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Pickle Me This

July 2, 2007

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

One paragraph near the end of Annie Dillard’s new novel The Maytrees seems to embody Dillardness, in my opinion. “Lou wondered where his information would go when he died. Would filaments of learning plant patterns on earth? Would his brain train the sinking plankton to know their way around the seafloor from here to Stellwagen Bank? Her brain would deliquesce too, and with it all she had learned topside. Which was not much, she considered, nor anywhere near worked out. Bacteria would unhook her painstakingly linked neurons and fling them over their shoulders and carry them home to chew up for their horrific babies.”

There’s nothing missing, I tell you: vocabulary I’ve got to learn first (deliquesce means “to melt away or to disappear as if by melting”); syntax I have to twist my head to get around; an organic link between learned information (from books of course) and the natural world; grotesque images of fecundity; the very fact of wondering. Annie Dillard so plants her books in the world, and The Maytrees is no exception. Though this is the first novel I’ve read by her (and this is her second novel), it is impossible to disconnect it from her oeuvre.

In her book The Writing Life Annie Dillard writes the wisest thing I’ve ever read– that “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”. And so lives are spent in The Maytrees, by days. Toby and Lou Maytree live in Provincetown near the beach, prone to the elements, the sea, the storms, the dunes. Idyllic is their life: she paints, he writes, they have a son. “Twice a day behind their house the tide boarded the sand. Four times a year the seasons flopped over. Clams live like this, but without so much reading as the Maytrees.” And so goes their love story, except that Annie Dillard is not sentimental. As she saw the darkness of creation in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, so too does she acknowledge the pain of love. After fourteen years of marriage, the Maytrees live apart for twenty years, to be reunited by tragic and complicated circumstances. So much of love is about forgiveness.

Like Martin Levin in this Saturday’s paper, my full disclosure necessitates acknowledging that I am a big fan of Annie Dillard. I am not sure that the average reader unaware of her work could pick up The Maytrees and understand it outside of the context of from whence it came. The erudition, bibliophilia, that her characters are people just as much as the dunes are. This is a difficult book, full of so innumerable references I didn’t understand, words I’ve yet to learn, sentences I had to read again and again to get their images in my head. Oh, but once I had. And that which is out of my grasp has me reaching, which I appreciate. There is so much beauty here.

Dillard is a challenging and exciting writer, and I am so pleased to see that The Maytrees is as good as that which came before.

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