BETWEEN HER Pulitzer Prize-winning first book, 2 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and her much slimmer and more overtly Christian meditation, Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard shifted her visionary focus from a small valley in Virginia to the vastness of Washington's Puget Sound. But the questions that enlivened the nature observations of Pilgrim--Is there a purpose behind the bizarre doings of nature? Does paying close attention to the particulars of the natural world lead from wonder to praise, or to despair?--these questions became if anything even more exigent in Holy the Firm as she looked out over the uncomprehending waves and tried to fathom the terrible maiming of a 7-year-old neighbor in a plane crash. In both cases the answers, and even many of the questions, came not from nature but from texts. For the anchoress, whether in her valley retreat or her ocean-cliff perch, carried her library with her. By the evidence of those books, natural history and theology occupied long shelves in that library, although literary texts were surely present in abundance too, one of them her own collection of poems Tickets for a Prayer Wheel.

In Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard moves her books onto center stage, and we learn that fiction, which she had once, disparagingly, associated with the self-conscious sophistication of urban life, has long been one of her secret passions. Fiction of all kinds, not least the experimental, modernist and post-modernist novels and stories that have dominated literary discussion this century, from Joyce and Kafka to Pynchon and Borges. With the same combination of enthusiasm and empiricism that she brought to her meditations on muskrats and creek beds, Dillard sets out to explord has an answer ready. It appears as part of her argument about the curious aesthetic status of fiction, but it also serves to justify her own endeavor: "That fiction is not yet the exclusive province of specialists, that those who make it their business to understand it are not quite yet priests, that most of it requires of its audience no initiate status--these things disc, painting, and sculpture." The populist tone is unmistakable; fiction is still communal property, for better or worse.

After an initial taxonomy of the modernist phenomenon in literature, which for all its abstraction and brevity gives a clear and sympathetic account of this century's fictional innovations, Dillard takes up this question of populism as the first of her two major themes. Fiction, she argues, can never surrender its ties to the world beyond the page no matter how brilliantly certain modern writers (Joyce, Stein) have tried to make language the only hero and the only theme. Not words themselves but what they refer to constitute the novel's inevitable subject matter. The modernist movement has sharpened serious writers' awareness of art's infatuation with itself and of the artist's freedom to manipulate the pieces of his world (time and space, the real and the imaginary) as he sees fit. But it has not driven out naturalist fiction or reduced its practitioners to the status of dodos: witness, e.g., Graham Greene, Anthony Powell, John Updike, Saul Bellow.

Criticism has been important in this development, at once explaining and nurturing the self-referential qualities of modernist writing, but also fitting even the most radical experiments into a traditional canon that links our century to a still quite lively past. Indeed, literary criticism has itself become something of an art form, claiming since the days of Matthew Arnold to give us the rigor and the certainty we used to expect from metaphysics and religion. Is it possible, then, that the big questions, which have always been Annie Dillard's ultimate concern, may best be handled today by texts and their interpretation? A positive, if tentative, answer to that question is the burden of her book's third section and the real rnterpretation, to a bold and surprising analogy between the world of texts and the world itself. Can we read the world the way a critic reads a book? Are the tools of literary interpretation available--indeed, uniquely available--tohan aesthetics. Purity is the enemy here: it would strip symbols of their "material energy" and thus destroy their role as probes from the world of sense into the world of ideas. Life is messy, and "pure" fiction represents it badly. In characteristically snappy phrases Dillard rejects the suborning of art to utilitarian purposes: "(The art object) does not 'help us to see' like an optometrist; it does not 'make us realize' like a therapist; it does not 'open doors of us' like a butler." It does nothing but it is something, a fresh creation that makes claims on our interest and even our affection. Does this art object by its very order and harmony and coherence also tell us about the way the world is, and even perhaps something about the world's maker? Dillard devoutly hopes so. And, to judge by her earlier books, believes so as well. But living by fiction here rather than by faith she offers instead a Socratic "I don't know."

Whether the field of investigation is nature or fiction, Annie Dillard digs for ultimate meanings as instinctively and as determinedly as hogs for truffles. The resulting upheaval can be disconcerting, as is her unbuttoned prose on occasion in this book ("But thats the breaks."); still, uncovered morsels are rich and tasty ("the rim of knowledge where language falters"; "fiction's materials are bits of world"; art is a "material mock-up of bright idea"). For them and for her common sense and for her unabashed love of fiction, many stylistic and even syllogistic lapses can be forgiven.Living by Fiction won't win a Pilitzer Prize, but it merits the attention of the restof us amateur litterateurs and metaphysicians.