Death by Landscape
by Annie Dillard
As a novelist, Annie Dillard faces serious limitations. The novel is an inherently dramatic medium and for a writer who has little interest in drama the novel can be an especial crapshoot.
The Maytrees, Dillard’s second attempt at the form, is composed of equal parts human detail, sweeping landscape, and commonplace book musings on the role of love in life. It sounds like a good combination—and the book has some fine moments—but she doesn’t cook her ingredients. She is not interested in the minutiae of human drama and her book suffers for lack of it. The landscape is lovely, but it fails to render the characters in perspective. The essayistic portions are intriguing—it’s what Dillard does best—but for all we’re allowed into her character’s minds, we’re never permitted to watch them interact with one another for more than a moment. As a result, the novel feels like a series of notes more or less artfully arranged, but not a unified work of art. At the end, her essayistic technique suddenly becomes appropriate to the action (such as it is), but this concordance comes too late to retroactively redeem the balance of the experience.
In the book’s opening pages, we are given lots of general description about Lou and Toby, the eponymous Maytrees. They meet close to home in Provincetown shortly after World War Two. Lou is a bold, bookish, and beautiful woman who becomes more kindhearted and reclusive as time jumps ahead. Toby, her husband, is a thoughtful, prematurely avuncular reed of man who writes long books of poetry and who—in my mind at least—exists solely so that he may one day be played by James Cromwell. Their marriage is the picture of earthly compatibility until Toby somewhat inexplicably leaves Lou for another woman, the shrewd and eccentric Deary. Lou deals with her sense of betrayal maturely. Time passes, dunes shift. When he returns twenty years later, begging Lou to help him nurse the aged Deary through her final illness, Lou welcomes them as old friends. Once Deary dies, Lou and Toby resume their old marriage:
Of course they rarely fought; she rarely spoke. They both knew love itself as an epistemological tool. As if mechanical, a halyard, love drew up something new that raised an everlasting flap and speed. How? Why?
This style of narration is not an intellectual flight soon supplanted by a more grounded style of storytelling; this drifting speculation is the story. We’ll read three more pages past the above passage before a pair of characters interact with one another and yet another page before either speaks out loud.
At one point, Dillard makes note of the fallacy of imitative form. This is ironic, because in writing of two people who are chronically undemonstrative, Dillard mistakenly recounts the events of their lives with too light a touch. Nearly every time one of the characters in The Maytrees voices an opinion or performs an act (getting into bed, crossing the street) we’re prevented from knowing what happens next. Instead, we’re told what themes they brooded about, what the landscape resembled that day, and before we know it we’ve forgotten where we were or when.
Dillard lingers on the expectation of the Maytrees’ first kiss, then skips the kiss. She skips their wedding too, and their first night together. Well, ceremony can be overplayed, and life lived moment to moment is where the interesting stuff happens, where characters interact informally and define one another and grow. The trouble with The Maytrees is that Dillard skips the day-to-day as well. As readers, we’re never privileged enough to watch two of her characters speak more than a handful of lines of dialogue back and forth.
Take an early passage where Toby heads off to his shack on the beach to think and to write. We’re told in the beginning of this short chapter that he’d brought some food with him and some books. When he arrives at the shack, he puts lamps on the table and begins reading.
He took off his shirt. Love itself raised other honest questions, more than several. Was romantic love a modern invention? How long could it last as requited, as unrequited? Does familiarity blur lovers’ clear sight of essences and make surfaces look significant? Since love intensifies in parted lovers, presumably because the lovers forget and reimagine each other, is love then wholly false? How false? Thirty percent false? Sixty percent? Five?
The next paragraph begins, “Later he stood on the foredune’s lip and looked at the stars over the ocean.” And then we’re back in his mind again. Taking off his shirt, standing on the dunes—these are snapshots that change but never move. He brought food to the shack, set lamps on the table, and took off his shirt. This is not an uncharacteristically slight amount of drama. The questions Maytree broods about are all fine questions, but the role of the novelist is to let her themes play out through the people she writes about, rather than explicitly telling us about them.
The action is no swifter when several characters group together. We’re continually reminded of Lou’s habitual reticence: “One of her speech difficulties was starting. The other was proceeding. Really, she could talk only to Maytree.” No one ever seems to talk about Lou either. Characters don’t talk about one another in this world. They do think quite a lot about one another, but in a generalized, impersonal way.
I wasn’t moved to emotion or reflection when Toby leaves Lou seventy pages in, because I felt as though I hadn’t spent any time with either of them yet. I’d spent time only with the crashing surf of Provincetown and Annie Dillard’s narrative voice. Both are excellent companions but neither, in and of itself, makes a novel. Dillard as much as cops to her fallacious imitation when she explains that “Lou (and Maytree, too) shunned drama, inside and out, as, at least, bad taste.” So why not make drama of the shunning? Evan S. Connell and Mary Robison have built careers in fiction because they’ve schooled themselves to be masters of just that trick. In the stories of both, it’s exactly what the character’s don’t talk about that’s most important—negative space makes an intricate shape.
Good novels dramatize, art novels and pop novels do it. Ulysses has lots of real-time dialogue and Gravity’s Rainbow relies on linear narrative as often as it doesn’t. The French antinovel thrives on the moment-to-moment, and nonrealistic novels built on myth or fairytales come equipped with built-in structures to see them through both adherence to and deviation from their bedrock plots.
