I’ve been hesitant about reading Richard Powers for years because some readers I know have dismissed his writing as pretentious. I know I shouldn’t have let this put me off. He’s produced such an impressive body of work with weighty highly-praised novels that have won him the National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His recent shortlisting on the Man Booker Prize finally pushed me to give his writing a try and I’m so glad I did because this novel is magnificent. What’s more it’s much more approachable and enjoyable than I thought it would be. It’s a truly epic tale primarily about ecological activism, family heritage and the surprising interconnections between people and the natural world. I was immediately enthralled by the long separate stories of nine individuals which vary so wildly in subject matter. They range from tales about a Chinese immigrant to a farmer that embarks on an ambitious photography project to a boy with a flair for writing code at the dawn of the computer age to a college girl with a hazardous bad-girl streak. He frames these stories through the lens of trees so time is altered to recount events at their pace of life. The stories initially leap through years and big events are recounted in brief. While they seem so disparate at first they gradually thread together throughout the novel to tell a much larger story. Powers structures the novel like a tree itself from the roots to the trunk to the crown to the seeds. While I don’t think every storyline or device he used worked, I was nevertheless astounded by the ambitious scope of this novel and found it continuously engaging despite its considerable length.
It’s quite a challenge to get humans to think on a timescale like that which trees experience, but Powers accomplishes this in such an inventive way. One character photographs a certain tree at a particular time for many years and its observed how “The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame.” In this way, Powers trains the reader to think beyond the emotions which rule our daily lives and consider the way which trees bear themselves throughout time and in the world. His mission for doing this is admirable because it encourages the reader to really feel the central concern of the novel which is the rapid destruction of our natural world.
Powers even seems to doubt the ambition of his mission within the course of the book. Late in the novel he observes how “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. 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.” It’s so challenging for us to conceive of the larger struggles of the world which is why watching news about depressing world events feels important to us, but doesn’t often motivate us to instigate any actual changes. What I think Powers is attempting to do in this novel is compel us to re-view how we look at time and nature in a radically different way – while also doing that exact thing of compelling his readers with the stories about a few lost people.
I was most strongly drawn to the story of Adam who possesses unique psychological insight because he found it so difficult to connect with other people as a child. It’s so moving how Powers describes that for Adam “Every hug is a small, soft jail.” Equally, I really enjoyed the story of Neelay whose physical disability compels him to vividly conjure alternate lives. It’s also very effective how Powers shows the trajectory of student Olivia’s life and how he frames this within sections of the novel. But I was somewhat put off by the story of Ray and Dorothy’s relationship. Their sections aren’t badly told, but the progression of their story felt somewhat cliched to me and noticeably separate from the intertwining stories of the other characters. I’m not sure the way in which the characters’ stories mix together was always believable either. But they are so dramatically told and contain such fascinating insights drawn from a wide range of subjects. I was glad sink wholeheartedly into this wildly energetic and impressive novel.