Thursday, May 10, 2018

Tree Time in Richard Powers’ The Overstory


I read my first Richard Powers’ novel (Operation Wandering Soul) while in graduate school over twenty years ago. I’ve read everything he’s written since then. I note this because there’s a compelling sameness to his body of work. Lots of reviewers have complained that his characters are flat, designed more to embody ideas and ways of understanding than to portray complex human emotions. For me, that’s more of a feature than a bug. I can barely remember any of his characters and that’s fine. What stands out for me is the subject of each book. Orfeois the one about avant-garde music; The Gold Bug Variationsis about classical music; Three Farmers on the Way to a Dance is about photography; TheEcho Makeris about brains and birds. Gain is about corporations. 

In that way, The Overstory: A Novelis about trees. This sense of “aboutness” is at the heart of each of his novels. Powers writes about a subject like Herman Melville writes about whales or N.K. Jemisin writes about earthquakes. His chosen subject leads to a way of being in the world; give Powers a subject and he will make you an ontology. If you want to know, Gainwill tell you what it is to live in a world of corporate personhood. He’ll tell you the history and the present of that world, and he’ll at least gesture toward the future of it. 

So what is it to live in a world of trees? It’s a slow, subterranean, aerial world where communication takes place through sunlight and volatile organic compounds. Unlike the Lorax, who gets mentioned once in the book, Powers does not speak for the trees. Some of his characters try to do this, but Powers speaks near the trees, in the trees, around the trees, even asthe trees. The Overstory’s first section is called “Roots.” Its final three sections are called “Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seeds.” The book grows like a tree. In between these tree parts are sections titled with human names, but most of these humans take on tree pseudonyms. “Douglas Pavlicek” becomes “Doug-fir;” another character becomes “Maidenhair,” another “Mulberry,” another “Maple.” A character thinks of death as “hemlock time” (417). In fact, trees render time inhuman in The Overstory. One character, Neely remembers a favorite science fiction story about aliens who land on earth but remain unseen by humans because “they operate on a different scale of time. They zip around so fast that human seconds seem to them as tree years seem to humans” (487). And some other characters come close to experiencing what could be called “tree time.” 

A character sentenced to two consecutive terms of seventy years in prison thinks of the sentence in tree time. “Seventy plus seventy is nothing. A black willow plus a wild cherry. He was thinking oak. He was thinking Douglas-fir or yew. Seventy plus seventy. With reductions for good behavior, he might even finish out the first half of the sentence just in time to die” (471). Another character suffers a stroke and sees himself “turn brown and fall” (311). He loses most of his ability to speak and move. He becomes a tree. Later, his wife “envies” the stillness that has been forced on him.  “His years of enforced tranquility, the patience of his slowed mind, the expansion of his blinkered senses. He can watch the dozen bare trees in the backyard for hours and see something intricate and surprising, sufficient to his desires (458).  When he dies, she thinks that she will join him, “at the speed of trees, very soon” (498). 
Through the scale of tree time, Powers tries to makes global warming visible. A character has a mystical experience in the “boreal north” (355) and briefly hears trees speak. 


Nearby lodgepoles and jack pines demur: Long answers need long time. And long time is exactly what’s vanishing. 

The black spruces down the drumlin put it bluntly: Warm is feeding on warm. The permafrost is belching. The cycle speeds up. 

Farther south, broadleaves agree. Noisy aspens and remnant birches, forests of cottonwoods and poplars, take up the chorus: The world is turning into a new thing (355-6). 

The man thinks to the trees, “we’re all doomed.” The trees tell him that “we have always been doomed.” The man tries to tell the trees that “things are different this time.” And the trees answer him: “Yes. You’re here.” (356). Humans destroy what the lodgepoles and jack pines call “long time,” the slow time of the lifespan of trees, the slow time of evolutionary change, the slow cycles of climate change. The trees tell the man that human time is deadly; it goes too fast other living things to adapt. Humans have accelerated global warming past the point of return. 

Ray, the character who has a stroke, lies in bed and comes to the same realization. He reflects on his previous life as a property lawyer. He realizes that no law, no attempt to avert global warming will work. They’re on the wrong time scale. “Life will cook; the seas will rise. The planet’s lungs will be ripped out. And the law will let this happen, because harm was never imminent enough. Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge imminent at the speed of trees” (498). Tree immanence is unthinkable for humans. It has been for at least a century, since humans sped up time with the industrial revolution. Powers makes the case trees live in a fundamentally different world than humans. Unfortunately for trees, these worlds overlap. One character thinks, “it’s not the world that needs saving. Only the thing that people call by the same name” (495). Tree time, tree world, trees themselves, can outlast the short time of global warming. 

This is sort of where The Overstoryleaves us. It’s not a happy book. Powers makes a science-fictional gesture toward a techno-scientific understanding of life, but it is only a gesture. He’s not the type of writer who speeds off into the future. He tries to slow things down. He succeeds for 502 pages. But then the book ends with the voice of a ghost, and the stillness of its last few pages disappears. Back at the beginning of the book, a pine tells a woman “Listen. There’s something you need to hear” (3).  


Friday, May 4, 2018

This Week in Nancy: "Mass Hysteria"

In How to Read Nancy, Karasik and Newgarden, in their discussion of "ballon design," note "Any number of word balloons can be used within a panel . . . For Bushmiller one balloon per panel was the norm, two were the exception, and three or more were reserved for mass hysteria" (140). On April 28, then Olivia Jaimes gives us mass hysteria. Five word balloons crowd the space of the third panel, crushing Nancy, who pulls her arms toward her body and grimaces. All of the words in the balloon exceed the space of the panel; almost half of the words cannot be read because the push into the invisible space inside or underneath the panel.


