The Overstory
  • March 13, 2019

    Opening Round

  • Richard Powers

    1The Overstory
    4My Sister, the Serial Killer

    Oyinkan Braithwaite

  • Judged by

    J. Howard Rosier

My Sister, the Serial Killer

The choice between The Overstory and My Sister, the Serial Killer is about moments: the individual points in time defining individuals, and two political excavations affecting human beings globally. One headline—the systemic subjugation of women—dominates the media’s attention; whereas the other—our wholesale indifference to the deterioration of the environment—fights for attention. Yet despite their vast differences in technique and scale, neither novel takes their reader’s attention (or lack thereof) for granted. Both books gesture toward pressing issues on the minds of citizens while weaving thought-provoking narratives that expand our definition of their topics. Socially aware but cautious in their conclusions, these aren’t jeremiads so much as philosophical inquiries.

J. Howard Rosier lives in Chicago, where he edits the journal Critics’ Union. His writing has appeared in The New Criterion, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is a recipient of the James Nelson Raymond Fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “The only conflict of interest I have pertains to Jesse Ball. He teaches at SAIC, which is where I got my MFA. He was my advisor for a year.”

Slim but formidable, My Sister, the Serial Killer is based in Lagos and centers on Korede, an ambitious type-A nurse who finds her go-get-em attitude increasingly used in the service of hiding her younger sister Ayoola’s murders. She’s Korede’s polar opposite: sexually confident, though impulsive and disorganized—ultimately helpless until she’s forced to fight off jilted lovers who’ve tried to take advantage of her.

But is she? One of the defter touches of this whip-smart debut is how My Sister, the Serial Killer sows doubt in the mind of its readers about Ayoola’s credulity. Of course how a person dresses has no bearing on whether or not their date is owed sex; but the picture becomes cloudier when it is the intention of that person’s date to trade companionship for gifts. If the date insists on their “payment,” and winds up dead in the interaction, then ultimately who’s responsible?

Ayoola, Korede reasons, but it’s complicated. For starters, Korede has a crush on Tade, a doctor at her hospital who has intentions of marrying her younger sister. Will Tade find himself sharing the fate of Ayoola’s previous boyfriends? He would never… But that surety is precisely the luxury that many “upstanding” men are allowed within their communities—a benefit of the doubt allowing them to abuse women. Gaslighting affixes itself to sibling rivalry with disastrous results. The wretched patriarchs hovering over My Sister, the Serial Killer’s narrative are the women’s late father (an abusive politician who desires chastity in his daughters but recognizes the power of their sexuality to expand his empire through well-connected suitors), and Muhtar, a comatose patient who Korede confides in at her lonelier moments.

I have to admit that, initially, I found the latter plot point flimsy, but changed my mind once I realized how much My Sister, the Serial Killer got out of it. For example, when Muhtar wakes up with knowledge of Ayoola’s murders, he fills a vacuum as her surrogate father. However, in his dominion over the family unit, he reveals himself as a mirror image of her father. Tamer, sure; more benevolent. But ultimately in complete control of his family’s destiny for no other reason than male privilege. As his wisdom gives Korede strength to endure her inevitable conflict with Tade, the implications on the narrative are low-hanging fruit: Why does the Korede need a man to put things into perspective for her?

I’d like to think the reason why “Father” is the only recurring chapter is because of this false dichotomy, rather than a flaw in design. The specter of masculine attention is suffocating. When considered in conjunction with the fraught situation Korede finds herself in, the novel portrays a very claustrophobic narrative world. Maybe too claustrophobic.

Regardless, Korede chooses family over romance and justice. The fact that by the end of this short novel we’re unable to discern what “family” she’s referring to—gender or nuclear—makes her decisiveness unsettling. Perhaps this is intentional. One of the more harrowing continuities throughout #MeToo stories is the length communities will go to cover up abuse. Hiding several murders for the sake of a family unit isn’t much different—a bitter pill wrapped in an unrecognizable package. The nuts-and-bolts character interactions aren’t nearly as subversive. From its navigation of Facebook politics, to its parsing of the line between coddling and accomplicehood—between social justice and victimhood—it’s hard to imagine a book more “of” its time.

* * *

Richard Powers’s books have always seemed to exist beyond the times. Classical music, soap factories, virtual reality, capgras syndrome: His novels crackle with intelligence and arrive in structurally inventive packages. The Overstory is a behemoth compared to My Sister, the Serial Killer: 500 pages of dense text in a large format. Whereas My Sister, the Serial Killer’s singular narrative ripples out into the world as implication, The Overstory employs tree anatomy to encapsulate nature more broadly.

