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The biggest questions in literature
The 12th novel from Richard Powers is magnificent and troubling, a symphonic tour de force with both human and tree characters that leave readers with a new reality. We asked Powers four questions about The Overstory. His answers are appropriately epic.
To what degree (if any) do you consider your work to be a moral or didactic project? Am I mistaken in feeling that The Overstory isn’t just a novel, but maybe a blueprint for being inducted into the “shimmering council” of the trees—something like a viable evangelism? Or does this idea just piss you off?
Goodness—what better way to start an interview than plunging into one of the most highly charged questions in the history of literature! Centuries of great writers have filled volumes exploring the proper position of the literary author along the spectrum of moral detachment and commitment. In the mid-19th century, the warring camps had their spokespeople in Tolstoy, who advocated for fiction that would raise consciousness and make readers into better people, and in Flaubert, who preached a moral detachment, urging writers to be like a remote, objective, hands-off God—“present everywhere and visible nowhere.”
In the last century, when I was growing up, the American version of this war was playing out between John Gardner and Gore Vidal. Vidal was the champion of aesthetic, belletristic freedom—the author who was above the fray, committed only to the free play of exploration and possibility. Gardner, in his controversial and influential book On Moral Fiction, wrote that fiction ought “to test human values, not for the purpose of preaching or peddling a particular ideology, but in a truly honest and open-minded effort to find out which best promotes human fulfillment.” Here’s the interesting thing: Don’t both these positions sound attractive and defensible?
If I were to name the prevailing aesthetic of the present concerning literary fiction, I’d say it leans toward the belletristic. Moral passion hasn’t been cool for some time; much better to gird yourself in irony and fatalistic detachment. Or to put it more sympathetically, contemporary literary fiction strives for the dialogical, where the conflicting moral positions of all the characters in the story are both defensible and flawed. But look at the standout books—the great war novels and postcolonial novels and novels of politics, social showdown and human abuse—and you’ll see a different story. These books know what’s wrong with the world and what it would take to better minister to the human condition.
“I believe that vital, vivid fiction can play a unique role in producing that shift in consciousness.”
In short, novelists are always trotting across a swaying, pencil-thin tightrope. How to be “moral” without being “didactic”? I happen to believe that collectively, we humans are deeply, dangerously deranged, and that only a profound shift in consciousness and institutions regarding the significance and standing of nonhumans will keep us viable in this place and lift our awful sense of moral abandonment and species loneliness. More than that, I believe that vital, vivid fiction can play a unique role in producing that shift in consciousness. But my challenge is precisely the one faced by my character Patricia Westerford as she stands up in front of an auditorium that has hired her to talk on sustainable human futures. She looks out on her audience as she makes her points, feeling them turn restive with the desire to “kill all the preachers!”
The trick to evangelism, in this case, is to make induction into “the shimmering council” of the nonhuman seem like a startling, mysterious and compellingly desirable thing. And the way to do that, it seemed to me, is to tell all kinds of very specific, vital, surprising and unusual stories about a wide variety of people discovering how the spectacular depth and richness of the nonhuman world surpasses our understanding of it, many times over. We humans are deeply, passionately addicted to ourselves. We think we’re the only game of interest in town. The stories that will do us some good, this late in the day, are the ones that can direct our attention, for a moment, to all the astonishment that isn’t us.
Ultimately, the long battle for the heart and soul of fiction may depend less on an author’s willingness to explore a prescriptive moral position than on that author’s willingness to break out of merely human stories into a celebration of wonder and astonishment and humility and awe. If people come away from my book with a new appreciation for the giant Methuselahs to whom we owe our existence, I will be happy indeed.
Each one of your characters suffers a deadly ordeal of some kind. Olivia literally dies for 70 seconds. Others come very close to dying or bear witness to the violent death or near-death of a loved one. We can only be redeemed if something traumatic happens to us—this feels like an ancient and abiding truth, almost a religious reckoning. Does it ring true to you?
