Richard Powers’ GREAT AMERICAN ECO-NOVEL at Crossing Border 2018

‘Trees are incredibly social creatures.’

One of America’s most prolific writers is an earnest yet highly eloquent speaker whose great enthusiasm for his subject matter is contagious. In his most recent book, Overstory, Powers addresses the question of what the world looks like  from the non-human perspective. Specifically, the fauna and the flora, above all, the trees, and the complex and highly sophisticated networks of which they are part. Taking one of the giant Californian redwoods as his starting point, he follows the lives of nine central characters, all of whom are affected in one way or another by what the authors calls, ‘the non-human’ world. He tells us that his aim with this book is to explore what the world would look like from the tree’s point of view.

Powers read over 120 books on trees as part of his research for this novel and admits that it changed the way he thought about the living world. However he enthusiastically assures us that ‘it didn’t feel like research, it just felt like the greatest hobby one could possibly have.’ Indeed, the American writer admits that for the first time with this novel, he didn’t feel the need to follow literary tradition and ‘write something morally ambiguous – there are ways of looking at complex eco-systems that simply aren’t ambiguous.’ He also admits that for the first time in his long career as a writer, he doesn’t feel that he is ready to move on from this subject. This book, he tells us, feels like a departure for him and is happy to acknowledge that with it he has been accused of being an activist. Eco-terrorism sits at the heart of the drama of the novel. One of his characters spends 9 months living in the towering branches of a giant redwood in order to protect it from loggers.

‘I’ve become a zealot, there’s no question about it.’

Perhaps part of Powers’ zealotry has been inspired by what he terms the ‘cold civil war’ in whose grip the US  currently finds itself. He is referring of course to the Trump administration. ‘There has been a conscious decision by this administration to return to a world where there is a complete lack of accountability to the non-human.’ Describing Trump’s war against the environment as part of what he terms ‘a single package of mastery and dominance’ that includes racism and misogyny, he sees it as reflective of no more than ‘a warped sense of power’. However as the writer points out, ‘when it is sold as an economic package, that makes no sense at all.’  He also admits hoping that what America is now witnessing is ‘a desperate last gasp’ of those people who don’t want to acknowledge what has changed.

In Overstory, Powers finds meaning by connecting the small and the personal with those greater events out there. In so doing he shows how ‘our private stories about ourselves are formed by massive forces outside of ourselves.’ As a writer, he finds this deeply inspirational but is also aware of the sense of responsibility which such a realisation brings. Drawing on the ideas of American transcendentalists, Emmerson and Theroux, he acknowledges their contribution along with that of the native American beliefs in a new understanding of the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature. ‘There is no understanding of myself separate from the wider world in which I exist.’ With this in mind, Powers tells us that he is already working on a second novel which further explores some of the issues raised in Overstory. He also tells us of his great sense of relief at the release of fellow American writer, Annie Prouxl’s novel, Barkskins. ‘I felt like finally, writers are realising there is more to focus on than disagreements between two people in a house.’ Certainly one cannot accuse what one reviewer has called, this ‘gigantic fable of genuine truths’, of  such limitations.   Souwie Buis     4th November 2018

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