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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: The Overstory

The Overstory - Richard Powers


What is propaganda? I'd define propaganda as the dispersal of information that lacks objectivity in order to push an agenda. Modern society adds a negative connotation to the word: propaganda is the work of a sinister force—but this isn't the case. One can place the propaganda label on something they themselves support. The Overstory is propaganda, and though I love trees and agree with many of the sentiments expressed in this novel, such blatant eco-grandstanding has no place in my fiction.

As a novel, The Overstory is most impressive at the beginning. It is then when the stories are disparate, and yes, this means it feels more like a collection of short stories, but they were really good short stories. When I think back on this 500-page behemoth, it is these stories that I easily recall. These stories show a pivotal moment in each character's life, many at a young age, a moment that is genuine and often heart-wrenching. It is within these first hundred pages that I see Richard Powers' strengths as a writer. Here is where the seeds of a good story are planted. However, the story grows, and once the various threads begin to interact with one another, not only does the plot become tiresome, but the heavy-handedness of the theme weighs the story down. It becomes exaggeratedly sentimental. There are no strong opposing forces amongst our main characters. Everyone is willing to give their life for their friends shrouded in bark. There are no counter arguments worth any weight whatsoever. And that's called propaganda. The intentions are good, but the orchestration reeks of a not-so-hidden agenda.

It's all just a bit too much. No, it's more than a bit. It's overwrought. If The Overstory had ended as a collection of interconnected short stories, it would've been more delightful, conveyed its message more clearly, and saved a whole lot of trees in the process.