Nature like the environment, or nature like humanity? Thankfully, both. Much in the way that My Sister, the Serial Killer recognizes the personal as political, The Overstory reimagines the transcendental mindstate as a commentary on where humanity is headed. Backstories are handled in “Roots”; the heft of the rising action takes place in the “Trunk.” Narratives intertwine and branch out from the “Crown” only to disperse into their future implications in “Seeds.”

Field NotesBuy this special ToB Memo Book for $5 and Field Notes will donate 100% of the proceeds to 826 National, which provides free educational programs to under-resourced youth.

Reading the opening vignettes, I found myself thrilled with the thematic connections while wondering if all the backstory was necessary. For the auxiliary characters especially—it’s like Powers built several entities just so they could take in the main plot through another perspective. He definitely leaned too much on the “everything is connected” angle going into the middle section. A novel isn’t Crash. This isn’t 21 Grams. But I assume one benefit of writing long is the ability to cannibalize your flaws. By the time the story started developing, I’d forgotten he’d done it.

However, once I’d put that aside, I started to question whether The Overstory’s antagonists were credible. Misery land barons? Luddite loggers trying to feed their families? Even the narrative arcs orbiting around the primary one—a group of tree huggers turned domestic terrorists—feel slightly artificial. The actions of the characters who wind up in this anti-timber arson scheme unfold at a relatively brisk pace: a tiny rung within a much larger body. For doing so much heavy lifting, the point at which several major characters don tree-inspired code names and start blowing up equipment sheds reads like frivolous hippie nonsense.

That’s the point, though. All of The Overstory’s characters have a unique perspective on the natural world, but not a single one eschews self interest. Rather than a call to action a la The Grapes of Wrath, its moral universe works more like Coetzee’s Disgrace. That novel’s characters couldn’t interact within post-apartheid South Africa without their previous hierarchies creeping up; The Overstory’s protagonists aren’t equipped to appreciate nature for nature’s sake. Hence a novel about the wonders of nature transforms into a microscope zoomed in on humanity’s selfishness.

Magnifications don’t always produce beautiful shapes. Sometimes, the subplots digress into what James Wood described as “the sophistication of [Powers’s] ideas…constantly overwhelming [a] rather primitive stylistic and narrative machinery.” A more charitable way of putting it is that narrative intelligence fights for attention amongst his erudition. Lacking the linguistic playfulness of Nabokov, or the self-consciously colloquial tone of David Foster Wallace, the book’s uncluttered, paratactic storytelling occasionally slips into mawkishness.

The question, then, is whether we should nitpick a writer who never stops growing for occasionally scraping his head against the ceiling. As a concept, genius finds itself under scrutiny, particularly with regards to white males. I find this criticism true and besides the point. Whether we’re talking about Saul Bellow or Sylvia Plath, canonical status rests on unique slants within consciousness—work that’s maddeningly, unmistakably “theirs.” It’s time to consider Richard Powers within this category, if we haven’t already. My Sister, the Serial Killer made me laugh, it made me think, but it didn’t make me reevaluate what was possible in a novel. This of course isn’t a baseline for what’s readable, but when successful, it should serve as a tie-breaker between two books.

I wouldn’t call myself a Richard Powers fan. Gain was pretty good; Margaret Atwood’s review got me to read The Echo Maker. But it’s not like I sit around waiting for his books. Yet in this one, when his creations find themselves scattered and heaving about the earth in a mess of their own making, I’m convinced. This has to be what it feels like encountering a master, where a work isn’t to your taste but you’re still in awe of its composition.

TODAY’S WINNER: The Overstory

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

John Warner: I’ve used this joke before, but I cannot resist. On the year both Richard Powers and I were faculty in the English Dept. at the University of Illinois (2001 to 2002), the department boasted a National Book Award finalist, a MacArthur Fellow, a winner of the Lannan Literary award, and a Washington Post number-one bestseller of a book primarily drawn in colored pencil.

We were sort of a dream team, me and Richard Powers.

Powers was responsible for the first three, you and I are responsible for the fourth, but full disclosure, you did all the drawing. (Though sometimes it was with me over your shoulder telling you what to do.)

Since I departed U of I, Powers has won a National Book Award, and was a Booker Prize finalist for The Overstory. I’m having my biggest success with a book trying to change how we teach writing so we never have to assign or read a five-paragraph essay ever again. Sometimes we just have to go our own ways.

I met Powers once at a post-reading reception when my novel came out and I visited campus (which is also my undergraduate alma mater), and he was polite and interested and I couldn’t wait to start asking him questions about his books because, contra Judge Rosier, I am a fan.

