I consider the books I’ve read over the last year as I scroll past “Best of” lists. It isn’t many—a concise introduction to Freudian theory, bell hook’s The Will to Change on masculinity, among others. I’ve worked through Richard Powers’ 2018 The Overstory for at least six months, a Christmas gift I bought my father last year that had already appeared on many favorable lists of its own.
I used to look forward to Longform.com’s “Best of” list for nonfiction published in the past year, but they stopped updating the website in 2021, although the podcast continues. Barack Obama’s published lists of top books, movies, and music is the object of as much ridicule as praise, and I don’t have a great opinion on it, but I like the tradition outside my personal or political feelings towards him. I’d enjoy it if more politicians did the same, as I’m sure I’d find some gems, but also more entertaining instances similar to Katie Couric’s 2008 interview with Sarah Palin where she asked what newspapers and magazines the VP candidate liked to read. “Most of ‘em, all of ‘em, any of ‘em.”
The first time I heard of Powers’ novel was from Obama when he included it in his answer to Ezra Klein’s signature final interview question of which three books his guest would recommend. I grew up on nature writing, perusing through Zane Grey and other Westerns in my grandparents’ Pittsburgh basement, relishing in the musty scent of old wood, so I was immediately intrigued.
The novel is impressive, composed of numerous unrelated narratives about trees that overlap, or merely brush up against one another at different points. I struggled with the writing style from the beginning, as it comes off as unnecessarily sentimental and ornate. A long, great novel is often great because of how unremarkable it is at times. Sometimes I just want plot advancement and a suspension of belief, but instead I’m presented with quasi-academic factoids meant to impart a sense of grandeur about virgin forests and the global harm of resource extraction.
For example, a simple passage of a character outlining population growth while staging a protest against tree loggers: “Six [billion people]? Try seven. Fifteen, in a few years. We’ll soon be eating two-thirds of the planet’s net productivity. Demand for wood has tripled in our lifetime.” To which the other character responds, “Can’t tap the brakes when you’re about to hit the wall.” Injections of statistics abound in The Overstory, often at the expense of the narrative.
This is a common characteristic of contemporary fiction, leading critic James Wood to invent the label “hysterical realism,” in which elaborate, ambitious prose is conjoined with detailed, heavily-researched explanations of real phenomena, popularized by writers like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. I don’t inherently dislike the style, but it fatigues the palate easily, especially when it has become so embedded in the literary landscape. Wood coined the term in a disparaging review of the 2000 debut novel, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, an excellent novelist and essayist.
Still, I’ve enjoyed The Overstory, particularly for one of the more prominent storylines that’s a historical fictional telling of environmental activism in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. Julia “Butterfly” Hill, who lived for over two years in the canopy of a California Redwood to prevent the Pacific Lumber Company from cutting it down, serves as inspiration, as do a number of real life activists, scientists, and figures of the environmental movement.
I appreciate the novel for not shying away from the stark truth of climate change, deforestation, and resource extraction—a reality that most people shield from their eyes or downplay due to ignorance or discomfort. We won’t see the New York Public Library blanketed in snow with arctic wolves roaming the aisles like in the 2004 film, The Day After Tomorrow, but it’s the overwhelming consensus of the IPCC and scientific community that we’re on the precipice of irreversible impacts lest there is global, unanimous support for coordinated policy change. Meanwhile, we bicker over whether vaccines actually work (they do) and if public school teachers are indoctrinating children to be gay (they’re not).
A prominent feature of current political discourse is accusing the other side of being “alarmist,” as in Democrats claiming that democracy itself is on the ballot, or Republicans crying about fraudulent elections. A common refrain I hear from the right is that while the January 6th riots should be condemned, it didn’t amount to an attempted insurrection, and therefore the investigating Select Committee is simply a political, alarmist charade. Or, in a more fringe interpretation, it was actually staged by left-wing agitators like Antifa, or some other imagined boogeyman.
In related news, Russian politician Dmitry Medvedev tweeted his own year-end list of predictions for 2023. Among them were the rise of the Fourth Reich, widespread civil war in the U.S. leading to the annexation of Texas to Mexico, and the appointment of Elon Musk as President, who’ll oversee a new state ruled by the GOP, to which Musk replied, “Epic!”
Alarmism abounds, but not so in the case of climate catastrophe. The statistics and research may detract from the story at times in The Overstory, but they lend credibility to the gravity of the issues. More than a cautionary tale, it contains beautiful passages on the interconnectedness of living creatures, how it’s impossible to disentangle fauna from flora within ecosystems, and how trees themselves act as memory banks for the transfer of nutrients even between separate species.
One of the main characters, Patricia Lockwood, is based on Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, who proposed and advanced theories on how trees communicate through underground networks of mycorrhizal fungi. Simard’s findings were ridiculed and rejected by the scientific community when initially proposed, but have since become groundbreaking in forest ecology. It’s a reminder that what’s dismissed as inflammatory today may become accepted consensus a few decades later. As for how the inflammatory rhetoric of climate change will be judged, we won’t need to wait more than a few decades to find out.