cover image The Overstory

The Overstory

Richard Powers. Norton, $27.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-393-63552-2

Occupying the same thematic terrain as Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, the latest from Powers (Orfeo) is an impassioned but unsatisfying paean to the wonder of trees. Set primarily on the West Coast, the story revolves around nine characters, separated by age and geography, whose “lives have long been connected, deep underground.” Among these are a wheelchair-bound computer game designer; a scientist who uncovers the forest’s hidden communication systems; a psychologist studying the personality types of environmental activists; and a young woman who, after being electrocuted, hears voices urging her to save old-growth forests from logging. All are seduced by the majesty of trees and express their arboreal love in different ways: through scholarship, activism, art, and even violent resistance. Some of the prose soars, as when a redwood trunk shoots upward in a “russet, leathery apotheosis,” while some lands with a thud: “We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.” Powers’s best works are thrilling accounts of characters blossoming as they pursue their intellectual passions; here, few of the earnest figures come alive on the page. While it teems with people, information, and ideas, the novel feels curiously barren. [em](Apr.) [/em]