by Annie Dillard
I didn’t think I’d finish The Maytrees. I consider myself an Annie Dillard fan. Or rather a fan of her non-fiction work. A fan of her Thoreau-ish musings on nature and life as it is, as it was, as it might be if only we took the time to look around us and savor. Will I ever forget how in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she sits, still, on the side of a riverbank waiting half an hour? more? for that muskrat to poke his nose above the surface? Just reading of it made me feel as though I’d been there with her. A vicarious Zen experience as it were.
Her novel The Living I couldn’t finish. I found the story about the pioneers who settled the Puget Sound in the 19th century, too tedious, and too onerous. Too many babies crushed beneath wagon wheels when they fell from the arms of their mothers. I got the idea and then didn’t care to read more.
From the title I thought The Maytrees another non-fiction work, a contemplation of trees perhaps. It proved to be Dillard’s second novel. And as I said, I didn’t think I’d finish it. I kept reaching for my editor’s pen, wanting to comment that she lacked transitions, her were too abrupt at times, as though she were spitting them out the end of her pen. She jumped time frames. Dropped in out of nowhere comes a paragraph about how Lou Maytree looked in her final year. Not flashback, just elsewhere. And then we’re back again to when Lou meets Toby Maytree and falls down into the well of a love that needs no one else. But it’s not just Lou’s story. Through the omniscient narrator we hear Toby’s view of it, their son Pete’s too., even now and then the community’s view.
For a while, as I read, I felt as thought I were free falling. I kept trying to sort it out, lay puzzle pieces on the table, fit them together in some coherent way. And then I let go. Read the novel like what it is really – a long prose poem. Then I could savor the dissonance between and among sentences. The allure of unknown words like temblor, deliquesce, pauciloquoys. Her poetic observations that so often draw on her love of the natural world: “Lou watched stars bang their burning knuckles on the dome.” (52) “Between them self-consciousness bulked as a river silts its channel,” (64)
In the end this novel is more experience than story told. About what it feels like to love someone, to wonder what love is, and to conclude (because she shows us rather than tells us) that love is unconditional forgiveness.
Julia Reed, in her review of The Maytrees quotes from Dillard’s The Writing Life. When wondering about why people read – and hence what writers should write Dillard says, “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed…so we may feel again their majesty and power?” (for the entire review see the New York Times Book Review, July 29, 2007, “A Natural History of Love.”)
The Living lost me. But The Maytrees will linger. A poem, a lesson – a gem.