So a day or so ago, I finished THE MAYTREES by Annie Dillard. (Last book I read before leaving for this show, which by the way has a very large entry and many, many beautiful Cavaliers, I could never judge those classes.) (Didn’t bring a novel to the show, got this fast internet connection + pages to write, don’t need a book.)
ANYWAY. I hadn’t previously read any novels of Dillards, but I had read PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK and THE WRITING LIFE, and thanks for that image of the moth, by the way. Moth aside, I kind of thought both books were really interesting as philosophy and beautifully written, which is why I thought I’d try THE MAYTREES.
Which, after some reflection, I think I liked it, more or less. It’s not really my kind of thing at all. But it’s one of those where a single line makes a book worth reading, even if it’s not a book you really enjoy.
I don’t know that I’ll be reading any more of Annie Dillard’s novels (and I’m not saying I won’t, just that I don’t know). THE MAYTREES is so . . . so . . . you know, the writing is indeed beautiful. And the way philosophy is sort of tucked in, inextricable from the flow of . . . can you call them events if nothing much happens most of the time? I mean, yes, there are two or three pivotal events, but compared to, say, Patrick Lee, honestly, nothing happens.
In fact, can you call this a novel if there’s not really dialogue? Sure, from time to time one character speaks to another character, but despite that, there’s no real dialogue as such. Dillard points that out pretty plainly by, you know, not using quote marks. (Kind of like Cormac McCarthy, only way warmer and more optimistic about people.)
Actually, in another more technical sense, I guess THE MAYTREES is exactly a novel – and not a romance – if you’re aware of the technical definition that holds (I think) that in a novel the movement and change is internal, whereas in a romance (which includes all genre stories whether or not there’s what we’d ordinarily think of as romance in the story or not), the important movement and change is external.
This is not a definition I ordinarily find helpful or compelling, but it’s just right for THE MAYTREES, where everything is about what’s going on internally in the characters. Like after he leaves her, she spends months and months coping internally, not that you are shown this on a day-to-day basis, thank God. But we get lines like this: “Within a month she figured that if she ceded that the world did not center on her, there was no injustice or betrayal. If she believed she was free and out of the tar pit, would she not thereby free herself from the tar pit? . . . After only seven or eight months relinquishing Maytree, she saw the task would take practice, like anything else.”
Genre authors certainly can capture an important truth about the human condition in their writing – I think Lois McMaster Bujold is good at tossing in, here and there, a single line that does this with amazing accuracy – but I think the effort to do this is the main driver of THE MAYTREES. And it’s a pretty successful effort, actually. Here’s the line I had in mind that made the whole book worthwhile:
“Lou thought Jane was getting too old to regard her bitterness as the natural effect of a cause outside herself.”
At which I paused, struck by admiration. Can I someday steal that line? Do you supposed anybody would notice? Because I think it REALLY captures a central and important truth: that you can choose to be bitter, or not. That bitterness and envy and grimly-held resentment are choices you can make, or (in this novel) not make.
That’s what the whole book is about, really. And the reason I read it all the way through? All the characters make admirable choices, in the end. To forgive; to be openhanded and generous; to become independent; to become dependent. Without that, all the lyrical language in the world (which this novel has in spades) wouldn’t have made me finish this book.
But the next book I pick up will be something light and fun.