January 1. Now real winter can begin. I have cooked and wrapped and sipped and conversed and swept and taken down the ornaments, though the bare tree remains, returned to itself briefly before we haul it out of the house like a stroke victim. Prettiest tree I ever grew, the eighty-five year old man told me as he flashed his saw three weeks ago. This was the first long-leaf pine I’d had at Christmas since my Georgia childhood. I can see now through the needles to the patio floor outside the window. Guests are gone. The child in my life is happy with his puppy and his art supplies and his books. “Read to me, Franny.” He looks at the list inside his Freddy Goes to Florida book and his forefinger follows the author’s other titles down through more than a dozen books he does not yet have. I recognize that special frisson of pleasure. “I will,” I say, “I will.”
But I am reading The Maytrees by Annie Dillard, handed to me by her friend Lee Smith. The cover is white—wintry, and the story is set on Cape Cod, which I only have visited in winter. My images of a bleak landscape and silvery light already overlay the text. More sea than land, more sky than sea.
Very little happens and the characters don’t behave in the ways that any how-to-write-a-novel tells you they should. No development. The characters, in fact, are almost as flatly rendered as Greek friezes. They would bend toward mythic, if their lives were not so eventless. Oh good, I am not to be nabbed by plot, hooked into reading to find out what happens. This is definitely not a page-turner; it’s a page-lingerer. How brave, to write this way, resisting relentless action, and relying on language to carry the book’s progress as the author investigates the inner nature of love, and how love zigzags through two lives, those of Lou and Toby. Annie Dillard is serious, but raucous, too. To the character Lou’s question, “Can love last?” an older friend, Reevadare, answers, “Oh darling! No, not that heart-thumping passion. Give that eighteen months. But it’s replaced by something even better.” I think I know what’s coming but when Lou gets her answer, what’s coming is no homily but, instead, “Lovers.”
The language crackles. Shed roof browbone . . . skin clean as an eggshell. . . books so thin you could use them as shims. . . His x-rays [after a fall] looked like the Tunguska event, the Siberian forest after a meteorite hit. . . Under tires dry snow yelped. . . The creases behind his neck made him look like the survivor of several beheadings.
Toby Maytree, a sometime poet, wants to work into a poem rini, rini, manju, manju, the sound of a bullock-cart axle in Hindi. Annie Dillard herself must have wanted to work into a text that delightful onomatopoeia. I’m relishing words I don’t know: epistomeliac, culch, mesoglea, autarchy, pinna—and seeing again others I do know that don’t make it into many novels: spicules, desideratum. How she does reawaken a word: Maybe lasting love is a rare evolutionary lagniappe.
I’m trying to read slowly, to relish the authorial intrusions into the narrative. What gave adults the cheer to tolerate their hypocrisy? (Clearly not the thought of the child it’s attributed to.) And her reach out from it: To Lou’s raised light Maytree had once set his face.
Annie Dillard’s style here reminds me of someone I read long ago. Not Edith Wharton, though the spine of the story recalls Ethan Frome. Someone more kinetic. That writer (oh, who?) also wrote as though words behaved like movement and weight. As though words were perception rather than descriptions of perception. The sea concussed the beach. And as though words bypass description: The planet rolled into its shadow. On the high dune, sky ran down to his ankles. Everything he saw was lower than his socks. . . parabolic dunes cut sky as rogue waves do. Who else wrote like that? Someone Annie Dillard must have read at an impressionable moment.
I pull the soft chenille throw over my feet and scrooch down among the pillows. New Year’s Day, lying on the sofa with the afternoon sun lolling over my book and me. This day always seems melancholy; Janus looking fore and aft, I suppose. The just-passed year, what a blur. The future, stars lining up, graphing fate. A little moment rocking at the top of the Ferris wheel. Will I go forward, lowering like an angel to announce an Annunciation, or will I be stuck among scouring searchlights, caught in a plastic seat with a bar across?
Ah! Robbe-Grilliat. That’s it! She must have studied him in college and paid attention. How long since I’ve heard his name. Hello, old friend.
Maybe the unaccustomed solitude is slipping over me like a silk gown. The child has been swooped up by his mother and gone home. From my computer upstairs, I hear John Williams on guitar playing a poignant I’d rather be a forest than a street / yes, I would, if I could. . . to my empty study. What a pity the subjunctive is disappearing. Fortunately, in Italy, they still know how to dwell among the possibilities. My husband sleeps in another room. He made tortellini with sausage for lunch, spoke of projects for the new year, then trailed back to the bedroom with his book. What is he reading?
She longed for the life she already possessed. . .
Isn’t this what I read for? To come across the attempt to say the unsayable? At this moment, that quote hits me right in the third eye. A book’s unchartered component is always the reader’s context. If I were reading The Maytrees on a night flight to Singapore, or while crossing the Russian steppes on a train with a small flask of vodka in my handbag, doubtless my reactions would be different. Authors, so benighted by critical theorists in the last forty years, never had the control that the talking heads so earnestly wanted to deny them. I am relishing this book partly because of the sunlight on the page.
By two thirds in, I’m attached to Lou Maytree and annoyed by her husband Toby. His journey is always toward his own blurred image in the mirror; she spans time like tides. Toby abandoned Lou and Petie, their child, and never saw the child again until the grown child sought out his father. There’s some lame realization from the young man that he could have sought out his father sooner. Oh, blarmy, Miss Writer. Say Toby was utterly selfish, even forgive him, but don’t put the onus on the boy. He was heartlessly abandoned. The writer clearly loves Lou and Toby and all her characters and she paints them with godlike objectivity into the essential landscape of the Cape. She sees Lou as capable of copious emotions and Toby as capable of merging, finally, and with some grace, into the largesse she offers. Despite psychological implausibility at work in this novel, the writer’s voice holds me all afternoon and into the evening when the sky darkens on the page and my husband comes in with two glasses of wine and some gruyere and walnuts. Time to begin the year with a toast. “How’s the book?” he asks. “Read it,” I answer.
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