There Are No Individuals in The Overstory, No Separable Events

OverstoryRichard Power’s novel, The Overstory, is a complex, spreading network of roots and branches. The characters interact, are invented, relate and yet seem not to realize their influence. One of the quotes from the book that best sums up the novel, is from Dr. Patricia Westerford’s nonfiction work which describes forests:

There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joined thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas-fir may suffer…

In the great forests of the East, oaks and hickories synchronize their nut production to baffle the animals that feed on them. Word goes out, and the trees of a given species—whether they stand in sun or shade, wet or dry—bear heavily or not at all, together, as a community…

Forests mend and shape themselves through subterranean synapses. And in shaping themselves, they shape, too, the tens of thousands of other, linked creatures that form it from within. Maybe it’s useful to think of forests as enormous spreading, branching, underground super-trees.

By looking at the characters through the metaphor of trees, we see that perhaps it isn’t necessary for characters to follow the traditional ways we think of action. Yes, there is cause and effect that the reader can see; but, what if there are causes and effects we cannot see, because we have not learned how to see them? If people could compare what they know versus what they don’t know, how miniscule would our knowledge seem?

The novel opens with nine characters. Each chapter focuses on a character and provides the beginnings of a life story. We’re seeing the individuals and not the forest of characters. As a reader, we are taking the narrative at face value. The characters are all there. They are all real. Or, are they?

As the novel progresses, five characters come together. We see Dougie, the vet, meet up with Mimi Ma, the engineer. Nick, the artist, meets up with Olivia, the resurrected. Together those four characters intersect along with Adam, the psychologist. But Neelay, the programmer, Patricia, the biologist, and Ray and Dorothy, the intellectual property lawyer and his wife, never interact with the other five characters. These four characters hardly interact with each other, yet influence one another through Patricia’s book, Neelay’s game, and maybe Ray’s dream.

The reason the five characters do not interact with the others is that one of them is an outgrowth of Ray and Dorothy’s imagination. Ray and Dorothy cannot have children. It’s a quiet devastation to them both. One tradition they began in their marriage was to plant something in the yard each wedding anniversary. That tradition drops away as their marriage sputters and the lack of children weighs it down. In a later section, Ray has a stroke. He’s rendered mostly immobile and can hardly talk at first. Dorothy stays with him as his caretaker even though she’s been having an affair. As they grow closer, Dorothy starts to see the world more through Ray’s “forced tranquility.” They start to identify trees in their backyard with Dorothy collecting samples. Then they come across a chestnut. The tree shouldn’t be there. It baffles Dorothy as chestnuts were wiped out on the east. Ray manages to communicate, “Planted it. The chestnut. Our daughter.” Ray and Dorothy’s daughter, Olivia.

Dorothy asks Ray about their daughter. He replies, “Moves fast. Will-fed.” Describes her as “Fierce. Fine. You.”

The next paragraph begins, “It’s enough to get her back into the book.” But Powers doesn’t make it clear whom he’s talking about. There’s an implication that it is Dorothy and the book is whatever they’re reading. But, they aren’t reading a book in this scene. It’s Olivia, entering the novel, The Overstory.

It’s enough to get her back into the book, and the yard opens like two pages spread in front of her. Tonight, in the growing darkness, the story runs in reverse. A succession of girls, younger and younger, head out the back door and into the miniature, simulated world. Their daughter at twenty, on spring break from college, in a sleeveless tank top that reveals a horrible new baroque tattoo on her left shoulder, sneaking out to smoke a joint after her parents have fallen asleep. Their daughter at sixteen, swilling cheap grocery store wine with two girlfriends in the farthest dark corver of the property. Their daughter at twelve, in a funk, kicking a soccer ball against the garage for hours. Their daughter at ten, floating across the grass, catching lightning bugs in a jar. Their daughter at six, heading out barefoot on the first seventy-degree spring day with a seedling in her hands.

As the scene continues, Dorothy begins to share in Ray’s vision of their daughter. She comes into being.

