In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell complains that “artists of any consequence can never be persuaded into the Socialist fold … Nearly everything describable as Socialist literature is dull, tasteless, and bad.” He calls this fact “disastrous”. He goes on to say that “the high-water mark, so to speak, of Socialist Literature, is WH Auden, a sort of gutless Kipling, and the even feebler poets who are associated with him” – trying to kill two perfectly good birds with one slightly childish stone.
Regardless of what we think of Auden, Orwell has a point. Any political view, no matter how useful or right, that can’t persuade artists to make good art out of it, has real problems. It’s a kind of litmus test for the health of a worldview – to measure the art it produces. These days he might have been tempted to apply it to environmentalism. Of course, there’s a long tradition of what might be called “environmental” writing. The Romantics believed in the rehabilitating powers of nature, but there was always a streak of escapism that undermined their political seriousness. The real point of nature was to go out in it and have a feeling; it was a necessary luxury of the poetic classes. As Keats once wrote: “Scenery is fine – but human nature is finer.”
Novelists who use environmentalism tend to turn it into the premise for dystopian fantasies, as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, but lately it’s started creeping into more realist fictions, too. One of the subplots of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom involves the threat to songbirds posed by domestic cats, but I can’t think of anyone who has taken the principles of environmentalism as far as Richard Powers in his new novel, The Overstory. Powers has made a career out of crossing the line between what CP Snow called “the two cultures” – he worked as a computer programmer before turning to fiction, and in novels such as The Gold Bug Variations and The Echo Maker explores the overlap between literary and scientific sensibilities. Here he addresses some of the difficulties directly:
She remembers now why she never had the patience for nature. No drama, no development, no colliding hopes and fears. Branching, tangled, messy plots. And she could never keep the characters straight.
What you need is a story. Of course, this is an in-joke, too, because The Overstory is full of all these things: drama, development, colliding hopes and fears, tangled plots and lots of characters.
It’s an extraordinary novel, which doesn’t mean that I always liked it. Martin Amis’s brilliant description of what it’s like to admire a book – the stages you go through, from resistance to reluctance, until you finally reach acceptance in the end – is probably more linear than what usually happens. Because reluctance and acceptance can go hand in hand. The Overstory begins with the Hoel family, Norwegians who emigrated to Brooklyn in the mid-19th century, before setting out for Iowa and starting a farm. They brought with them the seeds of a chestnut grove and planted it at the edge of a cornfield. One of the trees makes it to maturity, far enough from any other chestnuts to survive the great blight that sweeps through the US in the early 1900s. Eventually and for no reason he can understand, old man Hoel takes it into his head to photograph the tree on the same day in March every year, a tradition he passes on to his son, and then grandson, and then great-grandson, and so on, as the farm shrinks in the face of modernisation. Until the final Hoel, Nick, a young art school grad, sells off the last of the land and the house but keeps the pile of 100-odd photographs that track not only the passage of time through a tree but the evolution of the technology that recorded it.
The conceit allows Powers to think of family life in terms of tree years – the slow changes, the generational development, the way patterns are formed and turn out to matter more, in the long run, than the people they are shaped from. The book is split into four sections, Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. Roots spreads itself out across eight very different lives, extended short stories, each of which hinges, in some way, on a character’s relationship to trees. As well as Nick Hoel there’s Mimi Ma, whose father escaped from China just before the rise of communism, carrying with him only a trio of jade rings and an ancient scroll depicting the four stages of enlightenment, which his American daughters finally inherit. Neelay Mehta, son of a Silicon Valley engineer, grows up dreaming of code until he realises that the genetic sequences written into the various trees of the Stanford arboretum bear a profound relationship to his own computer programs – inspiring him to create a game that reproduces as closely as possible the complexities of the real world.
If all of this sounds high concept, that’s because it is; but Powers is also skilled at capturing a character, a family, a culture with a few swift brushstrokes. Bio- and cultural diversity is part of his point. At the heart of the novel are two women, Patricia Westerford, a botanist who “discovers” that trees are communal, that they communicate with each other, an idea that costs her an academic job before the intellectual fashions change and it makes her famous. (For a real-life equivalent, see Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees.) Her work, on the wisdom and utility of trees, underpins much of the novel:
You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes …
Olivia Vandergriff is a druggy college student who almost kills herself on a pot high then hears voices that turn her into an ecowarrior. By various ways and men, she ends up fighting the destruction of California’s redwoods. Eventually all the different characters and messy plotlines start getting tangled together.
It’s an astonishing performance. Without the steadily cumulative effect of a linear story, Powers has to conjure narrative momentum out of thin air, again and again. And mostly he succeeds. Partly because he’s incredibly good at describing trees, at turning the science into poetry: “In summer, water rises through the xylem and disperses out of the million tiny mouths on the undersides of leaves, a hundred gallons a day evaporating from the tree’s airy crown into the humid Iowa air.” There’s a cloudy romance set several hundred feet up a giant redwood, where Olivia and Nick Hoel are camping out to prevent commercial loggers from cutting it down. And the book is full of ideas – about trees, root systems, computer games, actuarial science, group psychology (one of the characters is a sociologist).
But there is a cost to all this plurality and intellectual energy. Most of the stories are driven by ideas, which means that most of the characters are driven by ideas, too. Patricia gives up her life for the study of trees, Olivia dedicates herself to the eco-cause, Neelay to his virtual game, and so the ordinary diversity that tends to shape plot on a human scale doesn’t get much of a look-in: marriages, kids, jobs, moving house, fighting with friends. These feature but only abruptly, like the rapid shifts in a time-lapse photograph of plant growth. All the big things happen suddenly. Characters die, from gas poisoning or suicide or strokes; marriages collapse; people get arrested. In a book about the wisdom of trees, the stories that shape human life tend, by way of contrast perhaps, to be overdramatic.
And it’s hard not to feel that something slightly antihuman has crept into the philosophy. Years after committing a crime, one of the ecowarriors, who now has a job, a wife and a kid, is sentenced to several life terms in prison, partly because he refuses to cooperate with the authorities. “The lenience shocks him.” What’s a human life span anyway? “He was thinking oak. He was thinking Douglas-fir or yew.” He wasn’t thinking of his five-year-old son? There is a flavour of Robinson Jeffers, the California poet who liked to imagine the world’s end as a solution to modern decadence: “While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire”. All totally deserved, no doubt, but I’m not sure apocalypse is the solution.
Jeffers lived in Carmel, on the edge of the Pacific, and the ocean stands in his work for something purifying and destructive. Powers, according to the dust jacket, lives in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, and to be fair, his treescape is more sentimental. Regeneration is the point. There is something exhilarating, too, in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. Like Moby-Dick, The Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference. Time matters differently; you look at the trees outside your window more curiously. Suspiciously, even. And I found, while reading, that some of what was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down. Which is one test of the quality of a novel.
- Benjamin Markovits’s novel You Don’t Have to Live Like This is published by Faber. To buy The Overstory (RRP £18.99) for £16.14 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian