What better way to celebrate the two-week semestral break by reading something that wasn’t required by a professor, by someone from work, by my thesis? I thought, while packing my bag and deciding on which to bring – and was torn between Patrick Modiano’s Café of Lost Youth, still stiff but dusty, or a slightly worn copy of The Overstory by Richard Powers that’s been on my desk’s reading pile for too long. I chose the latter. The bookmark betrayed the months I left it untouched: it was a receipt of the lunch I had with Dad at Pho Hoa, now barely visible. At either side were handwritten words in deep blue ink: that same night I met with a couple of friends, one of which had to show off his fountain pen. A few pages from where I resumed, it came to me why I paused reading the book: I was at the part where the plot thickens and the characters wade through the climax, the prose more dense with meaning that I wanted to savor it like a good meal or an arresting vista. After I graduated in college I have slowly given up reading fiction that’s too creative in a sense that it has symbols and plot twists and literary devices, but Richard Powers’ cinematic prose pulls you back, renews your belief in the art of fiction. I treat the book the way you read a love letter – only this one is addressed to nature.
This paragraph describes a character, Nicholas, who mourns for the death of his lover after a botched arson. He goes back to a giant redwood tree – named Mimas – where they camped on its branches for months to stop old-growth logging. Only this time it was already cut off by loggers, reducing Mimas to a stump. Knowing Nicholas’ family history from the previous chapters, and the glorious months that transpired in Mimas’ crown, made this a poignant scene.
Nicholas camps on the ghost of Mimas. No tent, no sleeping roll. He lies on his side as night comes on, his head on a wadded jacket near the ring laid down the year Charlemagne died. Somewhere underneath his coccyx, Columbus. Past his ankles, the first Hoel leaves Norway for Brooklyn and the expanses of Iowa. Beyond the length of his body, crowding up to the cut's cliff, are the rings of his own birth, the death of his family, the roadside visit of the woman who recognized him, who taught him how to hang on and live.
The stump oozes from around its rim, the sap a color that the painter has no name for. He turns on his back and stares into the air, twenty stories straight up, trying to locate that precise spot where he and Olivia lived for a year. He doesn't want to be dead. He just wants the play of that voice, its eager openness, for a few words more. He just wants the girl who always heard what life wanted from them to rise out of the fire and tell him what he's supposed to do with himself, from now on. There is no voice. Not hers, not the imaginary beings. No flying squirrels or murrelets or owls or any other creature that sang to them in their year. His heart contracts back down to the size it was when she found him. Silence, he decides, is better than lies.