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EVERY so often, a novel comes along that describes a relationship with such thoroughness that you almost feel better about love. Maybe, just maybe, it's a worthy use of our time alive. Annie Dillard's "The Maytrees" is such a novel. It is also a reservoir of oceanic language, thrilling and sophisticated assumptions of reader intelligence and elegantly lean descriptive detail.
Best known as a nature writer and essayist, Dillard has published a dozen books in her 33-year career, but "The Maytrees" is only her second novel. Her first, "The Living" (1992), followed the Fishburn family, pioneer settlers on the coast of Washington, through three generations and across the country. Although "The Living" is a historical novel, Dillard never bowed to the god of plot or the patron saint of chronology -- whole lives passed parenthetically and vistas opened up without warning, as if fate existed and the Fishburns were following its trail.
Dillard is unconventional, despite having won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1974 book "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." In "The Writing Life" (1989), she worried that she was too philosophical, that her work was not immediate enough. "I was too far removed from the world," she wrote. "My work was too obscure, too symbolic, too intellectual. It was not available to people. Recently I had published a complex narrative essay about a moth's flying into a candle, which no one had understood but a Yale critic, and he had understood it exactly."
It's true that "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" is a thicket of brilliance; there's only so much a person can digest in a single burst. It hurts to have your consciousness stretched, and Dillard is a relentless advocate of seeing. But she did a funny thing in that book. She discovered a way to meld the personal with the universal in one dispassionate voice. Small human drama does not interest her; even in her 1987 memoir, "An American Childhood," she kept one eye on the human horizon. But let an insect shed its wings on a fall day and you'd think the cosmos had shattered for the second Big Bang.
This same dispassion is all over "The Maytrees." Here, the story is about the love between two people, Toby and Lou Maytree, and it is fraught with desire, cultural norms, children, possessions, affairs and old age. Damned if it couldn't be anyone facing the same challenges, the same questions: What are we supposed to do with this short time on Earth? Does it matter if we're all going to die anyway? Is one kind of love better, purer than another? What good is art?
After all those years writing about nature, Dillard knows how to create Eden on the page: life in Provincetown, a shack on the dunes, a group of friends bohemian enough to prioritize friendship and, heaven help us, love at first sight. Toby courts Lou; she's 23, looks like Ingrid Bergman; he's a 30-year-old poet in love with the sea. "They held themselves alert only in those few million cells where they touched," Dillard writes. Between them, they read around 300 books a year. "He read for facts, she for transport." What else do you need to know?
You need to know what happens to them. And you fear the worst. Why? Because nothing that good ever lasts. This is why so many cleave to art over faith. And yet, in "The Maytrees," Dillard tries to write herself into believing that literature is less important than living. Lou "once hoped to acquire what Pico della Mirandola had: Keats called it 'knowledge enormous.' [He] had settled for knowledge slim.... Whether his work lasted was less crucial now than whether [his grandson] Manny would straddle his shins a little while longer."
This is a novel about finding new levels of love. Absence does, it turns out, make the heart grow fonder. Dillard, as she did in "The Living," plays time like a slightly drunken harmonica player. "Twice a day behind their house," she writes, "the tide boarded the sand. Four times a year the seasons flopped over. Clams live like this, but without so much reading." Nothing linear about it.
You have to be wise to write in this kind of shorthand. You have to know something about what words can and cannot do. "Love so sprang at her," she writes of Lou, "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." It takes depth and width of experience to write lean and still drag your readers under the surface of their own awareness to that place where it's all vaguely familiar and, yes, universal.
"The interior life is often stupid. Its egoism blinds it and deafens it," Dillard wrote in "An American Childhood." "The trick of reason is to get the imagination to seize the actual world -- if only from time to time." By this emphatic standard, "The Maytrees" is an exquisite book. As in "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," Dillard has shown us something of the exterior life, of the world around us and, in the process, convinced us that it is indeed beautiful to be alive -- even, it turns out, in love.