Solving a problem for which you know there’s an answer is like climbing a mountain with a guide, along a trail someone else has laid. In mathematics, the truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all the beaten paths. And it’s not always at the top of the mountain. It might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in the valley.
“To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs.” (383)
The profuse blurbs in my copy of this Pulitzer-winning novel include one from Nathaniel Rich at The Atlantic, highlighting author Richard Powers’ anomalous work in a field where “literary convention favors novelists who write narrowly about personal experience,” and Powers himself has been quoted as complaining that “Literary fiction has largely become co-opted by that belief that meaning is an entirely personal thing.” None of which is to say that this book lacks vividly-realized characters with complex interiority. But it may perhaps account for why the comparanda that occurred to me when reading it were more science-fictional than “literary.”
Certainly the “cli-fi” element will put many readers in mind of the work of Kim Stanley Robinson, who has treated this large theme in many capable novels. I also observed a kinship to Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, where the forest in Powers’ book takes on the organizing and animating function of the river in McDonald’s. Both of these novels have a regard for artificial intelligence that de-centers it from the human perspective. Yet another book brought to mind is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, a work of science fiction published as literary fiction. Mitchell’s “atemporals” have some of their role taken up by the trees in The Overstory, but more importantly his social and philosophical concerns and the way he illustrated them through personal situations seemed quite similar to what I found in this book.
In addition to beautiful prose and profound reflection, there’s a considerable amount of failure and death–both arboreal and human–in this novel. It is a sweeping tragedy that brought me to tears a few times. The final summation was a bit less intellectually honest than what I took away from Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, but I guess I would still call The Overstory good medicine for those willing to take it.
“And what do all good stories do? … They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t.” (412)
It was a splendid discovery, and the clarity and purity of the solution was even more extraordinary in light of the confusion it had emerged from, as if I’d unearthed a shard of crystal from the floor of a dark cave.
Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won’t find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression—in fact, nothing can prevent it from doing so.