The Overstory – eco-fiction and capitalism

In the first article of their new Substack Capture the Flag, Caliban’s Revenge considers eco-fiction award winner The Overstory. Whilst it is an impassioned plea for environmental consciousness, they find a novel trapped by individualistic and problematic understandings of capitalist society. 

Richard Powers, The Overstory (London: Vintage, 2019) 640pp £9.99

This summer has been, I’m sure you’ve noticed, terrifying. The earth is broiling and the first world that started the fire has at last been invited to the barbeque. Attendance is mandatory. While we all stand around and sweat about the future, I’d like to offer some thoughts about the novels I’m reading and how they might contribute to a future that is less genocidal. Socialism not barbequeism.

Overstory is an epic; epic in its proportions, epic in its structure, epic in its ambitions. It sees itself as an important book and it seeks to convey that to the reader. I respect that. We should value writing that has an agenda. The explicit objective of Overstory is to create a foundational myth, a heroic/tragic saga that will inspire – not action (more on this) but a change in mentality. It is a spell cast to transform the perspective of the reader. To confer on us a sense of tree-time.

There is a motif in the story- an imaginative scenario in which an alien species, one that lives at a speed many thousands of times faster than our own, visits our planet. Such a species might harvest the earth’s resources, build vast civilisations and disappear in an instant- all without ever being aware of our consciousness, our ability to perceive their works, to suffer by their effects. This, the book suggests, might be the time-sense of our forests and the nature of their relation to our species. The brilliance of Overstory is not so much in this observation, but in the way it uses its structure to perform a poetic simulation of that perspective. The very first line of the very first chapter prepares us ‘Now is the time of chestnuts…’ – and that is what we live through in the novel. Each dividing fraction of Overstory is given a title indicating a part of a tree, and of that tree’s life.

Roots introduces us to its cast of protagonists, each dispersed across the American civilisation and each human-life intimately touched by tree-life. In Roots the most basic fundaments of the narrative are established, the heredity of the actors, the key theme of the novel- the intimate and uneven relation between the forest and the homo sapien – and beyond this all the apparently voiceless species that make up the web of life. Each chapter of Roots is a short story in its own right, connected only to the others by the pervasive narrative of the American woodlands. The die back, the migration, the precarious survival. Each chapter is named after the character it introduces. The book wants us to think beyond our own species, but it begins by grounding us in something we can recognise and care about- individuals like ourselves (more on this too). In the last of these chapters, the named character appears fully formed, without family history and with limited establishing narrative, and dies suddenly at its culmination. It is the ego death of the human individual, reborn in the subsequent fraction as the prophet of the trees.

The second section, Trunk, is the longest- the book taking on some of the shape of a tree as it appears to us – the ‘overstory’ of the forest. Expansive, but hidden roots, a spread of narrative branches at its summit and between the two the soaring, systolic muscle that thrusts the mineral wealth of the earth stories up into the air to explode as foliate splendour. That pace is conveyed through the abandonment of the chapter-like structure in favour of shorter vignettes that follow the characters closely in rapid present tense and subjective third person. Like the trunk, the action climbs, twisting the lives of the characters together as it rises- sometimes intimately, sometimes through the shared discourse of their civilization- stories on the news, video games, public science, acts of environmentalist heroism and, ultimately, catastrophe. Death returns, this time permanently. ‘Extinction is forever’ – hope dies with the trees.

Crown deals with the aftermath. The characters that had come together disperse. Many of them lose their sense of purpose, others struggle with futility to preserve what is left. The emphasis is not so much on reflection but on fragmentation, if the action has risen into the canopy, the ultimate fate of its urgent energies is to fail and collapse, shed pathetically like leaves exhausted by the autumn. There is grief, betrayal, sacrifice, persistence, pain and more death.

The final section, Seeds, is meant to hint at both the certainty of the end and the possibility of revival. The final message of the green world is conveyed through a colossal work of art visible from space – suggesting that of all the strategies that have been tried by the champions of the woods, that image making, myth building, is the only one that offers any hope. Small gestures of radical resistance in the understory, and great works that demand to be seen, that listen to, and believe in, the voice of the world and can convey it to the ubiquitous, electronic eye of our civilisation before it consumes everything.

