Overstory

Review of the book Overstory by Richard Powers.
2022-07-14 – ⁠2022-09-11 finished
⁠certainty: log ⁠importance: 1Source published on: 2018

The book starts with several stories about people connected in various ways to trees but I couldn’t make it past the second story. In the first story the protagonist finds his family asphyxiated because of a faulty propane heater. In the second story the protagonist kills himself because he failed at taking care of a mulberry. I skipped over to another story where I read “sliced ankle” and “bathroom floor covered with blood”.

Cabin surrounded by golden prairies.
Cabin surrounded by golden prairies.

In a last attempt to try to find out why the book received a Pulitzer I skipped a bit further:

Last fall’s stubble dots the snow-covered fields. She drives for a long time, obeying the presences. Like a radio station from another city, their signal wavers between clear and static. She makes herself an instrument of their will.

[…]

Her mind has nothing even faintly resembling a plan.

This writing style constantly steals my attention away from the story, it just isn’t for me. And I do like trees.

Highlights

Humorous bits:

He feels carefree, American, filled with affection for people of all nations except the Japanese.

The whole conversation, Sih Hsuin decides, is a crude test of his ability to remember what he’s written down.

Sih Hsuin knows nothing about Chinese Buddhism. He has only a rough estimate of English. Now he’s supposed to explain Enlightenment to this American woman official.

“The True Thing mean: human beings, so small. And life, so very big.”

“Luóhàn. Arhat. Little Buddha. They solve life. They pass the final exam.” He turned her chin toward him. When he smiled, the thin gold edge of his front tooth flashed. “Chinese superhero!”

“They see every answer. Nothing hurt them anymore. Emperor come and go. Qing, Ming, Yuan. Communism, too. Little insect on a giant dog. But these guy?” He clicked his tongue and held up his thumb, as if these little Buddhas were the ones to put money on, in the run of time.

This year they return to his beloved Yellowstone. Every campground along the way gets an entry in Winston’s notebooks. He writes down the campsite number and evaluates it according to a dozen different criteria. He’ll use the data over the winter to perfect next year’s route.

Child cruelty:

Two thousand miles with nothing to read. The two older girls stare at their little sister for dozens of Nebraska miles until Amelia breaks down and cries. It passes the time.

Cold neutrality with, in some cases, an air of superiority and fatalism. This doesn’t help me care about the characters:

Dementia starts here, in these days of quiet, automotive sainthood.

Later:

Knee-deep in the cold current, her father is free. He maps the sandbars, measures the speed of the water, reads the bottom, watches for hatch—those simultaneous equations in multiple unknowns that one must solve to think like a fish—all the while conscious of nothing but the sheer luck of being on the water. “Why these fish hiding?” he asks his daughter. “What they do?”

This is how she’ll remember him, wading in his heaven. Fishing, he has solved life. Fishing, he passes the final exam, the next arhat, joining the ones in the mysterious scroll

But the father isn’t really free because soon after that he commits suicide when he fails to heal their diseased mulberry.

How do I grow from this book?

Flowery communication isn’t for me.

Connections

  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.
  • Freedom: you’re also not really free if you only experience samadhi intermittently, during meditation sessions. Unless is permanent it’s not real.

ISBN: 978-0-393-63553-9