“Another Story in The Overstory: One of Richard Powers’s Trees Has a Human Avatar”

Susan Balée

Richard Powers just won the Pulitzer Prize for his latest novel, The Overstory, and it’s newly out in paperback. If you know the novel, you know the way critics keep comparing Powers’s narrative structure to the concentric circles one finds on the cut diameter of a tree trunk. I’m not sure they’re concentric; they’re more like roots that communicate underground through mycorrhizal networks. In fact, the novel begins with “Roots,” stories of all the main characters whose lives will eventually touch. Nicholas Hoel, Mimi Ma, Adam Appich, Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly, Douglas Pavlicek, Neelay Mehta, Patricia Westerford, and Olivia Vandergriff each receive an early chapter detailing their backstories and what brought them to awareness of trees. Almost all of these characters will eventually intersect in Solace, California, where they come together to save an ancient forest from developers. 

What time could be better than now to float a theory about this novel that no one else seems to have articulated (at least, not in print)? Now that I’ve reread the novel, I’ve confirmed what I noticed the first time around: Olivia Vandergriff, the primary heroine and the martyr of the novel, is also the human embodiment – the human avatar – of an American chestnut tree. If Neelay Mehta, Powers’s wheelchair-bound game developer, inhabits avatars who can walk in his online RPG Mastery, why can’t the American chestnut tree in Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly’s backyard have given them a daughter who can not only walk, but can drive a car to the west coast to save an ancient forest? 

One critic who disliked the book, did so because three characters’ narratives don’t ever deliver them to Solace. Sam Jordison of The Guardian opines that “huge chunks of the book don’t properly fit the concentric ring structure. At least three main characters [Neelay, Ray and Dorothy] never converge on the main story.” Irked by what he considers a flawed narrative composition, as well as too much “preaching” about saving trees, Jordison wonders, “Why all the rave reviews and a Booker [nomination]? How could The Overstory be considered a book of the year?”

Happily, all the rhapsodic reviews in America, from Barbara Kingsolver to Colson Whitehead to Ann Patchett, recognized that Powers knew exactly what he intended when he planted this forest of narratives and let them flourish above and below the main story. Other American writers and readers recognize his genius and they awarded him the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Powers’ fans know that The Overstory develops ideas he’s been playing with for years. For Britons like Jordison who can’t quite place Powers, here’s my answer: What Tom Stoppard is to English theatre, Richard Powers is to the American novel. Both love ideas and both set the intellectual bar high in their work. Readers and viewers who can rise to the level of their thinking will come away well requited. 

Before he wrote The Overstory, Powers had already published novels treating science and neuroscience (Generosity, The Echo Maker); he’d dabbled in artificial intelligence (Galatea 2.2), and the frontier of medicine (Gain). Most important for a main theme of The Overstory, he’s already written a novel about virtual reality (Plowing the Dark). By making the game designer Neelay Mehta a major character in this story, Powers shows readers that virtual reality – alternative story lines, alternative futures – will be at the heart of this novel. Indeed, Mehta harangues his colleagues that they must make the newest version of his internet game, Mastery, one that allows its players to evolve. Winning the game must require more than gaining wealth and power. He yells at his project managers: “[W]hat do all good stories do?….They kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t.” (412) Ovid is at work here (and quoted many times), for metamorphosis explains so much of what happens to the characters in this book. And the one who is killed a little and who certainly turns into something she wasn’t, is Olivia Vandergriff. 

Her sections are almost always juxtaposed with the sections devoted to Ray Brinkman and wife Dorothy Cazaly. The great tragedy of their marriage is that they’re childless, but by the end of the novel, they aren’t. Instead, they have imagined their daughter as a human version of the American chestnut tree they planted long ago in their backyard. Uncannily, aspects of the story they tell about their “daughter” correspond strikingly to the facts we have about Olivia, and vice-versa. Olivia’s caretaker through the majority of the novel is her “Watchman,” Nicholas Hoel. Hoel has been taking care of his family’s American chestnut tree, the last of a blighted species surviving for a century out of its native range on the Hoel farm in Iowa. When Olivia, drawn to him (or his family’s tree), appears at his farm on her journey west, he recognizes that he must now be her caretaker. She channels the wishes of the tree spirits and, as the final Brinkman/Cazaly narrative will make clear, she is the human avatar of the tree they planted on their anniversary. After all, though the trees in a forest are sentient and communicate with each other through the chemicals they emit and fungi carry between their roots, at this point in their history they need human legs and language to try to negotiate with the species intent upon destroying them. 

