structure echoes content

Fisherman’s Wharf in Provincetown Harbor

Annie Dillard’s novel The Maytrees [spoiler alert], begins with a short prologue from a storyteller narrator who is hereafter rarely noticed. Its first sentence interestingly begins with the couple not the individuals: “The Maytrees were young long ago.” Although it’s difficult to grasp on the first read, these four and a half pages tell, in a fairytale way, the story of the novel.

After the prologue is a preface, written in the point of view of Toby Maytree, that begins with this sentence that divides the Maytrees into two individuals: “It began when Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree first met.” This sentence in this point of view foreshadows the later division of the Maytrees by Toby.

notice board by Angel Foods

After the preface, there’s a page break and the apparent first sentence of the novel, in which the narrative distance has shrunk yet again:

“Of course she glared at Maytree that fall when he came by barefoot at daybreak and asked if she would like to see his dune shack.”

Or is it the first sentence? What follows those words are what appear to be eight unmarked, short chapters—some told by Lou, some by Maytree, and some by the narrator—in which Maytree courts Lou, they marry, and have a child. Then, the reader turns the page to find on page 61 the heading, “Part One.” This innovative structure is a way of saying you thought that was the story but now we’re getting to the real story. Apparently the preface consisted of nine unmarked, short chapters.

a P-town taxi

Here’s the first sentence of Part One: “That winter the crowd on the frozen corner parted for Lou, saying, He’s okay, it’s all right.” Later that day in real time (five pages later) the reader learns Maytree is leaving Lou to go to Maine with their friend Deary. Part One consists of six unmarked chapters and covers the time period it take Lou to become “happier and wiser,” to discover “that steady ground”—six months: from “that winter” to “one cold June morning.”

The novel continues with an Interlude of eight short unmarked chapters, the first of which is narrated by the Maytrees’ son Pete, that covers the twenty years—the interlude—Lou and Maytree spend apart.


Part Two is divided into five unmarked sections. In the first one, again narrated by Pete, Pete reconciles with his father. Then Deary becomes bedridden and Maytree slips on ice, becoming incapable of caring for them. He travels from Maine back to Provincetown to ask for Lou’s help.

Part Three begins with Pete carrying Deary into his mother’s house. It’s four short, unmarked sections that cover six months and Deary’s death.

The Maytrees concludes with an Epilogue in two short sections. In the first one, Lou and Maytree live together “many new years.” The second one begins “Tomorrow is another day only up to a point. One summer five years later Maytree began to die all over the place.”

P-town lobster traps

Dillard uses structure to clue the reader as to the real story, which in this case is not the courtship or the marriage of the Maytrees, but the much more interesting story of what happens after that: their breakup, how Lou got over Maytree…

She was ready to want to stop this. Thereby she admitted—barely—that she could choose to stop…She could climb the monument every day and work on herself as a task…Their years together were good. He was already gone. All she had to do for peace was let him go.

…and discovered her own life, as well as the story of two individuals who were, through whatever happened, the Maytrees…

Now in compassion they bore, between them, their solitudes each the size of the raveled globe.

on Rt 6 coming into P-town

Finally, if you’re not convinced, take a look at these words from page 22 about Maytree’s third book:

(After the book appeared, a poem in three parts, no one noticed its crucial—to him—structure. At thirty he feared being obvious….

Some of this post–what I understood about the structure from my 1st read–also appeared in my 1st post on The Maytrees.

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6 things I learned from annie dillard

On my second read of The Maytrees in four weeks, I’m slowly ingesting the writing. Here are six things I learned, or was reminded of, by reading Annie Dillard [spoiler alert]:

1) To add telling to showing with an unexpected sentence:

“Their intimacy’s height so far was drinking from the same canteen.”

2) To use images:

“Affixed to Deary was six-year-old Marie Koday, fist like a clothespin on Deary’s skirts.”

“In her company he wrapped himself in misery like a robe.”

“She found herself holding one end of a love.”

3) To choose actions that add tension and say more than words:

“Brandy he drinks? The tenth-anniversary-present brandy from four years ago we’ve sipped on Christmas mornings only?”

4) To use humor to deflect melodrama:

“Never her Maytree, who loved her, as he just unsaid.”

“If this was not shaping up to be Maytree’s finest hour, it might as well be hers.”

5) To think associatively and let what the character sees reflect her state of mind:

“Do not drive in breakdown lane, said the Route six signs. Do not break down in driving lane. The sea poured over the stone lip at Gibraltar and emptied.”

6) To use echos:

Petie: “Did his brain contain a pack of selves like Musketeers, each smaller and farther back and waving a sword?”

Lou (11 pages later): “How she wished she could see all those displaced Petes and Peties once more!

Final post on The Maytrees (for the foreseeable future anyway) coming up: the relationship of structure to content

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so this morning

So this morning, at the suggestion of a reader, I took myself outside before I did anything else. Up and out my driveway for a walk–to wake the mind and the body at the same time.

Seventy-four degrees in Columbus, