Baggy and Thin

Susan Eilenberg

  • The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
    Hesperus, 185 pp, £12.99, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 84391 710 6

Patience has been the matter of Annie Dillard’s writing for thirty years and more: patience and watchfulness and humility, together with a good deal of meditation (some of it conducted while crouched ‘mute as a photographic plate’, waiting for some small stalked creature to put aside its alarm and show itself on a chilly mudbank or in midgey thickets in Virginia or the Pacific Northwest) on what the watching and the waiting are good for. She has seen coots and weasels and parasitic wasps, a ‘pale froth’ of baby spiders, a muskrat eating a weed with the sound of ‘somebody eating celery sticks’, furry moths, hunting beetles, turtle eggs, copperheads, sharks; also steers walking on water ‘like miracle itself, complete with miracle’s nonchalance’, and

thousands of spirits – spirits trapped, perhaps, by my refusal to call them more fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at that time – thousands of spirits, angels in fact, almost discernible to the eye, and whirling. If pressed I would say they were three or four feet from the ground. Only their motion was clear (clockwise, if you insist); that, and their beauty unspeakable.

Each creature always being itself and nothing other than itself (‘I never saw a tree that was no tree in particular’), the effect of the whole is as the uttering of ‘infinite particulars, each overlapping and lone, like a hundred hills of hounds all giving tongue’. In Dillard’s nature writings (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Teaching a Stone to Talk, portions of An American Childhood) the butterfly is not an anonymous member of an order within the class Insecta but a particular creature who, having had the particularly bad luck to have emerged from its chrysalis in a schoolteacher’s glass jar and so lost the chance to unfurl its wings while they were still capable of unfurling, nevertheless set off heaving the ‘golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been’ and ‘crawling with what seemed wonderful vigour, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born’; the bug is not an indistinguishable member of that class of being of which God was supposed to have been inordinately fond but a particular rhinoceros beetle that, inexpertly impaled in a particular forgotten cigar box in a particular attic, she rediscovers a month later still ‘crawling on its pin’, probably dehydrated, she guesses, since the attic was hot. The particulars matter also in the case of a chicken: ‘He pulled his extravagant neck to its maximum length, hauled himself high on his legs, stretched his beak as if he were gagging, screamed, and blinked. It was a ruckus.’ And the particulars matter in the death of a particular small green frog:

He was exactly half in and half out of the water, looking like a schematic diagram of an amphibian, and he didn’t jump.

He didn’t jump; I crept closer. At last I knelt on the island’s winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away. He was a very small frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag began to sink.

The reader, lazy in her armchair, reads on or puts the book down or flips to the next chapter or the one after that: if one passage of natural history grows wearying or worrisome or outright horrifying, the next will surely amuse. The sheer abundance of observation and instruction (‘Cracked arsenic smells like garlic’; ‘Water lifting up tree trunks can climb one hundred and fifty feet an hour; in full summer a tree can, and does, heave a ton of water every day’) seems to lessen the necessity of attending to any given detail. The detail matters, but not as we might expect.

Even at her most intent (and she does have a penchant for occasions of ecstasy), Dillard is as conscious of herself watching, of herself forgetting herself, as she is of whatever it is that’s before her eyes. If the cosmos wants to perform miracles (as it does at every moment), ‘the least we can do is try to be there,’ she says. Anything else would be discourteous; but to her mind the world, though marvellous, is also mad and meaningless, ‘one lunatic fringe’, amiss and incapable of justification, with ‘a blue streak of nonbeing’, ‘a shaded emptiness like a bubble that not only shapes its very structure but also causes it to list and ultimately explode’. She writes wistfully of her attempt ‘really to believe’ the latest theories, that she ‘might ultimately be able to make out the landscape of the universe’. But her science-flavoured writings rebel against the literalness science requires; her particulars stand not for themselves but for particularity itself in its pathos and its incalculability. The particle physicist who once told her that ‘everything that has already happened is particles, everything in the future is waves’ must surely have wondered at the rhapsody his remark inspired: ‘The particles are broken; the waves are translucent, laving, roiling with beauty like sharks. The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and light that bears from undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end.’

