The Overstory
  • March 21, 2019


  • Richard Powers

    1The Overstory
    2The House of Broken Angels

    Luis Alberto Urrea

  • Judged by

    Tomi Obaro

The House of Broken Angels

I struggle with the concept of speciesism. I don’t doubt that there are people who are able to fight for the rights of animals and plants while acknowledging that mankind also has a lot of work to do in terms of making sure that all human beings are also treated with respect and dignity and, I don’t know, food, shelter from violence, a living wage. I do think this latter point about the humans matters infinitely more than the former one, and if that makes me a speciesist, so be it.

Tomi Obaro is a senior editor at BuzzFeed Reader, BuzzFeed News’s home for cultural criticism, personal essays, poetry, and features. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

This is a roundabout way of saying that if someone had told me the plot summary of Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which is that a group of disparate characters band together to fight against a lumber company and to argue for the personhood of trees, I would have rolled my eyes and prepared a list of talking points about how this is the kind of thing only a white middle-class person would decide was worth expounding upon at length in a 400-plus-page novel.

But I started The Overstory knowing nothing, only that it was about trees in the broadest sense, and that it had become a New York Times bestseller and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The first few chapters are a mesmerizing mystery. Where is this going? I wondered as characters were introduced and killed off suddenly, as we spanned centuries, continents, and points of view in a matter of a few pages. I enjoyed the idiosyncratic turns of phrase. One character “puts a Smith & Wesson 686 with hardwood grips up to his temple and spreads the workings of his infinite being across the flagstones of the backyard.” Humans are “nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.” Those early chapters are compelling, almost mystical, because I had no idea what the point of the book was and how all these scenes were related and that kept me intrigued.

But then, right around the time Nilay, the young Indian-American boy whose connection to the other main characters is never made clear, jumps out of a tree and breaks his spine because he’s afraid to tell his parents he got detention, I became concerned. I just couldn’t get over how unbelievable that was. It felt so shoddily underdeveloped, so sloppy. The plot holes began to deepen. Twenty years speed by after an event that is positioned as the climax of the novel even though the book is about to end. Characters increasingly felt more like archetypes than real, lived-in people.

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Luis Alberto Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels, by contrast, is teeming with people, so many people that in lesser books, keeping track of all the members of the de La Cruz family would have required a notepad and hand-drawn family tree. So it’s really to The House of Broken Angels’ credit that I was able to follow along. The novel has a recognizable conceit—estranged family members congregate under the same roof for the first time in years to celebrate the 70th birthday of Big Angel, the family’s patriarch who is not so secretly dying of cancer. Tensions simmer, long-held grievances are redressed. It’s one of those books that feels “timely” because it’s about Mexican Americans and the porous nature of borders. But The House of Broken Angels is also much more lively and specific than that characterization. I felt like I was there in that ramshackle San Diego house, reeking of cheap cigarettes like everyone else; trying to stay sane amid the throng of well-wishers, bored teens, and little kids. The stress of that working-class life, the striving to be recognized and welcomed in a country that still broadly treats its immigrants from the Southern Hemisphere like shit.

This description of the cheap birthday party cuisine made me laugh in recognition:

Little Angel was thwarted in his hopeless search for homemade Mexican food. In his mind, chicken mole and pots of simmering frijoles and chiles rellenos were to be displayed in pornographic lushness. But the reality of the day was folding tables groaning with pizzas, Chinese food, hot dogs, potato salad and a huge industrial party pan of spaghetti. Somebody was allegedly on the way with a hundred pieces of KFC.

I love that “allegedly.” That “allegedly” is doing a lot of work. That’s how the family grapevine operates after all. Everyone resorts to conjecture and hearsay and competitiveness over the most minute things, while skirting around the big ones—Big Angel’s imminent death.

There are some plot holes in the novel that don’t feel fully resolved. A murder occurs in flashback and at first, Big Angel seems really conflicted about it and then it’s just not a thing. In the beginning of the book, dead characters talk to the living and then they just kind of don’t anymore.

