Annie Dillard (HarperCollins, 2007)
224 p. First reading.
It would be churlish to actually hope that someone’s first book fail, yet it is true that initial success, especially when spectacular, can be a kind of curse. When that first burst of sustained applause continues to ring in the ears, nobody can speak about any subsequent book without being distracted by it. Annie Dillard has found herself in that enviable, or unenviable, position for her whole career. Her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, won praise from all quarters, and over thirty years later it continues to attract crowds of admiring readers. Justly so, I hasten to add, for it is a wonderful book. Yet it has tended to overshadow her subsequent work, and not always justly so. Her slim meditation Holy the Firm, for instance, and certain essays in her collection Teaching a Stone to Talk, bear comparison with Pilgrim, and even those of her books that suffer in that comparison still compare favourably when set against books by others. She is an immensely talented and interesting writer.
The Maytrees is only her second foray into fiction. The first was The Living in 1993, a tale about the lives of pioneers in the Pacific Northwest of America. That was a solid effort, though I think few would consider it among her best work. With The Maytrees she has surpassed it, creating a story in which the simple story-line becomes a vehicle for a rich reflection on human lives and relationships. It is a love story, of sorts. It is about a marriage, but it is not exactly a paean to the joy of marriage; it is not a romance. It is about that quiet, unspectacular, forgiving love that serves as the only buttress against disaster in lives lived badly.
A major stylistic difference is evident between this book and her previous novel. Whereas The Living was told using the familiar conventions of the nineteenth-century novel, The Maytrees is written in a compressed, austere style that at times seems undecided between being prose or poetry. I am told that her original manuscript was some 1400 pages long, and from that beginning she cut, compressed, and distilled until what remained was the essential core, shorn of all unnecessary ornament. The result is quietly beautiful and deceptively simple, with a lucid surface that conceals depths.
Much of Annie Dillard’s non-fiction has been an effort to interpret the meaning of the natural world, and one presumes that she has lived, as she has helped her readers to live, with an awareness of the natural backdrop against which we “swell, circle, and die”. In The Maytrees she succeeds in bringing that silent, ever-present world into the mental and spiritual world of her story: the sand dunes of Cape Cod and the night sky are unobtrusive but unavoidable presences that break in upon consciousness now and then:
Maytree left town on impulse and headed toward his shack. The planet rolled into its shadow. On the high dune, sky ran down to his ankles. Everything he saw was lower than his socks. Across a long horizon, parabolic dunes cut sky as rogue waves do. The silence of permanence lay on the scene. He found a Cambrian calm as if the world had not yet come; he found a posthumous hush as if humans had gone. He crossed the low swale and climbed a trail his feet felt. He ate a sandwich. Now he knew, but did not believe, she loved him. Her depth he knew when he kissed her. His brain lobes seemed to part like clouds over sun.
If I should ever re-read The Maytrees, and I think I may, it is this aspect, this traffic between our earthen foundations and our heavenly ambitions, on which I will focus my attention.
[Living and learning]
Three days a week she helped at the Manor Nursing Home, where people proved their keenness by reciting received analyses of current events. All the Manor residents watched television day and night, informed to the eyeballs like everyone else and rushed for time, toward what end no one asked. Their cupidity and self-love were no worse than anyone else’s, but their many experiences’ having taught them no little irked Lou. One hated tourists, another southerners; another despised immigrants. Even dying, they still held themselves in highest regard. Lou would have to watch herself. For this way of thinking began to look like human nature — as if each person of two or three billion would spend his last vital drop to sustain his self-importance.