The grim truth: Something traumatic is going to happen to us, both privately and collectively, whether we are smart enough to be redeemed by it or not! But death and destruction, in our own private understanding of things as well as in the wider, living world, does have a way of preparing the ground for redemption and renewal. There is a great deal of “religious reckoning” in The Overstory, if you count the green gospel of nature as a religion. In the moral vision of the book, the true terror and violence to the soul start in our alienation from the rest of creation. Contemporary consumer/humanist culture is convinced that if we just hold out long enough and surround ourselves with the best state-of-the-art technologies and biomedical interventions (from apple cider vinegar all the way up to the uploading of souls), then we will never have to die. Consequently, the prospect of death has never been more debilitating. We are all rushing around in a state of hysterical denial, because our central conviction—that meaning is personally generated—is utterly incompatible with the central truth of existence: Everything dies.
But what if we were part of some larger, living reciprocity, where the death of individual speculations is less of a disaster and more of a recombination, a return to new possibilities? In other words, what if meaning were outside us, in what the brilliant and beautiful Loren Eiseley called “the immense journey”? Then our own individual deaths would cease being an annihilation of everything there is and would become, in Wallace Stevens’ deeply mature words, “the mother of beauty.” That would be living in the world, rather than living against it. People used to live that way, in the premodern era.
This attempt to think differently about death is at the heart of The Overstory’s dark green religion. In a forest, where all parts live inside a reciprocating whole, death isn’t a bug—it’s a feature! As Patricia Westerford discovers when researching her beloved nurse logs, a “dead” tree contains thousands of times more life than does a living one. If that doesn’t quite console you as you contemplate your own mortality, it’s because you are still colonized by the idea that only individual humans matter and nothing else has agency or purpose or community or real significance.
I’m 60 now, and much more accepting of my own death than I was when I started writing novels at the age of 23. Also, I’m much more convinced of the imminence of my death! Saying as much may sound like an obscene trespass against one of our last taboos, but in fact, it’s a hugely liberating thing. It has given me the freedom to go anywhere I want in my stories, even into the heart of the woods.
I’m having both fun and difficulty with your novel’s section headings—Roots, Trunk, Crown, Seeds. It’s not always obvious (I know it shouldn’t be) how these images work in a narrative way. I could understand if you tell me that it’s the reader’s job to figure this out! So let me ask a technical question: Was this idea (the tree rising and then disseminating) something that affected the writing of the novel, or even determined its shape?
My first hope when I began to think about The Overstory was to write a novel with nonhuman characters that did not in any way try to anthropomorphize them (as almost every novel with a nonhuman character I have ever read ends up doing). It’s relatively easy to create reader identification with a creature who resembles us—a horse or a dog or a chimp or some other eager-eyed mammal. It was less easy for me to think of how to tell a gripping story starring creatures who didn’t move, operated under entirely different principles of survival and lived on a totally alien time frame. The myths of indigenous and pretechnological people all over the world never shied away from plant heroes, but people in those cultures knew how to listen and interpret these tales. We left the garden a long time ago.
Ultimately, I had to give up the hope of hooking readers with the tales of heroic sycamores and beeches! Yet in between my nine very human and flawed and changeable human characters, quite a few woody protagonists still steal the spotlight at frequent intervals. There’s Mimas, the gigantic and ancient coastal redwood in whose branches Nick and Olivia make their home for more than a year. Then there’s the Hoel Chestnut, which generations of an Iowa farming family photograph over the course of a century, as if it’s just another, slightly long-lived distant family relative. The Hoel Chestnut starts the whole novel in motion, and it comes back 500 pages later to help bring about the book’s finale. Then there’s the village-size banyan that saves Doug Pavlicek’s life after he falls from a plane and his chute doesn’t deploy cleanly. Throughout the book, trees and human characters link together in all kinds of metempsychosis and telepathic connections.
Alongside these individual trees in their starring roles, I cast several groves and forests as supporting actors and group choruses. There’s the experimental forest in the Cascades where Patricia Westerford makes her discoveries, and the stand of ponderosa pines whose sneaky destruction radicalizes Mimi Ma. These groups of trees have their own personalities, and their natures produce actions and consequences in the human characters. Groups of trees also appear in cameo roles, like the vanished Montana town that Douglas stumbles on, now empty of all human presence except for the cottonwoods, planted to line the now-vanished streets.
These trees play central roles in the novel for a simple reason. At the heart of the book is a rejection of human exceptionalism—the idea that we’re the only things on earth with will, memory, flexible response to change, agency or community. Research has shown in many amazing ways that trees possess all these things. The ability to see trees—which we’ll need to recover if we hope to stay on this planet much longer—means learning to appreciate how our private stories are never totally independent from the stories of trees. Trees are significant characters in every human life. They deserve to be characters in their own stories as well.
“Trees are significant characters in every human life. They deserve to be characters in their own stories as well.”
I did know, early on, that the nature and shape of trees—that brilliant solution to survival that evolved many independent times over the eons—would come to inform the entire book. Those section names (which you are still thinking about) give me lots of leeway to play with the traditional, conservative structure of a novel and stretch it out a bit. For instance, a classical novel will generally open with one exposition (which can be long or short) before proceeding to the development of “rising action.” My book begins with eight independent sequential expositions, the backstories of characters who seem unrelated. A reader might be forgiven for thinking that she is reading eight different standalone short stories! And she might even find herself becoming disoriented or restless after a hundred pages, waiting for the novel to begin. But by calling the section “Roots,” I reassure readers that these separate, snaking, underground, independent structures are going to converge before too long. And the slowly unfolding tree anatomy also suggests that the story as a whole—which includes all eight mini-novels that you read, one after the other—is being incorporated into one, large coastal redwood-size whole.
Is it a brutal fact that some folks just can’t or won’t ever hear the trees? For example, those tree cutters, and all the folks who rely on the money that comes from clear cutting. Is it really, finally, just “us and them”? The goodies vs. the baddies? In the current political climate, such a clear-cut (sorry) reckoning feels both accurate and hopeless. But I don’t feel that The Overstory is without hope. It seems that Neelay finds a way to lure his game players into a new way of thinking, a new state of enlightenment.
Oh, I would never presume to say what any real human being can’t or won’t “ever” do! That is our naturally selected, highly adaptive superpower: to remain capable of change until the very end. That’s what story is about: the surprising (but sometimes inevitable) changes in people, when confronted with situations that break down who they are. And The Overstory is itself about a wide variety of people—many of whom shouldn’t be able to—coming to hear the trees, quickly or slowly, in different ways for different reasons. Patricia might have been born communing with the nonhuman world, but Olivia needs to die and come back to life before she can hear the trees, quite literally, talking to her. Or look at Adam: He goes up the trunk of Mimas feeling a barely disguised disdain for the tree-sitting activists, and he ends up getting converted 200 feet up in the air. It takes Ray and Dorothy their entire lives to understand why they have been so miserable, alone and afraid, but they die like Baucis and Philemon, having opened their doors to the godlike visitors who live just outside. Even the tree-cutters, the ones you call the “baddies” (I sure don’t think of them that way), end up with their moments of doubt, confusion and empathy.
The novel tells another conversion story as well, one drawn from real life. It’s the story of the conversion of an entire field: forestry. At the beginning of Patricia’s life in the field, all the old white men have a pretty strong idea of what a healthy forest is and how to keep it healthy. By the end of her life, New Forestry has had its revolution, and old, bad practices have given way to new and stronger ones. Nor is the revolution in human consciousness complete; there will be others in the years ahead. But a new ethos of ecological thinking has taken hold. “Us versus them” gets shaken up and rearranged. . . .
This fluidity that the book describes does fly in the face of our current reality, here in the States. The in-group loyalty that Adam studies now has us by the throats. People are doubling down on rabid tribal allegiance, and the deciding factor in belief seems to be not evidence or consequence or internal values but group ideology. This, too, will pass, as changing technologies and our tenuous position on the earth will force new kinds of accountability and new forms of allegiance.
For all the darkness that the book depicts, it does, indeed, end up remarkably hopeful. Patricia chooses life and strikes her blow against “unsuicide.” Mimi has her moment of enlightenment on a hilltop above San Francisco. Nick slogs on, making his art for an audience he can’t yet imagine. And Neelay’s AI “learners” become that audience! Even Adam and Douglas have their prison epiphanies and redemptions. I am, by nature, hopelessly hopeful. But my hope is no longer for the status quo of humanity, for life as we now live it. I have a better, stronger, larger hope these days, one that Walt Whitman puts perfectly:
After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on—have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear—what remains? Nature remains.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Overstory.
Author photo by Dean D. Dixon.