The paper cup has sat on the kitchen windowsill of her imagination for so long now that Dorothy can see the brown and cyan curlicues of the stylized steam printed on it and read the word beneath the design: SOLO. A mass of eager roots has punched through the waxy paper bottom, in need of more world. Marvelous long serrated leaves—American chestnut—paw at the air on their first trip outside. Dorothy watches the girl and her father kneel at the edge of a freshly dug hole. The fretful child chops at the dirt with a towel. She administers the sacrament of first water. She steps away from the planting, back underneath the arm of her father. And when the girl turns around 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.

The descriptions match with my view of Olivia. When combined with an earlier section from Olivia’s point-of-view we get a glimpse of Ray and Dorothy.

She told him that her father was a human rights lawyer, again not entirely false, and that her mother was a writer, which was pretty much bullshit, though based on a fact-like scenario. She isn’t ashamed of her parents. In fact, she once got suspended from grade school for punching a chick who called her father “flaccid.” But in the world of satisfying stories—her preferred domain—both of Olivia’s parents are so much less than they should have been. So, she spruced them up a tad.

Ray, the intellectual property lawyer, arguing for human’s rights to own things and Dorothy, the stenographer, writing down the facts. We see Olivia seeing her father, much in the way Dorothy might see Ray, “a man of procedures where there should be passions.”

Towards the end of one of Ray and Dorothy’s later scenes, Ray asks Dorothy to tell him more about their daughter.

Dorothy smiles and climbs into bed next to him. She looks out back, through the window, on the riot of new growth. In its middle, the tree that shouldn’t be there. Its branches rush outward, toward the house, slowly, to be sure, but fast enough to inspire her. How life managed to add imagination to all the other tricks in its chemistry set is a mystery Dorothy can’t wrap her head around. But there is is: the ability to see, all at once, in all its concurrent branches, all its hypotheticals, this thing that bridges past and future, earth and sky.

“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.”

Douglas, Nick, Adam, and Mimi Ma all interact in the present with the imagined daughter of Ray and Dorothy. How then do Patricia, Ray/Dorothy, and Neelay relate to one another? My thought is that these characters represent a combination of the Arhats and trees from Mimi Ma’s scroll. The men are described as seeing “every answer. Nothing hurt them anymore.” The three trees represent the past, the present, and the future.

Patricia Westerford studies the past. She learns how trees communicate. She is saving the seeds.

Ray becomes trapped in the present. All he can do is observe. He has his “forced tranquility.” Dorothy mirrors another passage in Patricia’s book: “What we care for, we grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer…” Ray and Dorothy have always been one, even if Dorothy refused to see it until the end.

As for Neelay, he is intent on the future. Building his game. Building a simulated life. Then, harnessing advanced technology and data to examine our own world and correct the mistakes.

They may see all the answers, but they aren’t necessarily the same answers. Patricia makes her choice. Neelay makes his. And Ray and Dorothy make their choice with nature taking over suburbia.

The Overstory is a wonderful novel that opens in exciting ways if you allow yourself to experience the whole and see the forest for what it is.

6 thoughts on “There Are No Individuals in The Overstory, No Separable Events”

    1. You’ve got me really curious about this one. For some reason the Nook is selling the book at an outragoues $16-17, so waiting for the price to come down a bit.

      1. Yes! This is one of the few reviews I’ve seen that seems to grasp Powers’ use of characters portrayed in ways that we have “not learned” how to see. I agree 100% about Olivia.

  1. Wonderful reading, a much deeper understanding of how the themes of the book are replicated in the structure than any other I have read. I love this reading of Olivia. She is both the creation of Ray and Dorothy’s imagination, and also, perhaps, existing in another world, one in which they DO have a daughter. (Much as Patricia’s life is described as splitting into two worlds at the end – one in which she drinks the liquid and one in which she doesn’t).

  2. This is a really thoughtful response. I’d come to much the same conclusion on the Olivia character, but the other three as Arhats is wise analysis. Also: is there a paragraph in the book where Ray suffers the stroke…if so, I seem to have missed it.

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