‘Hannah Versus the Tree’ an impenetrable attempt at the avant-garde
“‘Hannah Versus the Tree’ is unlike anything I have ever read — James Wood,” reads the sole endorsement quote on the front cover of Leland de la Durantaye’s debut novel.
“Hannah Versus the Tree” is indeed unique. The main character is Hannah Syrls, a young woman who opposes the brutality that has made her family rich. The unnamed male narrator speaks in the second person, addressing an also unnamed matriarch.
The world of the novel is immediately presented as different than our own, though it’s never clear if that difference is a result of the narrator’s skewed perspective or if “Hannah Versus the Tree” is meant to be science fiction. The language seems intentionally vague, but this authorial choice is confusing rather than poetic.
“Before the Divide, our world heated up. It was like a return to the beginning, to the first circle of warmth,” the narrator said as he describes the first time he met Hannah, his friend and later lover. What is “the first circle of warmth?” This is a question the novel poses but does not answer in any comprehensible way. Even in the book’s first chapter, the layers of distance between the narrator and the events he is describing (which take place in some unknown years prior to the telling and which he is describing to some unknown person) create a chasm between the reader and the created world of the text.
The narrator and Hannah are schooled in myths and theology by “the Old One” and “the Wise One,” and the beginning of the novel is flooded with references to literature and culture that attempt to situate Hannah’s story in the history of epic poetry. Instead, the citations read as awkward and forced. These scenes remind me of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” in which a group of college students commit themselves to the study of ancient Greece. However, de la Durantaye never manages to create the same sense of mythic intensity that Tartt develops. This issue of failed profundity plagues the rest of the “Hannah Versus the Tree” as well.
“‘Hannah Versus the Tree’ presents a new literary genre, the mythopoetic thriller,” announces the inside flap of the book jacket. What an odd, bold claim, considering that mythopoeia is nothing new at all and that many works in the genre are certainly thrillers. Here lies the essential problem with “Hannah Versus the Tree”: de la Durantaye has disassembled and obscured plot, characterization and language to create a work he believes is original.
If the book had any semblance of subversion or intrigue, this could be a successful trade-off. Unfortunately, the trite and tired character archetypes — manic pixie dream girl, wise grandparent, feisty protagonist — do not infuse the dull, impenetrable plot with any sense of humanity. The language is labyrinthine, and the reliance on cliché detracts from any moments of clarity.
In a final, desperate plea to attach universal importance to the novel, de la Durantaye inadvertently hammers the last nail into the book’s coffin. At the midpoint of the text, Hannah is raped by her uncle after she opposes his plan for the environmental devastation of the Amazon. The scene is described in uncomfortable detail that masquerades as insight. “As he came closer his eyes changed and he grew enchanted by the pain, causing more so as to see more power to cause it,” the narrator said. This sentence — like many in “Hannah Versus the Tree” — is so tortured as to be incoherent, and the effect is a bizarre, ill-defined fetishizing of pain and power.
After the rape, Hannah is immediately overcome with the desire for revenge: “As he walked out, replacing the key, he said, ‘If you even whisper of this I’ll do worse.’ And she whispered back that he was wrong.” By eliminating any nuance from this scene, de la Durantaye indulges in the unimaginative trope of a woman whose motivations can all be traced back to a man and the act of violence he has committed against her.
Why do men love writing about sexual assault? Hannah’s rape is the catalyst for every one of her subsequent actions, the single defining event of her life that drives her ravenous desire for revenge against her family. I could have overlooked all the other problems with this book if it were not for de la Durantaye’s callous use of assault as a means of articulating his misguided notions about victimhood and violence. Rape is not a plot device, and its use as such in “Hannah Versus the Tree” is the most egregious example of de la Durantaye’s lacking imagination.
The whole book feels like a weak gesture at some undefined avant-garde ideal. It seeks to interrogate power, beauty, knowledge and capitalism, but it is missing the gravitas and compassion that could have elevated the novel beyond its structural weaknesses. By exchanging complexity of emotion for the complexity of construction, the novel deteriorates into formulaic banalities about the very subjects de la Durantaye set out to complicate. Simply put, “Hannah Versus the Tree” takes itself far too seriously.