What an honor it is to welcome Richard Powers back to Bard College this afternoon after over a decade since he last read in the Innovative Contemporary Fiction Reading Series. A few of us here who were at that reading will remember how Rick had everyone in this room leaning forward in their seats as he read a story that so completely blurred the line between history and fiction that there was an audible gasp from the audience when he read the last lines, and an unexpected truth—both profoundly humane and intellectually deft—rose into view. It reminded me of a moment from some years before then, if you don’t mind a small personal note, when, at a reading Rick gave at the New School in New York, I was sitting next to David Foster Wallace, and Dave leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Rick Powers is the only one of us who’s possessed of both genius and goodness.”
I agreed and still agree with him.
Those of you who have read novels by Richard Powers know him to be a writer of daunting erudition, of wide-ranging inquisitiveness, and of utterly original narrative instincts. His prior eleven books have offered exquisite insights into everything from music (in works such as The Gold Bug Variations, In the Time of Our Singing, and Orfeo—novels that also investigate genetics, racism, and bio-terrorism, respectively) to virtual reality (as in Plowing the Dark, which is set in such different locales as Seattle and Beirut); from artificial intelligence (as in Galatea 2.2, in which a Pygmalion-like experiment goes badly amiss) to commerce, chemicals, and cancer (as with Gain from 1998, which won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction); from photography (as in his tour de force first novel from 1985, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, which also addressed everything from the life of Henry Ford to the nature of war) to the enigmatic nature of cognition, memory, and reality as in The Echo Maker, his memorably moving novel that won the National Book Award in 2006.
When he wrote me last fall that his new novel, The Overstory, was “about trees” I was curious, intrigued. Nature had often been a presence in his writings, but we’d never to my recollection discussed trees. That said, I’ve learned never to be surprised by developments in Rick’s polymathic interests, and when I read a galley of The Overstory over the holidays, I recognized that many of his earlier themes were present, with the additional, crucial subject of our forests’, and therefore our planet’s, survival. Here was a masterful resurrection of what had come before, newly charged with an essential story about the ominous directions in which we humans are headed while greedily, ignorantly, even blithely destroying our only home, Earth.
The Overstory eludes quick description. The book begins with eight very different stories of people like Nick Hoel, who continues the quixotic habit begun by his Iowa farmer forefathers of repeatedly photographing a chestnut tree that has miraculously survived the blight that killed most American chestnuts, and of Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam war load-master on a C-130 whose life is saved when he falls out of the sky into the arms of a banyan tree after his aircraft is hit by flak. We meet Olivia Vandergriff, a college student who nearly dies of electrocution while high on dope, but then begins to hear voices that direct her to go west where she evolves into an eco-warrior who risks everything to fight in the Northwest timber wars to save the redwoods from annihilation at the hands of logging companies. And we encounter Patricia Westerford who has a passing resemblance to Jane Goodall, although her almost mystical expertise is about trees, their secret behaviors and communications. These disparate lives, and those of many other characters, converge around the central idea that trees not only share our biological DNA, but are essential to life itself. The Overstory is threaded through with ideas about evolution and ecology, and while it is sometimes idealistic it is also steel-eyed in its depictions of death, betrayal, hopes, consequences. In a conversation Rick and I had that was published in Conjunctions:34, he memorably said, “Art is a way of saying what it means to be alive, and the most salient feature of existence is the unthinkable odds against it. For every way that there is of being here, there are an infinity of ways of not being here.” It’s a worldview embraced and embodied in The Overstory, a masterpiece that reminds us that one of those infinite ways of not being here can be assured, quite simply, by failing to preserve our struggling and sentient forests.
Click here to listen to Richard Powers read from The Overstory for the Innovative Contemporary Fiction Reading Series at Bard College, April 16, 2018.