That there is at times something faintly ludicrous about her enthusiasms Dillard herself concedes: ‘A taste for the sublime is a greed like any other.’ But the occasional mockery she makes of her self-consciously self-forgetting absorptions seems mere stylistic dither and does not touch her essential seriousness. Though her reader may flip ahead, may put down the book and forget where she left off, may allow herself to stray from attention, for Dillard herself the particulars of the world require witness. As a child, she felt obliged to try to ‘remember everything – everything, against loss. I would go through life like a plankton net’ and ‘hang onto the days with teeth and fists, or the whole show had been in vain’. And as an adult, Dillard seems vaguely to feel that her attention is not neutral but redemptive, salvific. But redemptive or salvific how? Who is doing the redeeming and who being redeemed? There is the little green frog Dillard sees being drained alive by the waterbug, to which she returns throughout Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; there are the grotesque scenes of impassively witnessed cruelty in her first novel, The Living; and, perhaps most disturbing of all, there is in Holy the Firm, her meditation on suffering, the Hopkinsesque fugue on the little girl whose face has been burned off:

You might as well be a nun. You might as well be God’s chaste bride, chased by plunderers to the high caves of solitude, to the hearthless rooms empty of voices, and of warm limbs hooking your heart to the world. Look how he loves you! . . . That skinlessness, that black shroud of flesh in strips on your skull, is your veil. There are two kinds of nun, out of the cloister or in. You can serve or you can sing, and wreck your heart in prayer, working the world’s hard work. Forget whistling: you have no lips for that, or for kissing the face of a man or a child. Learn Latin, and it please my Lord, learn the foolish downward look called Custody of the Eyes.

And learn power, however sweet they call you, learn power, the smash of the holy once more, and signed by its name. Be victim to abruptness and seizures, events intercalated, swellings of heart.

Witnessing of the kind Dillard practises is an emptying out of the self, an ecstatic spiritual discipline. Hollow, ‘open to time and death’, ‘noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given’, ‘you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall.’ Recognise yourself as ‘a short-lived phenomenon, a fierce, vanishing thing like a hard shower, or a transitional form like a tadpole or winter bud’, quiet the ‘dog barking between’ your ‘own ears’, and you grow aware of the scale and motions and stases of the world:

The galaxy is careening in a slow, muffled widening. If a million solar systems are born every hour, then surely hundreds burst into being as I shift my weight to the other elbow. The sun’s surface is now exploding; other stars implode and vanish, heavy and black, out of sight. Meteorites are arcing to earth invisibly all day long. On the planet the winds are blowing: the polar easterlies, the westerlies, the northeast and southeast trades. Somewhere, someone under full sail is becalmed, in the horse latitudes, in the doldrums.

Look away and all might be lost.

Dillard patiently watches her moths and her weasels, her dragonflies, her botfly maggots, her killdeer and her toads for the delight (sometimes the horrified delight) she takes in them as curiosities, as provocations to wonder. In the writings of a naturalist, the oddest creature justifies itself, and in the writings of one intent on cosmic extravagance so does the oddest juxtaposition of creatures. That Dillard herself grows on occasion a little extravagant in her pursuit of an idea proves her kinship with her subjects. It is her way of taking in the world, and the world justifies the extravagance.

The Maytrees lacks that extravagance, that delight and that horror. In it Dillard remains nominally loyal to those values that make her earlier writings both disturbing and rewarding: patience, the attention to particularity, the emptying of the self, and the submission of the will to necessity. This time around, however, they appear not so much mysterious spiritual phenomena as articles of proselytisation. Furthermore, the upholding of these values is rewarded in the story – and in a way that requires no more spiritual subtlety to grasp than is demanded of the average reader of a fairy tale.

The novel, set in Provincetown and in Maine in the decades after World War Two, concerns itself chiefly with three characters. Lou is the heroine: beautiful (in her youth she is sometimes mistaken for Ingrid Bergman), educated (‘she spoke three languages and held her tongue in all of them’), generous, patient, forgiving and modestly artistic. Having grown up in the shadow of her mother’s resentment at their abandonment by Lou’s father, a Marblehead lawyer who ran off with his sister-in-law, Lou has learned before the novel even opens to focus on her gratitude for what she has while she has it (‘Why not memorise everything, just in case?’) and to mistrust the sense of grievance that has dominated her mother’s life. Indeed, she decides early on that it is better to love than to be loved (though she feels it must be selfish of her to feel this way), so that when her first, briefly noted, boyfriend leaves her for a pair of glockenspiel-playing twins, she easily persuades herself that she has suffered no injury and remembers primarily how much she had always liked both the treacherous boyfriend and the twins. Toby Maytree is the man Lou marries, a poet of some renown and, for the most part, admirable decency. Deary Hightoe is one of their many colourful friends – ‘vagabond Deary’, ‘free spirit Deary’, the many-times-married, many-times-divorced ‘hoyden’ with a degree in architecture from MIT, a mother from whose valuable cherry furniture she is in flight, and a fondness for sleeping in the dunes rolled up in a sail.

