Our guest this afternoon is an American writer, he was born in Evanston, Illinois. He is a National Book Award winner, a recipient of the MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’, he is a professor in creative writing, he has been twice nominated for the MAN Booker Prize and weirdly he has lived for a couple of years in Heerlen, Limburg.
Now I find it difficult to imagine being Dutch and living in Heerlen, I find is even harder to imagine being an American writer of rather epic novels and living in Limburg.
But then again: why not? This is a writer whose novels are simply all over the place, set in different countries, in different continents, in different ages, in different wars, in different political situations – his characters are the playthings of the times they live it.
He debuted with a novel called Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, in 1985; this novel was inspired by an old picture, taken in 1913 or 1914 of three young men, probably German, on their way to a fest. The happiness of the picture is of course darkened by the knowledge that the First World War will soon start, probably dragging these young men to their early graves. The novel is written from several perspectives, one imagining the faith of the boys in the war, the other from a contemporary perspective, continuously reflecting, in an essayistic way, on the rise of technology and mankind’s millions new ways to kill itself.
I suppose you can say that this has formed a palate, so to say, for his books; continuously making up stories and narratives about ordinary people swept away by politics and history, but also being swept away by science and technology.
When I say ordinary people, I should add: ordinary people with often extraordinary minds.
Think of the main character in his novel 2014 Orfeo for example, who is an elderly avant-garde music composer who does home experiments in biohacking, or to be more precise: he biohacks musical patterns into bacterial human pathogen.
(We all need a hobby, right. Unfortunately the, by chance, officers from a National security Agency become interested in his experiments and he more or less is suspected of being a bioterrorist).
That was Orfeo, published in 2014.
More extraordinary minds? Let’s look at his novel Galatea 2.2 about a novelist turned teacher by his writer’s block, who once upon a time lived in The Netherlands in Limburg, and gets involved in teaching an artificial intelligence about life, and love, and literature. The three L’s. The mind of the AI becomes so smart, she leaves the human world.
Extra ordinary minds: Well, perhaps anyone here has read his National book Award winning novel, from 2006, The Echo Maker, about a man who has a car accident, wakes up and thinks his sister is an imposter. Someone who sounds like her, looks like her, but somehow isn’t her. Much of the book deals with neurologist trying to explain what exactly goes on in his mind.
His newest book, the one we are going to talk about, The Overstory, is also filled with ordinary people performing extraordinary feats.
The Overstory comes with a great blurb on the dust jacket, by Margaret Atwood. Atwood writes about our guest that if he was to be ‘an American writer of the Nineteenth century, which writer would he be? He’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big.’
So I was thinking, if the The Overstory was a picture, what would it be like?
Clearly the picture would have been huge, filling up an entire wall in a museum. Green and big, blue skies overhead. It would be something like the pictures of Albert Bierstadt, probably. Giving you an enormous vista of the American west, the nature, the plains, mountain and trees. Only if you look hard enough, you will start to see the humans on the plains, living beneath the trees. If nature is ‘The overstory’, the humans are ‘the understory’.
And The overstory tells several tales, which in the course of the book will slowly come together.
There is the story of Douglas Pavlicek, a Veteran who fell from the sky during the Vietnam War and was saved by falling into an enormous tree. There is the story of Neelay Mehta, a wonderfully smart whiz kid, clearly brilliant, who falls from a tree and loses his ability to walk. There is the story of Nicolas Hoel, a struggling artist whose family used to grow big chestnuts trees on their farm. There is the story of Mimi Ma, daughter of a Chinese immigrant, who loves the Mulberry bush her father planted before committing suicide.
There is the story of the bullied Adam Appich, who sees only logical behaviour in the world of ants. There’s that of Ray and Dorothy, a couple of lawyers / amateur actors, who find themselves more and more in thrall by nature and plants. It’s the story of Olivia VanderGriff, who lives life recklessly, almost dies and than sets out to find something worth living for.
There is the story of Patricia Westerford, who falls from grace in the academic world after publishing an article in which she states that trees have a way of communicating with each other, and warning each other for threats – such as bugs and fungus.
The Overstory is a book about trees, obviously, about nature, about the way humans interact with nature, but it is also a novel about people searching for meaning, searching for something to connect with. It is a novel about purpose.
I was going to say what a ridiculously brilliant book it is, cerebral as well is warm and human, but the author is here, it would only be awkward and embarrassing, it would completely undermine my role a interviewer, so ladies and gentleman, please give a warm welcome to our guest for the afternoon, mister Richard Powers.