This is where the spell succeeds, in the kabbalic structure and the flowing, visionary incantation of its style. Generations spill across the narrative with foliate lightness, furious decades surge into moments of arboreal stillness and all without stalling or stifling the readers attention. A central image of the novel is a huge chestnut tree that is photographed by the descending sons of an immigrant farmer over the space of a century and arranged in a flip book that describes the vitality, the life-will, of the tree that would otherwise be invisible. This is central to the thesis of Overstory, the life of the planet cannot be appreciated at it’s own pace but only translated by art for us- the late coming, hypersonic invader. That glamour is well cast, and reveals itself in full only on the fulfilment of its ritual. I receive it with the delight of a child witnessing the closing spectacle of a stage magician, but also with the frustration of a grown ass adult that has to live in the emergent catastrophe of climate change. Let’s talk about the ideology of the book and how it, for me at least, fumbles its attack.

The worldview represented by Overstory is deep green. The very deepest green you can find in the most stifling, humid bowels of a verdant cave. A green so deep and rich that its mossy juices swell with prophetic, revealed wisdom- but it’s a wisdom that makes you dizzy enough to confuse truisms for insights and grows only in places with limited illumination by which to make them

The word ‘capitalism’ is wielded by the narration with appropriate venom. It is the name the writer gives to the form of society that sets us against our world, that causes human beings to place the value of the individual self over that of our interests as a species, and beyond that the totality of life on this planet. This is illustrated by the novel when a character says that if they betray their friends, then they will be giving up something bigger than themselves- and another asks them, in all earnestness – ‘What else is there?’. But, in a novel that reeks and creaks with history, there is no historicity to this capitalism. It comes across as the permanent state of post neolithic humanity – innate, eternal, impossible to correct except by genocide.

Part of the reason for this is the particular vision quest that Powers is taking us on, although I don’t get the sense that there is any other on offer. Late in the novel there is a classic retelling of the ‘history of the world as a single day’ allegory. The scale of this, very accurately, describes humanity’s appearance ‘four seconds from midnight’. Four seconds in which all human civilisation evolves. Geological aeons, time at the pace of, not trees, but stones. It’s a scale that it is important that human beings find ways to appreciate, because we cannot comprehend it intuitively. But from the dizzying green depths of the writer-shaman’s cave, at that unfathomable scale, you’re bound to miss some important details. Because at the pace of aeons, neither can you comprehend the social organisation of our species.

There is a very typical radical-liberal error at the heart of the book. Humanity is represented as, on the one hand, a series of brilliant and unique individual lives and on the other a fatalistic, all consuming, monolithic mass. It explains this discrepancy in psychoanalytic terms, as grounded in an innate human tendency to cleave to group thinking- even when it is catastrophically wrong. Like a lot of sentiments that make up the unexamined assumptions of the book, it’s ‘understory’ if you like, this corresponds with our experience of the world in a way that makes it seem like insight but is really nothing more than a empirical observation of that experience- not an explanation for it.

The mission of the book is to intervene in that ideological impasse – to help brilliant free-thinkers like the heroes of the story hear the voiceless species of the world. But in reality the novel reproduces common sense thinking, the careless ruling ideas that spring from the present order, and in ways that, while they may seem alarming, are explicitly quiescent and thus- in the interests of the future of our world- insufficient to the point of being potentially fatal. And oh, how the shaman, licking visionary hemlock in the deep green cave, cleaves to that fatality.

About half way through the story this myth-making imperative is made explicit and the reader (certainly if I am that reader) is lead to believe that this project is in the service of activity to save the emperiled lungs of the planet. But by the time we emerge in the Crown, we have learned that this is not the case. Action, the narrative makes it very clear, is futile- certain to fail as the liquor that rushes up the trunk will rot in the fruit. A character asks, ‘what is the best thing you can do for the future?’. The answer is unequivocal. Nothing. Be still. Be still as the grave.

There are a few things I’d like to say about this sentiment. One of them is that it is very beautiful and important. A timeless message to our restless species. Only two things I know of grow without reason- cancer, and the economy. Too much of what we already have enough of will kill us all. But this thought also puts me in mind of something Engels wrote about Balzac, that in his piercing account of the degenerate aristocracy he was successful, not despite his reactionary ideas, but because of them. I think that is true here.