For fifteen years the Maytrees enjoy an almost perfect marriage. They understand each other without words; they love each other so deeply their skin feels ‘double-sided’, and Lou feels she ‘longed for the life she already possessed, a life large as clouds’. Then one day everything falls apart, or rather is revealed already to have fallen apart, though Lou had had no suspicion of it. Maytree leaves her and their son, Petie, for Deary. He had been planning it for weeks; he had already sent Deary ahead to wait for him in Maine. He hits Lou with the news just as their son, riding his bike, is hit by a car and breaks his leg. By the time the terrified Lou and Maytree arrive at the scene of the accident the fleeing driver has been caught. Maytree is enraged at the man. Lou, however, imagining with pity and terror what it must feel like suddenly to see a little boy on a bike going down under your wheels and to be unable to stop, says: ‘The poor man. Poor everyone.’ She says: ‘It might not all be the man’s fault.’ It is then that Maytree makes his announcement. He tells himself that Lou’s ‘universal solvent had unmanned him’, that he has ‘no belly’ for her ever growing compassion. ‘Let’s see her forgive this one, his leaving her for Deary,’ he thinks.

Time passes. Everyone ages, Deary in unattractive ways, Maytree in sad and dreary ones, Lou in essential strength and wisdom. Twenty years on, Maytree regrets what he has done. Deary looks like the Queen Mother, won’t turn off the TV, and doesn’t remember she’s already told that anecdote about seeing Petie’s aura a dozen times before. Maytree has dutifully given up his poetry, which Deary regarded as an obstacle to the efficient making of money. Having botched things with Lou and learned too late that ‘love was an act of will,’ he feels he must now at whatever cost to his spirit and self-respect honour his promises to Deary: it is his attempt ‘to make reparations to the moral universe’. His life is its own purgatory. But then there is a second accident. Carrying the invalid and dying Deary into a cardiologist’s office, Maytree falls, breaks his bones, and becomes an invalid incapable of caring for Deary or himself. There is nothing to do but return with Deary to Provincetown and beg Lou, whom he last saw nursing their invalid son, to take them both in.

What comes next is the fairy-tale part. The virtuous heroine, wonderfully preserved from the grosser signs of ageing, is rewarded for her patience with what to anyone less virtuous would appear to be a delicious choice: whether to take pity on her crippled ex-husband and her even more crippled former friend, or not. But since the virtuous heroine is now even more virtuous, having spent twenty years in picturesque and easily summarisable spiritual exercises designed to extinguish ‘resentment, self-cherishing and envy’, she is innocently unconscious of the resemblance between her situation and any embarrassing possible wish-fulfilment. ‘Of course she would take them in. Anyone would,’ she thinks. ‘Maytree and Deary were her old friends.’ Doing the right, noble and generous thing is therefore easy for her, and very brief for Dillard to narrate. When Lou has demonstrated how goodness is done, Deary dies, and Maytree returns to his first, true love as her morally reformed and now enlightened lover. ‘Intimacy with Lou had no bounds. Half his life he had sounded her and never struck bottom.’ She nurses him as he ages, and then he dies too.

Perhaps this sort of thing works best if you are George Eliot and have eight hundred pages before you in which to work through the whole complex web of it. But investing too much of oneself in one’s heroine and her superiority can be a problem even if one is Eliot, which Dillard is not. Vivid particulars have always been her strength; the particulars here are so few and apparently arbitrary as to seem almost like social shorthand. Perhaps she simply needed more room. (In a recent interview Dillard remarked that her original manuscript ran to more than 1200 pages.) But the example of The Living, her first novel, written fifteen years ago, simultaneously baggy and thin, gives little reason to believe the problem is mere scale. Dillard can be wonderfully evocative with speechless creatures, particularly those whose instincts preclude choice. She does well too with friends so deeply united in feeling they need hardly speak. But neither dialogue nor the emotional complexity that between real people normally requires the aid of speech comes easily to her.

Seeing is what she does best, witnessing, announcing ‘there is significance in this, there is value.’ In her best writing there is a this – a world of thises – to signify and to witness. In The Maytrees there is not. But old habits are hard to break. Dillard wants still to announce that ‘there is significance in this, there is value.’ It is hard not to be reminded of the story she tells about herself as a child:

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always ‘hid’ the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labelled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.