If he’d written The Overstory at the time I’d met him, I would’ve button-hooked him out of the room, into my car, and kidnapped him until he told me how the hell he pulled it off because I think it’s one of the most powerful reading experiences I’ve had in the last 10 years.


The Overstory floored me emotionally, intellectually. At times it felt akin to my experience reading Cloud Atlas, being overwhelmed by someone else’s artistic vision to the point I can’t articulate my response other than to rave. I think the book is a monster.

I read it shortly after its release, started to re-read a little to prepare for the Tournament and ended up re-reading the whole thing. That never happens because there’s too many books and too little time.

When I look at the natural world, I see it differently thanks to The Overstory.

Kevin Guilfoile: I was awed by The Overstory. It’s a tremendous accomplishment. I also felt distant from it. This might be partly because it’s the first book I’ve had to read with cheater eyeglasses. Technically, I turned 50 in July of last year, but it’s clear I actually turned 50 at some point between the time I read My Sister, the Serial Killer happily through my contacts, and the time I read The Overstory with a pair of cheap Walgreens specs perched on the end of my nose like Chuck Schumer at a press gaggle futilely chastising Mitch McConnell for declaring free elections a liberal conspiracy.

I wasn’t warned that my close-up eyesight would go south that fast, John. I also was unprepared for how quickly I would go from never thinking about falling at all ever in my entire life, to being terrified of falling all the time every minute I’m not in bed. That one’s got nothing to do with The Overstory, which is pretty clearly the winner here, even though I have recommended Serial Killer to a dozen people this year and can barely think of a dozen friends for whom I think The Overstory is a great match. It’s just a heavy carry.

John: My Sister, the Serial Killer is a very fun book. I liked it enough to put it on my year-end Biblioracle Book Awards list. The humor is bone dry and it wrong-foots the reader repeatedly, sneaking in a little emotional resonance when you’re not ready for it.

If one looks closely, there are perhaps some story holes that are conveniently papered over, but while I think the novel shares some of the same sly humor as say, Gone Girl, it’s not intended to be a locktight suspense procedural, or anything like that.

It’s weirder than that, more evasive and uncertain.

I mean those entirely as compliments. Against another contender I would’ve been rooting for it wholeheartedly, but I’m stanning for The Overstory to the end of time, which is coming much sooner than we’d wish because of what we’ve done to the trees.

Kevin: My Sister, the Serial Killer seems like a very Western novel, but it also doesn’t hew closely to genre expectations, as you point out. Serial Killer feels like a cool mashup of both African and Western influences, in some ways. In fact, it’s often easy to forget that the action is taking place in Lagos and not Miami. (Which, of course, is how people like me who have never been to Nigeria are reminded that 21st-century Lagos is a lot more like Miami than I usually imagine. Such is the power of literature.)

There is a chapter in Serial Killer titled “MAGA,” and within that chapter the same word is used disparagingly by Korede to describe how she feels manipulated by Ayoola: “I realize I am a maga—a fool who has been taken advantage of.” In my first reading I just assumed that this was a clapback at a racist US president (Trump made his “shithole countries” comment after this novel would have been put to bed, but of course there had been abundant prior evidence of his racism). When I started looking into it, though, I discovered that “maga” is a Yoruba slang term, long predating Trump, that means “the victim of a con man.” In the 2000s “Maga” was widely used to describe any mark who had fallen for a Nigerian Prince-like email scam. (Let’s stipulate that the Nigerian Prince scam is not exclusively an export of Nigeria, but let’s also try to stay in our own rabbit hole.) In 2008 there was even a hit pop song called “MagaDon Pay,” which basically translates to “The Sucker Has Paid Up.” Its popularity in Nigeria was so worrisome to the civic-minded that Microsoft and other business interests produced a “We Are the World”-like response video called “Maga No Need Pay” that is both lyrically inane and insanely catchy. Here’s your new ringtone. You’re welcome.

But The Overstory is an achievement in the way Serial Killer is not. Its sentences are a pleasure to read, and I frequently paused to go back to try to deconstruct what had just been done with a paragraph or a chapter or some revelation in the plot. Nevertheless, this big story just didn’t spark joy in me the way the shorter Serial Killer did.

In the ToB, we talk often about the gravitas gap—books that seem to advance by the sheer weight of their pages and seriousness of their subject matter (and, in this case, the craft of its author), and The Overstory stands astride this gravitas gap like the Titan statue over the entrance to Braavos from The Shivering Sea in Game of Thrones. So hell yeah, it wins.

Don’t forget My Sister, the Serial Killer, though. Go rescue it from under The Overstory’s giant bronze boot.


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