Compared to The Overstory, the writing in The House of Broken Angels is more understated. I did not highlight specific sentences for their grace or beauty, which I did all the time when reading The Overstory. God, Powers can write some beautiful sentences. He is a wonderful describer of nature; he rivals Annie Dillard in his ability to make me hear, see, and smell the redwoods, the muirs, the chestnuts. He is clearly so smart! His novel is ambitious in every sense of the word; I marveled at his attempted scope and vision. But there was just too much Idea at the expense of everything else. He loses the people for the trees.

When I finished reading The House of Broken Angels, I cried. All those adults piling onto Big Angel’s bed, I felt that, even if it was a little predictable and inevitable. I’m a speciesist at heart, you see. Humans just matter more to me.

TODAY’S WINNER: The House of Broken Angels

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Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin Guilfoile: I would have gone this way, too, John. The Overstory is challenging and provoking and dares you to think about the world in ways you never have before. I love all of that. To call back to Judge Obaro’s point, however, all of Urrea’s work has such humanity. Even though the cultural milieu he presents—that of Mexican immigrants living in the US—is not one I inhabit, the world he describes is nevertheless one I recognize.

(Disclosure time: I do not know Luis very well, but we are both Chicago-area writers and run into each other from time to time. I like him a great deal and I am a huge fan of his books, as well.)

This is not to say that The Overstory lacks humanity. Far from it. But as I said last round, I always felt apart from the characters in that book. By comparison, the de La Cruz family let me into their home and by the end I was curled up under the covers with the whole lot of them.

John Warner: The House of Broken Angels is a great book, a fun book to read. I read it not long after it came out, well before I knew it was going to be in the ToB, and it delivered a straight-up satisfying experience, the kind of meal where you push back from the table, pat the belly, and think that was goooood.

I recognize the issues that Judge Obaro raises, but as a reader during the reading itself, none of them mattered to me. I was simply carried along line to line, page to page, scene to scene, enjoying the accrual of the story every step of the way.

The Overstory did something else to me. It shook me up. As with The House of Broken Angels, I recognize what Judge Obaro says about the characters, but I’d also argue that it doesn’t matter, that rendering “lived-in people” wasn’t the book’s concern.

The opening sections of The Overstory strongly remind me of Cloud Atlas in the way they tease us with connections, and challenge us with different ideas, concepts of storytelling without fully explaining or illuminating those connections. To some degree, I think that energy dissipates in the second half of the book as we see the practical (as opposed to the symbolic or spiritual) ways the characters are intertwined, but by that point I was shook enough that the spell was undeniable.

To some extent all of Powers’s books are allegories that explore some big idea through characters, and given that, it’s going to be tough for a character to shake free and be “lived-in” in the sense that it feels like they have an agency independent from the creator.

I can see why that might be a hangup for some readers, but I’m not one of them.

Kevin: In a year when we have been giving a lot of attention to “difficult books,” The House of Broken Angels is aggressively not one of them. As a writer, Urrea is an indulgent host, tending to the reader’s every need. As a result the time you spend inside this novel is just so enjoyable. His characters always exude such life. I’m thinking especially in Broken Angels about La Gloriosa, Big Angel’s sister-in-law, who possesses such vitality and sexuality and mysterious magnetism that other characters are helplessly drawn to her. And that transfers to the reader. When you turn the page and see her name you get a little thrill: “Gloriosa’s here!” That’s professional writing right there, when you can create characters that make the reader feel that way, the same way they would feel if they knew that person IRL. It’s a feeling you share with the book’s characters, an alchemy Urrea uses to create literature’s most precious substance: empathy.

Certainly these are different novels. And in the face of your argument on behalf of The Overstory, I am not capable of saying you’re wrong. Objectively, I have to concede The Overstory is the greater literary achievement. I’m still in bed with the Angels.

Finally, looking again at the results of our Zombie voting, we find that—yes!—The Overstory has enough support to sneak into the top two. There still could be a reshuffling, but if the Zombie Round were held today, My Sister, the Serial Killer and The Overstory would be our gnashing, gnarly narratives. Sadly, that means we say goodbye to Washington Black for good. On the other hand, we could be talking about The Overstory again, which would be fortunate because I think there’s still a lot in that book we have left to unbox.


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