The success of the book lies in its unfaltering gaze upon the deadly trajectory of our species. Mythology may awaken more people than statistics, but it is statistics that will kill you in your sleep. The projections described in the book are horrific; continents of breathing carbon cut clean from the earth in the space of a generation- deadly proportions of it hurled up into the atmosphere where it can cook the rest and us along with whatever is left. But despite that fatalistic outlook these are projections. They are accurate predictions about the fate of our world if the prevailing order continues to prevail. The warrior-loraxes that struggle to save the American woodlands throw their lives against that fate. The point of the novel isn’t that they would have achieved nothing if they had won, merely that the force they are struggling against is so immense that victory- at least by their own terms- is impossible.

The conclusion that action is futile is calculated not on the basis that our time is up (although though it is perilously short) but that it achieves nothing tangible. That everything has been tried, and that in the final analysis it has failed. But, really, almost nothing is tried in the novel. Individuals fight heroic individual battles, even if those heroes are sometimes in their hundreds. For a novel that howls against the individualist mindset of our society- a fleeting account of Occupy Wall Street aside- it really has the most limited conception of how human beings act together.

The very structure of the novel, and the identity of its protagonists, exposes this disorientation. We get a powerful sense of the interconnectivity of life, and of human lives- but it is in many respects mystical and uncanny. That doesn’t necessarily preclude the materiality of that connection (shout out to the GOAT, Garcia Marquez) but sadly it does here.

The individuals selected as the engine of its mythology, the faces we are expected to recognise as our own, are diverse in their own way – but emphatically not in many important ones. All of them are university attendees. All of them are either students, artists, scientists, engineers, psychologists, lawyers, professors or tech billionaires. All except one – the university dropout come wounded veteran who is portrayed as a naive, gentle hearted outsider. Most of them are waspishly white, one is half Chinese and the tech billionaire is second generation Indian. None of this cast, that has been explicitly created to form the basis of a wide reaching American mythology, is black, latinx or native American. None of them works in the service sector, for a public service, in industrial labour, not so much as a nurse or a school teacher. And wouldn’t that have been interesting? To have their connection to the trees be linked to the thousands of uses the book beautifully illustrates our civilisation has put them to – the tables wiped in a starbucks, the cardboard packed in a warehouse, the trees felled by a logger even? A missed opportunity perhaps, but I think this choice has more profound implications.

Powers speaks through the writing of a biologist and says ‘You and the tree in your backyard have a common ancestor’. What a breathtakingly weak appeal to the people of a country where the overwhelming majority of the population live in a few big cities, mostly in apartments. And yet this is where most of our cast meet the arboreal neighbour, in their gardens, on their farm. There is very little sense of public space – there is the forest, the farm and the garden. Everything in the world is owned, correct – but where are those who have nothing? Somewhere in the background watching the action, being virtuously still or insidiously silent.

The shaman dictates – ‘being hungry is good for you’. Ask anyone who has been hungry without the power to feed themselves if they thought it did them any good.

There is no place in the novel for people who derive no benefit from the ‘suicide economy’. It takes the deep green position that we must all learn to do with less. More common sense. We are taking too much for the earth, we are growing too fast. There’s not enough food, so we must relearn to be hungry. But there is enough food. There are absurd surpluses of food and yet people starve. There are enough houses, and yet people sleep in the street. There is enough health care, there is enough transport, there is enough space to service the population of the world many times over and studies have consistently proven that if that surplus was used to meet their needs then the rate of population growth would decline almost completely. There is enough – there is already too bloody much. And yet people starve.

The book is wrong. Nothing has been tried. No action has been taken. There are things to fight for and to be done before it is too late. The stilling of the capitalist growth engine will not be achieved by heroic sacrifice but by furious, collective activity at the heart of the machine. Because the novel is hemmed in by this, let’s face it, intrinsically individualistic bourgeois world view – it can’t imagine that struggle. It can’t even really detect it. Occupy is used as the thematic backdrop for the failure of solidarity, but interestingly the Battle in Seattle slips passed the view of Overstory, despite being the single most significant environmentalist protest of its era. There is no sense in the book of the potential of human society, freed from capitalist relations- circumstances that have existed for little more than a quarter of the life of a giant Sequoia. In the place of collective progress the novel fetishises Indigenous peoples (without giving them central roles), offers atavistic appeals to a natural state of being (which leads to some tedious gendered gestures) and the mysterious, unexplained genius of those that supercede our collective myopia. The usual, useless bourgeois-radical horse powder. The kind that feels bad in a good way, that helps you process grief but is insufficient to prevent tragedy.

