For more than three decades, the most frequent compliment paid to Annie Dillard has been that she is a latter-day Henry David Thoreau. It’s an accurate comparison, so far as these things go. Like Thoreau, Dillard began her career as a poet, and she writes prose with the metaphorical richness of verse. Like Thoreau, she has an abiding passion for nature, which she describes in more closely observed detail than any writer of her generation. And like Thoreau, she has a reputation, which began with the publication of her 1974 Walden-esque masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as a recluse—a solitary tramper in the outdoors.
But contrast, in this case, is more fruitful than comparison. While Thoreau appears to have been in only youthful thrall to the Transcendentalist valuation of spirit over matter, Dillard has always come off as a true believer. Her naturalism has a mystic’s logic: She writes about bugs and rocks and trees not for their own sake but because bugs, rocks, and trees seem to offer clues into the nature of ultimate reality. This visionary project accounts for the religious enthusiasm of some of Dillard’s readers, but it also accounts for the tendency of her prose to rev up and fly away, as in this passage from Tinker Creek: “[If] you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death.” At times like these, Eudora Welty confessed in a Times review, she hadn’t the slightest idea what Dillard was talking about.
Dillard’s latest—a slim, poetic novel, eight years in the making—is a departure from this familiar style. At times, The Maytreesacts like vintage Dillard: It contains gorgeous, meticulous descriptions of the outdoors that springboard into the Platonic ether, into meditations on devotion, loss, and time. But the book does not reach as far into the clouds, or linger there as long, as Dillard’s earlier work did. Her philosophical impulses are present, but they are moored to a linear narrative, and made to spring more or less logically from the minds and actions of flesh-and-blood characters. The result is one of the most lucid and effective books Dillard has ever produced.
It is certainly one of the most affecting. The Maytrees tells the story of a decades-long marriage between Toby Maytree, a carpenter and metaphysical-minded “poet of the forties and fifties,” and Lou Bigelow, a bookish, stoical beauty resembling Ingrid Bergman. The couple meet in Provincetown after World War II, marry, have a son named Pete, and live a serene, unencumbered existence among the dunes of Cape Cod: “Twice a day behind their house the tide boarded the sand. Four times a year the seasons flopped over. Clams live like this, but without so much reading.” Then, after 14 years of marriage, betrayal: Toby, in the grip of midlife discontent, decamps to Maine with the couple’s close friend Deary, a drum-playing free spirit. Time passes, during which Lou methodically coaxes herself back to equilibrium and Pete nurses a steely resentment toward his father. Finally, after 20 years, Toby returns unannounced; Deary’s heart is failing, and he desperately needs help caring for her. Lou, forgiving by nature, gives over her home to the prodigal couple, and in a touching, hushed epilogue, the Maytrees resume their marriage.
The book sounds like an epic. At 216 pages, it isn’t. Dillard has told Publishers Weekly that the first draft of The Maytrees was 1,400 pages long and that she ruthlessly cut the manuscript down section by section, character by character, syllable by syllable, until nothing superfluous remained. The result is a novel of almost drastic austerity. Dillard offers just enough fact that the reader can grasp the basics of the narrative. We get nearly nothing in the way of social detail; there are no set pieces; there is only one dramatic confrontation, at the grueling moment when the Maytrees split, and it is rendered quickly, as if to get the moment out of the way. Even the punctuation seems designed to impart sparseness. Dillard marks spoken language with unassuming dashes, rather than frilly quotation marks, and she keeps the role of dialogue in the narrative to a minimum:
Intimacy could not be unique to her and Maytree, this brief blending, this blind sea they entered together diving. His neck smelled as suntan does, his own oil heated, and his hair smelled the same but darker. He was still fresh from an outdoor shower. Awareness was a braided river. It slid down time in drops or torrents. Now she knew he woke. The room seemed to get smarter. His legs moved and their tonus was tight. Her legs were sawdust; they were a line of old rope shreds on sand. All her life the thought of his body made her blush.—We should get up, Maytree said, and moor the dory. Tide’s coming in.
That this is a description of the Maytrees’ sex life suggests the purpose of Dillard’s economical style. Some writers strip down their prose mainly in order to evoke a mood of bleakness or emotional detachment. Dillard strips down her prose because too much action or too much talking would distract from how her characters reflect on what happens and is said. Dillard’s publisher is marketing The Maytrees as a love story. This is technically true but misleading. Like all of Dillard’s work, the novel is a meditation. It is an attempt to understand how, with what consequences, and even why love works. “Love so sprang at her,” Dillard writes of Lou, in the initial throes of her desire for Toby, “she honestly thought no one had ever looked into it.”
But the novel’s relatively simple boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-and-girl-reconnect plotline is a salutary force, a counterweight to the novel’s philosophical impulses. Dillard was evidently aware that, by training her eye on the consciousnesses of two tirelessly reflective, frighteningly well-read people—people given to thoughts like, “Maybe lasting love is a rare evolutionary lagniappe”—she might be trying the patience of readers accustomed to more straightforward narratives, because she seems at times to apologize for her style. “Lou asked herself, yet again, What happens to people out here on the lower Cape? … From solid citizens they sublimed to limbless metaphysicians.” Yet aside from this being almost comically reductive—like Joyce chalking up his prose style to the Dublin air—it isn’t necessary. The Maytrees is deeply meditative, but it always returns from its musings to the palpable facts of its characters’ lives. Toward the end of the book, Toby wonders, “Was it reasonable to love the good and good to love the reasonable?” Then he drives to the garage to rotate his tires.
This isn’t new of Dillard, not entirely. It is characteristic of her to juxtapose high thought and mundane act; she delights in the fact that a person can strive for universal truths one moment and haggle with a mechanic the next. The difference between her nonfiction books and The Maytrees is that, in the former, she has nothing to pull herself back to earth but her good judgment, which sometimes fails. And when she does return, it is often to mute rocks and bugs and her own solitary investigations of the natural world. In The Maytrees, Dillard is beholden to Toby and Lou and the simple arc of their lives playing out “before the backdrop of fixed stars.” If the story of love lost and regained allows her to plumb the mysteries of attraction, it also keeps her feet firmly planted on the ground.