THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers
W.W. Norton, 2018
The Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it’s also hard work, and I’m not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say that I was so struck by Powers’ genius that I was able to forgive the periods of abject tedium that characterized my reading experience, but that would be a lie. This is undoubtedly a fantastic book, but I don’t think I was the right reader for it.
Here I have to echo a sentiment that I expressed in my review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: there are only so many loving descriptions of trees a person can take after a while. What I’m interested in when I read is conflict and human interest and interpersonal dynamics, and when none of that is at the forefront of a book, I’m inevitably going to struggle with it.
While Richard Powers did create a host of distinct characters in The Overstory – the first section of the novel is eight different short stories, one following each of the main characters through defining moments in their early lives – it soon becomes apparent that their stories aren’t the ones that Powers is interested in telling. I had more than a few moments when I had to wonder why Powers chose to write this as a novel at all, when it would have arguably served its purpose just as well as a treatise on environmental activism.
Powers is a hell of a writer though, I’ll give him that. I can’t bear to go lower than 3 stars in my final rating because I can’t deny the admiration I feel toward Powers’ craft. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I lost track of the amount of times I paused and reread a particularly striking passage, and the amount of detail that Powers is able to pack into every page is incredibly impressive. And on a larger level, the thematic complexity that Powers is able to achieve with his anthropomorphic symbolism and thorough examination of disparate disciplines and philosophies is undeniable. When words like ‘epic’ and ‘masterpiece’ are being thrown around in conversation with this novel, it’s not difficult to understand why.
But at the same time, I’m just not convinced that it was all necessary. I don’t believe that this book is able to justify its length of 500 (very long) pages. It’s punishingly dense and bloated; I found certain characters to be extraneous and a lot of the detail to be superfluous. But it’s also punctuated by moments of such beauty that make it a worthwhile read, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this wins the Man Booker, but on a personal level, I can’t say this was my favorite reading experience I’ve ever had.
More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews: