Reviewed by Marilynne Robinson
Sunday, June 24, 2007
By Annie Dillard
216 pp. $24.95
Annie Dillard's books are like comets, like celestial events that remind us that the reality we inhabit is itself a celestial event, the business of eons and galaxies, however persistently we mistake its local manifestations for mere dust, mere sea, mere self, mere thought. The beauty and obsession of her work are always the integration of being, at the grandest scales of our knowledge of it, with the intimate and momentary sense of life lived.
The Maytrees is about wonder -- in the terms of this novel, life's one truth. It is wonder indeed that is invoked here, vast and elusive and inexhaustible and intimate and timeless. There is a resolute this-worldliness that startles the reader again and again with recognition. How much we overlook! What a world this is, after all, and how profound on its own terms.
Dillard has always been fascinated by time -- by the fact that existence is charged with it, saturated with it, borne along by it into a future that makes the span of any life less than negligible. And time in its mystery and grandeur bestrides this novel. Its sea is wild and generative, its sky orders the constellations, and both are primordial, archaic, full of the fact of time past and persisting, unchanging, changing everything. If there were such a thing as cosmic realism, The Maytrees would be a classic of the genre.
I hasten to say the book is full of the kind of pleasures one looks for in fiction. The few characters are engaging, and, though nothing especially remarkable happens, the story has import, and this is as potent as suspense in engrossing the reader. The narrative is a highly localized meditation on the question, Why are we here? The spare landscape and potent seascape answer that question even before it is asked.
The novel is set on Cape Cod, on the most seaward curve of the hook. It transpires among a circle of people who live there through all weather over decades, people who know each other too well and are more charmed than they ought to be by their own gifts, which are nevertheless quite real. They are, in their way, fashionable, dilettantish, and yet as native to the place as they can manage to be. They embrace the rigors that go with living deeply in that landscape, and at the same time they seem idle, up to very little beyond cocktail parties, serial marriage and the reading of good books. At first glance, they and their lives seem both irritating and enviable, in other words, ripe for satire. But the novel absorbs them into a vision that ultimately blesses them all.
The Maytrees is written for the most part from the points of view of the small, fractured Maytree family -- Lou, the sometime wife; Toby, the errant husband; and Pete, their only child. And no portrait of the family would be complete without Deary, the quondam free spirit who carries Toby off to Maine for an affair that lasts 20 years. The eponymous title of the book is an assertion of acceptance and embrace.
Solid, good-hearted Pete grows up to make a local marriage, father a child and work as a fisherman. His father, Toby, remains through the years a decent, distractible man, a poet of possibly serious aspiration and minor but respectable attainment. Lou, the central character, enjoys her marriage, absorbs its shocks, and, when she has brought up her son, continues to live a life of studied simplicity there on the edge of the sea.
Maytree (Lou consistently calls Toby by his last name) receives from the author and the other characters such respect for his avocation as it always does deserve, though nothing about him particularly suggests that he has drunk the milk of paradise. Lou, who makes no claims, is also a poet of sorts and a painter. The novel as a whole is beautiful, and the beauty is never digressive or ornamental. But when we see through Lou's eyes, it is as if the objects of her attention lift off the page. Her awareness invests the world with dimensionality and presence, summoning a sharp sense of the ontological strangeness of creation and the mystery of our place in it. She is tough-minded, therefore compassionate; free of sentimentality, therefore generous. And she is always brilliantly attentive. In the fullness of time she realizes that the world has been her meditation, that simplicity and stillness and the sea have somehow made her sufficient to her life. This is both a modest claim -- "The Maytrees performed no heroic deeds, neither Toby nor Lou, and both acted within any decent heart's scope" -- and a deep tribute to any decent heart. The novel proposes that there is an involuntary, even unconscious shaping of character, individual and social, that comes with weathering, and that, in yielding to a wisdom no one could earn or choose and for which they have no language, people conform themselves in ways something like the accommodations landscape makes to wear and time.
Dillard has often been compared to Dickinson and Thoreau. Her language in this book can recall Gerard Manley Hopkins, both in its use of compression to heighten and intensify, and in its use of words that are perhaps arcane. I am willing to take fletching and skeg on faith, since their sound and context make them evocative. Lagniappe is a word I could have lived without. But albedo, used here in reference to the look of sand by night, is so perfect that I am grateful to have acquired it. It means reflected light, and, in another context, reflected neutrons. It suggests the deep kinship between ordinary human experience and the vast, ghostly universe of being itself. This is where Dillard's imagination has always lived, in the stark and lyrical awareness of the profundity of the physical world. ·
Marilynne Robinson is the author of two novels, "Housekeeping" and "Gilead," and teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.