Olivia Vandergriff’s chapter has the power position, she being the last of the characters described in “Roots.” If the concentric circles of a tree’s life have any bearing on the novel, they have it here – Olivia’s story rests at the heart’s core of the novel. What do we know about her? Her first name suggests one tree, and when we meet her, she lives in a college town on Cedar Street in a college town. In front of her house “is a singular tree that once covered the earth—a living fossil, one of the oldest, strangest things that ever learned the secret of wood” (146). The novelist gives us a few more lines about this tree and most readers will soon imagine the tree the author doesn’t name – it’s a gingko. An important tree for Olivia, because “Maidenhair,” another name for gingko, will be her code name among the environmental army she’s soon to join. 

We meet her as a college senior, coming home from campus on December 12, 1989 – the day she’s going to die. In addition to taking a final exam, she’s gotten divorced that day, a fact she tells her housemates. One says, “Don’t change your name back. This one’s much better.” So Vandergriff isn’t her maiden name, and we aren’t told what it is, but we do learn more about her family the next day. But first, she has to die, and this happens when, wet from a shower, she tries to turn a light off and makes contact with the electricity surging out of the cheap socket. She’s dead for over a minute, and when she comes back to life, she’s a different person. For one thing, “large, powerful, but desperate shapes beckoned to her” (157). Soon enough she’ll learn that they want her to advocate on behalf of trees, but in the beginning, she isn’t quite sure what they want.

When she calls him, her father tries to talk her into coming home and she thinks he sounds frail. “He has always been alien to her, a man of procedures where there should be passions. Now she wonders if he might have died once, too” (158). Time flows and branches in this novel, and he will die – sort of – or at least be changed utterly by a stroke. Certainly, all the facts we learn about him and Olivia’s mother match up with the facts we have about Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly. Dad’s an intellectual property lawyer, Mom a fierce, wannabe creative type that her daughter battles with. The beings in Olivia’s head urge her to get in her car and drive west. They go wild when she sees a snippet of TV news about a redwood forest being cut down in California. They put a thought in her mind: “The most wondrous products of four billion years of life need help” (165). She conveys to them that she understands; she will go west to help save that forest. 

The next section belongs to Ray and Dorothy, and Powers juxtaposes these two narrative strands for a reason. We learn that years before Olivia’s conversion experience, this couple discovered they could not have a baby. Ray urged adoption, but Dorothy nixes the idea: “Wouldn’t be ours.” She won’t listen to his arguments, and hasn’t yet read the book about trees by another character (Patricia Westerford) which tell us that we share quite a few of our genes with trees and thus are genetically related. Instead, stubborn, narcissistic Dorothy cries: “Genes are what you get, goddamn it…The only. Thing. You. Truly. Own.” Ray, the intellectual property lawyer, tells her no one owns their genes, but she’s not listening. Powers closes the section by describing the trees they’ve planted out in the yard “making significance, making meaning, as easily as they make sugar and wood from nothing, from air, and sun, and rain, But the humans hear nothing” (167-168). Readers, however, better be taking note. One of those trees is old enough to be their daughter.

Not surprisingly, the section immediately following is once again devoted to Olivia on her drive to the west coast. She sees the Hoel chestnut tree from the Interstate in Iowa and drives to it. “It strikes Olivia that someone planted it here a very long time ago simply to attract her attention” (173). Nick Hoel, the tree’s caretaker for ten years after a freak accident killed his family in the house, makes art from its wood, and mourns both the sale of the farmhouse and his recognition that the old tree is dying of blight. Nick Hoel, or his family’s chestnut, has attracted Olivia’s attention and Olivia has riveted him. “He wants to follow wherever her vision leads. And when that vision fails, he wants to follow wherever she goes next” (178). And together they go west.