However the point of my critique is not to review the novel, but rather explain it – and from that explanation derive a way forward. The book is not a road map for that journey, but it might contribute to one. Overstory is not a manifesto, unless it is for a kind of helpless Guardian reader anxiety, but it is a fantastic demonstration of the importance of its mission and the power of its method. The shaman’s vision may be incomplete, but it’s nightmares are real and it’s ability to convey them profound. Eco-fiction is an urgent and necessary project. A kind of writing that is unapologetically moral, propagandistic – life partisan in the war against the suicide economy. Overstory exemplifies this in its holistic view, it’s explicit struggle to join up our thinking- the particular to the general, species to environment, human-time to tree-time.

There was a period in my life when I would have been automatically repelled by the myth-making of the novel as inherently anti-materialist but despite the misguided biological naturalism of the author, the writer-shaman walks the line between spirit fire and concrete experience well. Prophecy falls to the axe of material forces, poetry cannot overcome the violence of the state. But at the same time the voice of the earth returns again and again, urging connection, energising revolt, pressing life forwards. And we need that. We need weapons in our mental fight, arrows of desire against the dark satanic mills. Overstory shows us how to forge a weapon that can cut, how to use myth to engage with the consciousness and world sense of the audience. But that method needs to be wielded with a better understanding of the hand meant to wield it and the battle it is fighting.

A question posed by the novel is whether trees should have rights in the law. This is a real area of dispute in the environmentalist movement – in many ways an extension of the argument for animal rights. Overstory makes reference to Should Trees Have Standing?, the book that famously proposed legal rights for natural entities in 1972, and it is clear that this perspective is central to the novel’s vision. The argument made in Standing and repeated in Overstory proposes the following;  ethnic and sexual minorities, women, children and disabled people have all, at one time, been without legal standing – implicitly beyond the circle of full personhood. Today such a thing is considered barbaric. So, therefore, might we not also one day expand that circle to encompass other kinds of life? Trees cannot advocate for themselves, but then neither can children or corporations ‘Lawyers speak for them’. Leaving aside the ill judged appeal to the horrifying legal status of corporations as persons, this thread speaks to the deep fault in the heartwood of Overstories partisan spear.

The world needs a movement that can save it; that movement needs ideas to direct it and those ideas need powerful stories to communicate them and to help build the language, and beyond that, the emotional consciousness to make them successful. The task that faces us as a species, more than at any other time in history, is revolutionary. There is no appeasing climate change, no moderate measure that can be taken to negotiate back the rising tide. The mortal terror expressed by Powers in Overstory is horribly apt. The appeal to build a consciousness beyond the limits of our species visionary and correct – but the nature of that consciousness has to be founded in the material struggles of human beings before it can find its myth.

We need to find our place in the web of life again, but we don’t do that by fetishizing the consciousness of animals and trees – in fact we blind ourselves to the dignity of their lived existence by casting on them a cartoon humanity. Law and Rights are human things created by and for human beings – they are not innate, they are not inherent, they are not mysteriously revealed or known they are the product of deadly struggle between oppressors and the oppressed, by the oppressed not on their behalf –  the rights of women must be defined by women and forged by their hands. We can understand, and live purposefully in the understanding, that there is validity and necessity to all the forms of life beyond us – but that message must be directed empathically to the lives of human beings. For me, it is the screechingly sympathetic appeal to the rights and consciousness for the voiceless trees that disorients the message of Overstory and fails to connect us effectively to the vital thread that exists between our species.

Read Overstory and be alarmed by it. Take its weapons, its urgent howl against individualism, its appeal for an ecological consciousness, its human myth about the life of forests. Take them and reforge them. Throw them to the masses and fight together for all the world is worth.

This longform review first appeared in Capture the Flag, a substack from rs21 member Caliban’s Revenge, you can subscribe for more pieces here.


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