Dillard: The Maytrees

April 2, 2009

The Maytrees
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.

15 Responses to “Dillard: The Maytrees”

  1. Janet Says:

    I picked that book up at a book sale quite some time ago and had forgotten that I have it. I’m going to go get it off the shelf right now in anticipation of being off work next week.

    I love Annie Dillard. I really liked her biography, An American Childhood. In some ways I liked it because it reminded me of my own childhood, but she does a great job of describing things from a child’s point of view. And she describes her discovery of and growing passion for biology beautifully.

    I read Pilgrim a long time before I moved to the country. I ought to get it out and re-read it again now.

    She wrote an essay about buying wine for Communion that I really appreciate because I had to do that once. When the priest, my boss, asked me to go buy the wine, I was amazed. For some reason, it didn’t seem like ordinary mortals should be able to do this or that you would just buy it at an ordinary liquor store. I had been ordering hosts from the Poor Clares for quite some time, but then, they aren’t ordinary mortals.

    And there is another essay about a butterfly emerging from a chrysallis that is sad, but a great lesson for parents. You ought to read that, Craig.

    And her descriptions of her visit to the excavation site of the terra cotta warriors in China is beautiful.


  2. Tracy S. Altman Says:

    I read both Annie Dillard (Pilgrim) and C.S. Lewis for the first time in my freshman year of college, and I still remember being utterly floored by both, but for different reasons. In her writing, Dillard was doing things I’d always guessed were possible, but had never seen done; in his writing, Lewis was doing things I’d never even guessed were possible, and was astounded to see done.

    Dillard’s book Living By Fiction is also impressive; it’s a brisk discussion of twentieth-century literature. It reads a bit differently than Dillard’s other books, but it offers its own insights and rewards.

  3. I’ve never read anything by her. I was put off by something or other about her long ago. Probably I should give her another chance.

  4. cburrell Says:

    I love Annie Dillard; I’ve read most, if not all, of her books. Each has something to recommend it, but my favourites are definitely Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm. She can not only do things with words, but she has something to say.

    I wonder what it was put you off, Maclin. Was it something theological? A few years ago — maybe quite a few years ago, actually — I went to hear her read at an author’s festival. This was shortly after she had converted to Catholicism, and the moderator asked her, with a certain lack of imagination, why she would have done such a thing. She answered, “Have you ever seen the book on the history of Protestant mystics? Neither have I.” It was clear, though, that she was a little uncomfortable with the Pope, and with some of the political and moral stances of the Church. I’m really not sure what kind of Catholic she is, but she is sure a great writer.

    Janet, if I remember correctly the essay about buying communion wine (“Christ with a cork”) is in Teaching a Stone to Talk. My favourite essays in that collection are “Total Eclipse” and “An Expedition to the Pole”. The book with the terra cotta army is (I think) For the Time Being. I’ve been meaning to re-read Pilgrim myself, so maybe we can do it together.

    Tracy, I agree that Dillard is not in Lewis’ league intellectually, but as a literary stylist she’s hard to beat.

  5. Janet Says:

    I’ve been searching high and low for my copy of For the Time Being and I’ve about decided that I must have gotten it from the library. But I really thought I owned it.

    I did come across Pilgrim while I was looking though.

    I finally went today to the university library that was supposed to have Marie Chapdelaine, and after walking too far across campus, found that they did not have it. I’m very disappointed because I wanted to read it on my vacation.

    AMDG, Janet

  6. cburrell Says:

    Too bad about Maria, Janet. I hope you can find a copy somewhere else. I’m glad to hear that you found your Pilgrim, though.

    Have a good vacation!

  7. Well, it’s petty and unfair of me at this point–it was personal–basically I met her and was put off by her. It was long, long ago, when the essay that would become Pilgrim appeared in Harper’s or Atlantic and attracted some attention. I really should give her another chance. Didn’t know she had become Catholic.

    I must say, though, that what I read of her at the time–I guess I read that essay–struck me as a little over-ripe and breathless. That line you quote above about the brain lobes doesn’t inspire confidence.

  8. cburrell Says:

    I don’t agree with “over-ripe” and “breathless”, but they aren’t entirely wide of the mark. I think you may have meant “vivid” and “wide-eyed”. Pilgrim is certainly not a book written with restraint. I think it tends to evoke strong reactions, whether positive or negative.

  9. Janet Says:

    I have to admit that I’m with Maclin on the brain lobes.

    You know, I’ve had that experience recently of meeting someone whose writing is pretty good and being put off. It does have an effect on the way you read them.


  10. cburrell Says:

    I picked that particular passage for my Book Note, so I guess the brain lobes didn’t bother me much. In fact, I sort of like them: the passage is interleaving statements about Maytree and the natural world around him. Then, in the brain lobe sentence, the two threads collide: she describes something happening to him using imagery from nature (viz. parting clouds). Mind, I don’t know what it would be like to have my brain lobes parted.

    Surely there are some attractive things about this passage though: the image of the planet “rolling into its shadow”, or the comparison of the sand dunes to waves, or the “low swale”.

  11. Janet Says:

    Well, literally, your right had would not know what your left hand was doing. And you would have double-vision. Maybe this is what she is trying to get at, but it’s a rather nauseating concept to me.

    AMDG, Janet

  12. Exactly–parting of brain lobes is some kind of nightmare/horror-movie image. And I really wasn’t sure what she meant. I suppose some kind of brilliant inflow. But yes, apart from that the rest of the passage is really nice. I like the second one better although it isn’t as pretty.

    Speaking of horror, I just noticed that there is a tiny smiley-face at the bottom of this page.

  13. Janet Says:

    LOL. Yes, I noticed that a long time ago and what’s really weird about it is that, at least on my screen, it appears to sit on top of the glass and not inside of it. I reminds me a bit of the face on my pear tree.


  14. cburrell Says:

    Spooky, isn’t it?

  15. Quin Says:

    I’ve also enjoyed Dillard for years – ever since I first read “Pilgrim at Tinker Clink” when I was 14. While “his brain lobes seemed to part” is certainly ungainly, there are other passages in which a similar ungainliness is part of the attraction. Her style has been described as “quirky”, which is sort of true – “sort of” because “quirky” is the very sort of clichéd adjective that I think Dillard manages to avoid.

    If you’ll forgive me for a bit of shameless self-promotion, I made some observations about Dillard (and Chesterton!) here.

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