Back on that Pulitzer train.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been mostly enjoying reading The Overstory, winner of the 2019 prize. The writing is top notch, as I’ll share here. But I’m finding the labored symbolism so tiresome that I feel …well, literally tired reading it.
The Good: What Writing!
Richard Powers is an incredibly talented wordsmith. His prose is elegant without being distant, and his turns of phrase are so novel that they catch you unawares and delight you when you realize how delicious they are.
Here’s some of what I mean.
On a frigid winter:
“Nights in the gap-ridden cabin zero their blood.”
Zero their blood—wow.
On recovering from the frigid winter:
“The blackest despair at the heart of them gets pressed to diamond.”
What a fun, non-overdone metaphor. Note that he isn’t saying “The coal of their despair” or anything. Just mentioning the black is enough to make the metaphor work while still surprising you (and charming you) at the end of the sentence.
On things going badly wrong in life:
“Like humans everywhere in the face of catastrophe, Frank Hoel Jr. goes blinking into his fate.”
“Goes blinking into his fate” is such a simple way of saying how dumbstruck we all can be by what life throws at us and how little choice we have but to just stare into into it as it happens.
And this is from the first chapter alone. I’ve been finding the language choices in this book to be incredible. Taking them in and thinking about how they work has been a pleasure. But it just can’t make up for…
The Bad: Beating You Over the Head With the Tree Symbolism
Oh my god, we get it.
Trees are symbols in your book. People who like trees = good. People who don’t = bad. Trees symbolize life. Trees symbolize us but are separate from us. TREES ARE ALL.
Seriously, the trees are such an overwhelming part of every single chapter that it’s not even like you have to look for it. Powers will hit you over the head with them over and over. You’re going to hear about some trees before the first three paragraphs of every chapter, promise. And it won’t end there.
I honestly think this symbolism could have been done well if one of the following things weren’t true.
- If the use of the symbolism wasn’t so heavy-handed.
- If the use of the symbolism wasn’t so exhaustingly moralizing.
Honestly, the first chapter was an example of how Powers could have done the tree symbolism right. While the tree in that chapter was a central part of the story, the meaning was subtle, and it was only a part of what was being shared. You had to dig back to think about how the lone tree was connected to the past (moments of joy, the beginnings of a long family history). And it would take some thinking to realize it’s pointing to what things change and what things stay the same as one generation passes into the next in a family.
I want to work for my symbolism.
I love subtle threads that tie a book together—you remember, this is what I felt was missing from Middlemarch. This could have been everything Middlemarch lacked.
But at 30% read on my Kindle, I’m feeling that, oh my, did we overcompensate with this one. The tree symbolism gets way preachier, and it gets way more impossible to ignore. It’s distracting. You read the chapter, and on sentence four, you’re like, “Oh, yep, there’s the poplar.” “Of course, why wouldn’t there be a sitka spruce mentioned right off the bat like this.”
I am exhausted and am not sure how much more of it I can take.
Disclaimer: I May Change My Mind and Think This is a Masterfully Done Book
I’m not even halfway through the book, and I recently finished the chapter that I believe the whole story will hinge upon (“Patricia Westford,” for those reading—and sighing—along). So I’m willing to keep plugging away to see if this talented writer can turn this over-the-top symbolism into something as beautiful as his prose.