One of the more curious effluents of our current ecological crisis is the novel of environmental degradation, and specifically of deforestation. Such works – 2016’s Barkskins, by the Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx, was one overhyped example – stand in somewhat awkward relation to the catastrophe they seek to describe. And not just because books are made from felled trees, of which about thirty million go into making all the tomes printed in the USA in a single year, according to one frequently cited estimate.
The bigger problem is that the novel is a stubbornly human thing. All of our notions of what counts as good in literature – from characterisation to dialogue and plotting – involve human predicaments unfolding in human language and in human time. Trees, as the American novelist Richard Powers points out in his twelfth novel, The Overstory, operate on a radically different timescale. The challenge of engaging with that longue durée, while fulfilling the human demands of the novel and its readers, has stumped several novelists. ‘To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs,’ Powers writes in The Overstory. ‘No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.’
Powers solves this problem, after a fashion, by failing on traditional novelistic terms. The Overstory is divided into four sections – ‘Roots’, ‘Trunk’, ‘Crown’ and ‘Seeds’ – the first of which delivers back stories for the book’s nine central characters in eight discrete short stories. The rest of the novel charts how their lives converge around the old-growth redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest and then splinter over the course of several decades, from the late 1990s to the present. Five of the characters end up forming an ecotage cell, modelled on the real-life Earth Liberation Front, which sabotaged millions of dollars’ worth of logging and development projects, beginning in the mid-1990s. The struggles between these characters are so thin that the forest – about which he includes a wealth of fascinating scientific detail of the sort one might find in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) – ends up being far more compelling than the individuals who seek to defend it.
Making the contest over the forest compelling, however, is a thornier proposition. A further difficulty for the novel of deforestation is the inhuman scale of the drama at its core. The arc of environmental despoliation, unlike the arc of a life, can’t bend in any meaningful way over the course of a book. There is no reversal of fortune, no personal revelation – just a rapidly accelerating descent into tragedy. Struggles against the clear-cutting of the forest, like the one undertaken by the central characters in The Overstory, are doubly one-sided. First, Powers (together with, I would wager, almost his entire readership) is unambivalently rooting for the trees. Second, we know that these individual struggles are woefully inadequate: you can’t ‘bail out the ocean of capitalism with an acorn cap’, as Powers puts it in one particularly memorable line. Most of the momentum of a novel about deforestation must therefore derive from another source, but Powers never quite divines one, apart from the question of how his nine characters’ lives will intersect – a formal drama which can’t sustain a 500-page book (printed, I should add, on 100 per cent recycled paper).
If this weren’t enough, there’s more trouble in store for authors (and readers) of the deforestation novel. The horror of what human beings have done to the planet and its forests is so grave, and what we’ve lost seems so beautiful and necessary, that it’s difficult to write about it in a language that isn’t as sententious as it is sonorous. A few fairly random examples from the book should suffice: ‘Here, as sundown blankets them, the feel is primeval, darshan, a face-to-face intro to divinity’; ‘There are consolations that the strongest human love is powerless to give’; ‘The woods are calling, and she must go.’ T C Boyle solved this problem in A Friend of the Earth (2000), a novel that covers some remarkably similar territory to The Overstory, by donning the mask of wacky satire. Powers, however, is humourless, and he exacerbates his overblown prose, which he famously dictates using voice-recognition software, by employing a relentless historic present tense, so that everything feels as if it happens in the tiresome urgency of now.
The Overstory sometimes seems like a historical collage capturing the turn of the millennium environmental movement, full of scenarios and characters based in obvious ways on the lives and work of real people, from the tree-sitter Julia Butterfly to the ecologist Suzanne Simard. There are some strange things afoot, including an intimation of alternate, ‘branching’ universes and a few hesitant suggestions that the entire story is a kind of metafiction, concocted by two of the main characters, an ageing couple trying to overcome the husband’s immobilising stroke and the wife’s infidelity. Yet in the scheme of the novel they don’t amount to much. There’s also an interesting hint at what the future holds in a world of AI: that the super-algorithms, unlike humans, will realise how dependent they are on the material conditions provided by thriving forests and an otherwise ‘healthy’ planet, and will choose to preserve the forests, but not necessarily us. That, at least, would solve the problem of the deforestation novel.