lot of activism around the protection of our forests. Some characters’ stories begin earlier with their parents or ancestors.

But the novel is really about the trees, and as Powers’ sections go up the tree, the view becomes a little more abstract, while not losing sight of the human characters. I had a few issues with it. The role of Neelay Mehta, a boy of Indian descent who becomes a master computer programmer, doesn’t really fit well into the story. I understand his role but find it unconvincing. Finally, the last section is so abstract, it’s a bit above my head, although I enjoy Powers’ tendency to present readers with lots of ideas.

Overall, though, I was just entranced by this novel, so much so that I fear for our species. If anything is going to make you pay attention to climate change, it’s this book. Now that I live in a state where clear cutting is going on all around me, not just in the national and state forests but by the purchasers of practically every plot of land, who think nothing of devastating their lots for the money, I have been more struck by what we are doing to our forests. This is an incredible novel. I read it for my Booker Prize project, and it won the Pulitzer.

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Day 1016: Orfeo

Cover for OrfeoBest Book of the Week!
Richard Powers is clearly a lot smarter than I am, for I did not always understand him. But I enjoyed his novel Orfeo¬†immensely. It is by coincidence the second reworking of a Greek myth that I’ve read recently.

Peter Els had a career as an avante-garde composer, although with one exception most of his works were only heard by a few hundred people. Now retired, he has taken up a hobby in chemistry, the field he originally intended to work in. Although he has broken no laws, he is trying an experiment to compose music that will last forever, in the genetic code of bacteria.

When his dog unexpectedly dies, an unfortunate series of incidents brings the police to his door. They are alarmed by his chemical periphernalia. He thinks all he will have to do is explain himself, but when he arrives home to find Homeland Security raiding his house, he flees in alarm.

During his flight, he revisits the memories from his past. Most of these have to do with music, and Powers’ use of prose is lyrical as it describes what Peter hears and imagines. The world for Peter is full of music, from bird song or a penny whistle to the most formidably intellectual modern composition. I wasn’t familiar with many of the pieces Powers describes, but his descriptions make me want to hear them.

Although Powers’ writing can be so cerebral that it is thought by some to limit its emotional power, I did not find that to be the case with this novel, even though I did not grasp every idea. Ils decides to visit the important people from his past to make amends for any wrongs he’s done them. As he travels, we continue to revisit his memories. A strong theme of paranoia in the post-9/11 world also prevails.

I found this a touching and powerful novel, full of the joy of music. It probably also includes the best evocation of the creative scene from the 60’s that I’ve ever read.

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