Writing a novel that rarely lingers on one time, place, or conversation for so much as a paragraph is a hell of a trick. It can be done (Carol Maso catches it in Ava, and Bohumil Hrabal makes it work for long stretches of Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age), but it is nearly impossible to pull off at full length. The novels we value in that mode often succeed best when they dispense of disjunctive artifice. William Burroughs’ perfect evocations of con artists are whole, artfully stage-managed vaudeville shows in otherwise atonally numbing texts. Virginia Woolf can write a great novel without much traditional drama, but she compensates with note-perfect poetry and unparalleled observation of detail. She never neglects the feel of a moment—and those felt moments come to define the reality of her characters. She touches the intellectual connections a mind might make with real sensory and physical detail. She writes of specific occasions as much as she writes of the sweeps and drifts of the mind for which she’s justly revered. Kundera pulls off the essayistic mode for surprisingly long stretches in some books, but his ruminations work best when they help make his characters more real, and his later work is entirely ruined by the technique.
Dillard’s prologue (at 60 pages, it’s as long as any of the four sections of the book) embodies a tone which could fairly be called essayistic. She addresses the reader directly: “Lou Maytree rarely spoke. She painted a bit on canvas and linen now lost. [The Maytrees] acted in only two small events—three, if love counts. Falling in love, like having a baby, runs against the current of our lives: separation, loss, and death. That is the joy of them.”
It’s prose just like this that has made Annie Dillard a celebrated writer. In her early masterpiece, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, she walks us through a year in the life of a small patch of wilderness. The narrator—the wholly believable character of “Annie Dillard”—spends her time observing the frogs, insects, and seasons, and when her observations occasion reflection, the reflections are sufficiently powerful to change a reader’s life. I still remember the chill of first reading it.
Like Annie Dillard, the Maytrees are intellectuals, thoughtful people more inclined to head for their studies the more passionate they feel. Lou, in love, falls back on her books:
Love so sprang at her, she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it. Where was it in literature? Someone would have written something. She must not have recognized it. Time to read everything again.
The novel goes along this way for most of its length. As the end nears, Dillard’s as yet unsuccessful technique becomes a glove into which a hand has finally slipped. Fingers flex. The hand is a cold one, and The Maytrees reveals itself to be a book about death.
Death has speckled the novel all along, but until the end it is not clear why. A dozen pages in, Dillard tells us about a headless, handless corpse found on the Provincetown strand in the mid-fifties. Later in the book, two bodies are discovered at low tide and hauled from the surf, “chained under the armpits.” Then toward the end of the book, in a final piece of foreshadowing, we’re treated to a scene of mass carnage on the same beach. A fishing boat has run aground in a storm. Watched by the gathered townsfolk, its crew fall to their deaths, “upright and straight as a plumb bob.”
When Toby’s second wife, Deary, returns home to die, the Maytrees set up her bed on the edge of the beach. Later, after a few hastily sketched years of reconciliation, Toby dies in the same bed. Dillard’s technique turns out to be appropriate to the theme; faced with death’s immensity, we find ourselves powerless to do anything but think about it. Individual drama can seem irrelevant (as it has seemed all along). Landscape, which swallows so much of the novel, attains some significance. Lou stands on the beach where “for all she knew she had seen the same gulls over and over,” and wonders what the whole thing has been about. She pictures what death, finally, would make of her thoughts:
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.
She watched a wave strand a white skate inverted. It scraped back and forth in the waves for an hour, openmouthed.
Shortly before she returns home to die, the character of Deary begins to come into focus: a quirky rebel from New York society, a free spirit who inspires the sheepish, Deary becomes more interested in status and wealth, and she becomes more conservative, egging Toby on to stretch his business and so buy her a grand house and four fine chandeliers. When she returns home to die it is in an expensively tailored suit and with the same eccentric theories of life on her lips that once made her seem such an imp. She’s easily the most believable character in the book.
She’s first introduced to the reader when the Maytrees stumble upon her asleep outdoors. Sleeping on the beach is the sort of carefree thing she did in those days, before she aged and changed (as opposed to the Maytrees, who age but do not much change). So, toward the story’s close, Deary dies on the same beach where she used to sleep, alone in the Maytrees’ bed. Here, for once, Annie Dillard lets her book read like a novel. We’re told—at length!—what tasks Toby sets in the wake of her death:
At the garage he bought three new tires and rotated the old. He replaced windshield wipers in front of the gallery across from the house. Inside he washed and hung Deary’s nightgowns and later rolled them and her tweed suit around her jewelry. He wrapped newspaper over the bundle, tied it with string, and set the trunk beside her newly anachronistic purse. How they used to search when she lost her purse.
That last sentence perfectly dramatizes the way death takes the charge out of objects, the way we rush to discard things we would once have raced to catch. Paragraphs like these, almost all of which come at the tail end of a slow book, give us a maddening taste of what Annie Dillard could do if she wrote a whole novel this way—passing over what characters don’t say in a way that renders silence meaningful, rather than frustrating for the reader, and letting small details speak for themselves.
Annie Dillard has written more than her share of near-perfect books, Holy The Firm and Teaching a Stone to Talk among them. I recently discovered and read her long essay Encounters with Chinese Writers and it was one of the best nights of reading I can remember. I think her book of “found” poems, Mornings Like These, is the equal of any work of found art this century (from John Cage’s Imagionary Landscape # 4 to Charles L. Mee’s Imperial Dreams plays). Though The Maytrees is far from perfect, we have every reason to hope it will be bested. Annie Dillard’s deep sense of incredulity on the subject of human mortality awaits the moving meditation she clearly has it in her to write.
John Cotter has published fiction, poetry, and criticism in journals such as Hanging Loose, Pebble Lake, Good Foot, Volt, Coconut Poetry, The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Cutbank Poetry, and 3rd Bed. In 2007 his work was anthologized in Oh One Arrow, the premier anthology from Flim Forum Press, and will be anthologized next year in Outside Voices’ 2008 Anthology of Younger Poets. He lives in Boston where he has just completed the manuscript of a novel, Under the Small Lights, excerpts of which can be read online at johncotter.net.