Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Annie Dillard is one of those uncategorisable writers who poke fingers into all sorts of genres. Like Adam Gopnik, Rebecca Solnit, and Geoff Dyer (who provides the foreword to this volume of selected essays), she writes about whatever interests her, often flouting narrative conventions and no doubt complicating her publishers’ marketing strategies. She burst onto the literary scene in 1974, when she published her first book of poetry as well as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a mystical take on the nature/travel memoir that ended up being closest in spirit to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. She won the Pulitzer Prize for it the following year, and over the next four decades produced multiple nonfiction works, another book of poetry, a memoir, and two novels. For 22 years she taught English at Wesleyan College. Her many honours include a 2015 National Medal for the Arts and Humanities.
Dillard was raised a Christian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but her writing expresses an open spirituality rather than any specific faith. There is definitely a sense of some kind of force behind nature, though. Dyer emphasises how unconventional her writing can be in its quest to get at mystical truths: ‘Dillard is content to throw a lot overboard to make room for the metaphysics.’ In these essays, whether witnessing a total eclipse, pitying the fate of a deer trapped for meat, or looking out at Washington’s coastal scenery, she’s always asking what deeper processes are at work behind the scenes. Is there such a thing as fate or Providence that you can rail against when things go wrong? As “Old Stone Presbyterian,” a short excerpt from her memoir An American Childhood, reveals, she left the church as a teenager precisely because she couldn’t square the idea of a loving God with all the suffering in the world.
Some of these pieces are downright strange; I won’t pretend to fully understand what Dillard is doing with them. “Paganism,” an extract from Holy the Firm, starts off by chronicling her daily life on an island off of Washington State – the kind of observations of natural rhythms and human routines that I was used to in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But then it suddenly turns weird: “The cat has dragged in a god, scorched. He is alive. I run outside. Save for his wings, he is a perfect, very small man. … Later I am walking in the day’s last light. The god rides barefoot on my shoulder, astride it, tugging on loops of my hair.” You can certainly see why she was (falsely) accused of being on hallucinogens during the writing of the book.
The final two essays, “For the Time Being” (from the book of the same title) and “An Expedition to the Pole” (from Teaching a Stone to Talk), are particularly odd in the way they switch between seemingly unrelated storylines. In the former, Dillard traces Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s palaeontology work in China in the 1920s and 30s, interspersing passages about his travels with meditations on how sand and dust form. Perhaps Chardin’s search for evidence of prehistoric Peking man is meant to reveal how transient humanity is in contrast with geological time? That’s my best guess, anyway. “An Expedition to the Pole” has a similar pattern: it alternates the history of polar exploration with scenes from an average Catholic Church service. The links here appear to be adventurousness versus absurdity, the sense of a community apart, and the necessity of adapting to changing conditions.
By comparison, the extracts from An American Childhood contain some of Dillard’s most straightforward writing. Even here, though, you’re struck by the precision of what she notices and how she renders the moment of vision. She overlays an adult’s language on a child’s interpretation. For instance, looking closely at her parents’ bodies and her own, she remarks, “Skin was earth; it was soil. I could see, even on my own skin, the joined trapezoids of dust specks God had wetted and stuck with his spit in the morning he made Adam from dirt.” She also remembers pelting a car with snowballs and the young male driver getting out and chasing her and her friends for what felt like miles across suburban Pennsylvania. In those moments of exultant fear, she realised “you have to fling yourself at what you’re doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive.”
The standout piece is “A Writer in the World,” from The Writing Life. These eleven pages do more to capture authorship than any number of full-length books on the subject. Among her classic words of advice are “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon?” Elsewhere her one-liners and metaphors are astonishingly apt, like “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him” and “The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel.”
For readers who are reasonably familiar with Dillard’s work, the selection given here might be a little disappointing. Why reread 60 pages from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I thought, when I have a copy of it up on the shelf? Rather than reading long portions of For the Time Being and Teaching a Stone to Talk, why not go find whole copies to read (which might help with understanding them in context)? None of Dillard’s poetry or fiction has been included, and the most recent piece, “This Is the Life,” from Image magazine, is from 2002. I wish there could have been more fresh material as an enticement for existing fans. However, this will serve as a perfect introduction for readers who are new to Dillard’s work and want a taste of the different nonfiction genres she treats so eloquently and mysteriously.
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the U.S. and U.K., and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Annie Dillard, The Abundance (Canongate, 2016). 978-1782117711, 274 pp., hardback.
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