The image of an enormous sack stuffed with love and sagging from a hat rack is not one of Dillard’s finest moments.
Annie Dillard is one of those writers whose very best tendencies are also her very worst.
Insistently meditative, fiercely intelligent, solitary, eccentric, and exquisitely in touch with the natural world's slightest and greatest manifestations, Dillard is responsible for one of the great sui generis books of the last century, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a collection of meditations on the natural world that at once dazzles and deserves to be parodied. The latter is no criticism: Hemingway and Faulkner, to name two of our most distinctive prose stylists, have had the honor of being well and thoroughly parodied, and Dillard, equally distinctive, has earned no less.
Until then, we have Dillard's new novel, The Maytrees.
Like most of her other books, The Maytrees is sometimes extreme in its stylistic eccentricities. But the story itself is extreme only in its simplicity: A Provincetown poet falls in love with a local girl named Lou; they marry; he betrays; she forgives. There's a little bit more to it than that -- her forgiveness takes an especially loving form -- but not much. The dialogue is so off-handed as to be barely there. One sometimes suspects, in fact, that Dillard made the pretty and well-built young Lou as laconic as she is -- she is said to admire Diogenes, "who shaved half his head so he would stay home to think" -- not because Lou is uncomfortable with speaking out loud, but because Dillard is.
The story's locations, too, are rudimentary: sand dunes, weatherbeaten shacks, beaches strewn with seashells and sea wrack. And many aspects of the story are almost excessively reminiscent of James Salter's novel Light Years -- the rhythms of the narrative, the close attention to the course of a failed marriage, the East Coast setting, and the sketchily rendered, almost phantasmal characters.
But the style is wholly Dillard's own:
Once they settled down on the beach at sunset Lou saw terns nock their spines to bowstrings between their crossbow wings. At the last second the terns looked, cocked one wing, and smacked. A bluefish boil blackened the water. If she looked away, the bluefish sounded like popping corn. Geography laid their position bare. Overhead clouds cracked the last light like crude.
That last sentence, which presumably refers to the way that crude oil is fractionated, or "cracked," into different components in the refining process -- or, who knows, something else entirely -- is typical of the rocks and pebbles that Dillard scatters along the reader's path. She uses words like "thigmotropic," "hierophany," "culch," "mesoglea," "epistomeliac," and "pauciloquoys." More power to her: She respects her readers' intelligence, or more likely their ability to use online dictionaries (though those wishing to look up the last word should be advised that "pauciloquies" is the "usual" spelling.)
And, though Dillard is often pretentious, she is pretentious in a down-to-earth way, which is always preferable to being down-to-earth in a pretentious way. One of her characters memorably describes human beings as "complex jellies," and, with her wild swings from obscurity to simplicity, Dillard is as complex as most.
Still, the reader comes upon just-so images like, "Lou saw the sun spread like a gull for its landing on the sea," or, of Maytree as an old man, "his hands' backs looked glued over with blueberry skins" with a certain sense of relief, like stepping barefoot from blazing-hot sand onto the cool grass. When she wants to, Dillard can be as direct, evocative, and poetic as any writer alive. Consider this brief glimpse of Lou early in her love affair with Maytree:
For lovemaking nearly killed Lou. Was she all right? Abashed, he held her steady until she opened her eyes. Was he a brute? What ailed her? -- Whoo, she answered once, and another time, Yike. He stopped worrying. Hours afterward he used to see her, firm and young as she was, gripping the rail to check her descent downstairs.
If there is a better evocation of the power and glory of sex than that last image, it would a pleasure to encounter it.
Ultimately, such passages are far too rare, and The Maytrees begins to seem nothing more than a meditation on love in which the "meditation" part, as is Dillard's wont, is given far more emphasis than the "love" part. Consider this passage, which employs mixed metaphors to accomplish not terribly much:
Three explanations for love's recurrence presented. Perhaps everyone gathers or grows an enormous sack of love he hands whole from one beloved to another. In this instance, the beloved is love's hat rack. Or, second, perhaps love is delusional. The heart never learns and keeps leaping the length of its life, rising to lures made of rubber hiding hooks. Or, third, perhaps he never really loved ...
The image of an enormous sack stuffed with love and sagging from a hat rack is not one of Dillard's finest moments.
Near the end of the book, and at the end of his life, Maytree wonders, "What was it, exactly -- or even roughly -- that we people are meant to do here? Or, how best use one's short time?" No answer, not even of the tentative and modest variety, is forthcoming. And a bit later, near death, and by now only one-and-a-half pages from the novel's conclusion, he thinks to himself, "Only now did he reckon beauty itself was the great thing. As a deathbed revelation this required -- like most, he suspected -- more thought."
Even though it is probably meant to be taken with a measure of humor, this statement is quite a letdown, given that the novel begins with Maytree's avid pursuit of Lou primarily due to her beauty. Couldn't he, or his creator, have come up with a more resounding deathbed revelation than this?
One can't help but feel that all of us -- Dillard, her characters, her readers -- have spent the past 200 hundred pages spinning their wheels in the sand. Granted, Maytree is a poet as is Dillard herself, and poets -- at least the old-fashioned, non-poetry-slam types, tend to mull things over quite a bit. Still, one expects more in the way of definitive conclusions, or at least movement of some sort, in a novel.
Yes, like all of her works, The Maytrees is a meditation. But, in her sometimes self-parodying way, the thinking-out-loud in this novel at times devolves to not much more than maundering. Dillard is one of the great American writers, but this is isn't, by most measures, a great work of fiction. If you haven't yet read any Annie Dillard, start with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or Teaching a Stone to Talk, or An American Childhood. Only then, perhaps, meditate upon The Maytrees.