The words themselves continue Jaimes' meta-commentary from last week about Ernie Bushmiller purists. The first panel features Nancy, seemingly floating in white space, while someone off-panel intones, "Nancy is iconic for her simplicity." In panel two, another voice adds a longer commentary--notice that the line of the word balloon is lower in the second panel than the one in the first, suggesting a second speaker. Another speaker than chimes in from the right. We cannot see all the words that this speaker intones. The words will not fit in the panel. And the word balloons are beginning to crowd Nancy. She raises her hand as if defense, as if she is getting ready to push back. Her half-smile from the first panel becomes a frown. Her eyebrows straighten out and push toward each other. By the third panel, her mouth opens slightly in a frown. She looks like she cannot breathe. Word bubbles from the left and from the right touch each of her hands as she tries to push back. The word bubble in the bottom right side of the panel cover part of her shoe. Nancy is in danger of being blocked out, erased. That's the gag. The online commentary is not allowing us to see Nancy today.


On Monday, April 30, Jaimes continues her meta-commentary. Speaking to Sluggo, Nancy says "I'm sick of these reboots and restarts." Fans of Bushmiller everywhere nod in agreement (perhaps while they acknowledge but dismiss the irony as simplistic). Panel two zooms in on Nancy's angry face, ash she complains "why can't something that's gone stay gone?" The half of Sluggo's face that we can see looks neutral--his mouth a straight line, his nose a quarter circle and a dot, his pupil a black dot, and his eyebrow a semi-circle above his eye. Panel three pulls back from Nancy's face. We see four bushes and two gigantic flowers. Tiny black dots of pollen emanate from two of the bushes and the flowers. There are no rocks. The gag, as revealed by Sluggo's dialogue: Nancy was talking about the return of spring, and the pollen that causes her allergies. See--she wasn't talking about her own reboot. We have one more day of direct meta-commentary ahead of us. 

On May 1, Nancy sits on an undersized chair and looks through her window at the black diagonal slashes of rain falling. She says "I love the sound of rain." Readers, of course, cannot hear the rain, we can only see the black lines that signify rain is falling. In panel two, which zooms out a bit, Jaimes helps us to hear the rain. The word "PLOP" appears seven times, in bold type, around the window. But Nancy sees the words! The gag is in panel two. Her word balloon partially covers two of the "PLOPS" as she says "also the sight of the sound of rain." Karasik and Newgarden write, "In short: the lettering in comics is generally meant to be read and not seen." Undermining that general knowledge establishes the gag--we first read the words and hear them as the sound of rain but then Nancy sees them and we cannot help but see them. She concludes, in the third panel, her face occupying the middle third of the panel "Ahhhh . . . so relaxing." Her eyes are shut. Nancy does not see the "PLOP"s that fill the space around her because her eyes are shut. Note, too, that Jaimes uses what K and N call "The Modified Silhouette," the small white (or in this case, green) space that surrounds something. "A white halo around an object grants prominence" (143). Unlike the word balloons from a few days ago, the "PLOPS"s do not touch Nancy. Instead, they follow the contours of her body, head, hair, and bow. Not only do they lend prominence to Nancy, they keep their distance, as they are in on the joke. 


May 2 gives a straight-up visual gag. Nancy's jam handprint serves as not the kind of reminder that she intended. Sluggo is mad about the jam on his shirt but he is also aware of Nancy's obliviousness,  as one of his eyebrows arches and the other curls. No meta-, no social media, just a gag.


 May 3 returns us to the outdoors and to spring. Nancy seems to have gotten over her annoyance of a few days ago regarding spring. In the first panel, she is framed by blue sky as she smiles and says "Spring is so beautiful." The second panel makes a jarring shift in perspective. Nancy speaks from off-panel left, as we see bushes, flowers, and a tree take central focus, like the scene Nancy and Sluggo walked through on April 30. The bushes seem to have finished blooming. Instead of flowers, all they have are small black dots. Nancy sets us up for a visual gag. Spring is only beautiful "for the ten seconds I can see it before my eyes start tearing up from allergies." The ten seconds elapse in the gutter before panel three. The lines of the scene become wavy and imprecise. Nancy's teary vision infects the reader's eyes. But there's also a secondary joke. The word bubble in panel three differs from the one in panel two a bit. Whereas panel two's bubble's tail starts very close to the edge of the panel, telling us that the speaker is outside the panel, the bubble tail in panel three is a bit further from the edge. It actually seems to be emanating from the bush, which is now simply green, absent not only of flowers, but of black dots that signified flowers that have shed their petals. The bush speaks, "We had a good run this year." Is this another meta-commentary? Is the bush actually Bushmiller?


All of which brings us to today's strip. Nancy sits crosslegged on the floor, her laptop on her lap. "Reading social media all day is making me grumpy," she says, and her facial expression shows it. From outside the room, someone (Aunt Fritzi?) says, why don't you go outside? Nancy curtly answers "Fine." She still looks perturbed. Panel three's gag relies on the literalist Nancy established by Bushmiller, the Nancy who lounges with Sluggo in the "Lounge" and literally rests on someone's laurels. 

 In panel three, Nancy sits in the exact same position, legs crossed and laptop on her lap, only now, as the view pulls back a bit, we see that she is indeed outside. "Now there's glare on my screen!!!!" She has followed the advice given to her to its letter but not its intent. She is probably still reading social media as the sun shines down on her. But does the fact that Nancy sits among two trees and flower mean anything? Unlike the other two outdoor scenes this week, there are no bush(miller)es to be seen. Is Nancy free of the yoke of Bushmiller's long history? No--she is still reading the comments.



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