Near the end of Ray Brinkman’s first life (he suffers a catastrophic physical change), he struggles with an article titled “Should Trees Have Standing?” Dorothy leaves him reading on her way to sing Mozart’s Requiem with a local choir, but Ray knows she’s not just singing, but having an affair with someone in the town. He doesn’t want her to know that he knows lest she decide she must leave him. He thinks about the years of their lives, including the “things they planted together, in the backyard they made” (250). The novel juxtaposes another scene with Olivia (now Maidenhair) and Nick (now Watchman), and soon they are camped two hundred feet in the air in the canopy of an ancient tree, Mimas, that they hope to protect by putting their bodies against it. In their aerie, Olivia finds Patricia Westerford’s book, The Secret Forest. She reads the opener, something that applies especially to Dorothy and Ray, who discussed children and Dorothy’s need to share genes with them.

You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes.
But despite the protection of their bodies, the tree comes down. Ray Brinkman goes down too, of a stroke. In Oregon, where the group fighting the loggers relocates, someone asks Adam, another main character, how they can convince the world that they’re right and the trees must be saved. He gives the answer that must be the reason Powers wrote this novel rather than a political tract: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story” (336). Immediately after his words, Olivia tells the story of how she died and was reborn able to hear the tree spirits. In not too many more pages, Olivia will die again and this time whatever she is changed into will not be visible to the humans in this novel, or its readers. What we get is her last, confused thought: I’ve been shown what happens and this isn’t it. (351) To support the avatar idea, I’d say Olivia has returned to the chestnut tree in the Brinkmans’ back yard, because in their last sections we hear a great deal about that tree and its imaginary human counterpart. 

Twenty years have passed since Olivia Vandergriff died trying to blow up a resort site to protect the forest about to be cleared around it. Her companions burned her body (“people turn into other things”) and scattered. Twenty years have passed since Ray had his stroke, and Dorothy never abandoned him. She reads to him, and they’re both fascinated by identifying the trees in their yard. They bring in twigs, nuts, and shed leaves and use their books to identify them. How surprised they are when they discover they have an American chestnut tree, as far out of its range as the one that graced the Hoel farm in Iowa. Dorothy sees “in the chestnut’s branching the several speculative paths of a lived life, all the people she might have been, the ones she could or will yet be, in worlds spreading out just alongside this one” (443). Powers tells us through Dorothy that he’s trying out an alternative universe, alternative lives, real worlds juxtaposed with virtual ones. 

Ray, his stroke-altered voice hard to understand, explains to his wife how the tree got there. “Planted it. The chestnut. Our daughter.” (444) These last sections of Ray and Dorothy’s narrative convinced me that Powers did make a tree his central character, but he had to let it take human form in order to tell us a story, which is what our species needs to understand the world. Dorothy falls in love with the idea of their daughter, the tree, and urges Ray, “’Tell me more about her.’” He does. Their daughter is fierce and fine. Home on one of her spring breaks from college, they see “a horrible new baroque tattoo on her left shoulder” (459). Olivia had a tattoo on her shoulder too and it said, “A change is gonna come.” Dorothy and Ray’s girl, a rebel who drank and smoked pot and kicked a soccer ball and caught lightning bugs in a jar. Their daughter who, in Dorothy’s reverie, knelt with her father at the edge of a hole in their backyard and helped him plant the chestnut tree. “And when the girl turns around and lifts her face, in this other life unfolding invisibly alongside the one that happened, Dorothy sees the face of her daughter, ready to take on all of life” (460) In the last words she speaks to her husband about their daughter, Dorothy says something that makes it clear Olivia, the wild child who drank and smoked and partied, married, divorced, and ultimately electrocuted herself, is indeed the daughter she and Ray have imagined. The daughter who straightened her life out, and found a purpose larger than herself.

“She’s a good girl, you know.” She takes her husband’s stiff claw. “She was just lost for a little while. All she needs to do is find herself. Find a cause. Something bigger than she is.” (470)

As Richard Powers shows us, she did find a cause bigger than herself, one that allowed him to tell us a story that will make us want to save trees.