Review Of The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 6/18/09


  When I first heard about Annie Dillard’s latest novel The Maytrees, I was inclined to read it because the reviews had spoken of Dillard’s nature bent in her work, as well as leaning to the likes of Thoreau and Emerson. Being that I have been a long time devoted reader of nature writing and nature literature, from Thoreau and Emerson to Loren Eiseley to Barry Lopez to Jack London to even some of the mountaineering adventure writers like Jon Krakauer and Joe Simpson, I was eager to hear what all the praise had been about.

  Critics have been calling Dillard’s book ‘fiercely poetic’ and a ‘work of genius’ and so finally I just asked if I could review it for myself. After reading it, however, I have come to see that the work is actually none of the above and just falls flat and is the story of nothing more than you guessed it: a dull marriage. The prose, however spare, never works to develop the characters, and the dialogue is mediocre. Although this is the first work of Dillard’s I’ve read, now after reading her fiction it would be my guess that she would make a better essayist than fiction writer for the above reasons I mentioned.

While The Maytrees is in no way a bad book, it’s merely passable, at best. She gives us lots of nature description, but her work never reaches the highs that Loren Eiseley or Barry Lopez do a their best, and nor does she even have the humor of Edward Abbey. While her prose does have a nice music to it in parts (my ear is sensitive and in tune to such) the language never rises above merely pleasant, and as for the characters, well, they’re not particularly memorable. Set at a distance, I felt like I was watching their lives behind a sheet of glass, never caring enough to move in.

  The husband is a poet, and there are many instances of literary name-dropping and literary inside jokes that the average reader won’t get. Not that that’s necessarily bad, but the ones who do get it (like the legend of Kaspar Hauser) already know it and so you’re just left with ‘so what?’

  One of the merits of the book is its brevity, for the work is very, very short and has a lot of white space and page padding to separate each chapter. The book, while marketed as a novel, is really just a novella, and the fact that Dillard keeps the writing spare is a good thing since she does not bog the readers down with pages and pages of dull description that leads nowhere. Many writers today would have probably bloated this work to more than twice its length, for example. But her lack of character depth is a bad thing, because again, the characters are very ordinary, and left as such. The fact that the husband is a poet comes across as a gimmick just to be pretentious and name drop all the time. There is nothing wrong with writing about ‘ordinary’ characters, but when a good writer does this, he or she can take an ‘ordinary’ character and give an extraordinary element to the person, such as having that character unknowingly delve into bits of insight. Even the most dull and average drone, if one were to follow that person around with a tape recorder and tape record everything that person ever said throughout that person’s life, there would be at least a few instances when that person might have said something intelligent or made some keen observation, albeit without realizing. It is up to the writer to then find those extraordinary moments in an ‘ordinary’ character to make this a person worth reading about. We don’t have enough of that in this tale.

  One of the errors critics make is when they quote writers, and specifically in this case with Dillard, they only quote her description of something. And while description is fine when done well, they seem to miss the observations and exchanges between characters and things as being the parts that pull the narrative, making it essentially the real juice of the tale. Here is something nice:

  The winter before Maytree came with Deary, Lou had been orbiting one galaxy of ideas as close as she dared. Could a person hold all people past and present in awareness? She further wondered if doing so was, by some errant chance, the point- toward what end she had no clue. Not that life required a point. But she found herself starting to sway toward eventually considering that there might be one. A point. Any point.

  Here is an example of a nice philosophical moment made by a character. But other times the writing just turns pretentious, cliché filled and the imagery forced:

  He shook through the atmospheres of blackness and blank.

  Actually, he would rather turn back and find the lee of a beach plum in the swale, discover some brandy, and sleep abutting some strange dog… From pre-eternity the ocean ahead lashed and threw salts. There far on the right was her light.

  This is where one of the chapters ends. While reading passages as these, I have to question what people are seeing when they read. While ‘lashed and threw salts’ is a nice way to describe the ocean, the rest is too pretentious, precious, or just clichéd.

  Lets just compare this to the end of a passage from one of Loren Eiseley’s essays culled from his book The Unexpected Universe:

  I have listened belatedly to the warning of the great enchantress. I have cast, while there was yet time, my own oracles on the sun-washed deck. My attempt to read the results contains elements of autobiography. I set it down just as the surge begins to lift, towering and relentless, against the reefs of age.

  Both passages involve images of the sea and the continuation of time but Eiseley’s writing is more active and does not dip into cliché the way Dillard’s does. He is then, by this fact, more timeless and alive.

  There are far worse books out there than The Maytrees, and even though this book did not deliver the level I had hoped, at least Dillard tries. Most writers nowadays don’t even do that. I only wish the characters could have been more developed and less pretentious, and the language consistent throughout the work for me to then be able to claim this book a great success because as it stands it is only a marginal one, at best.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]


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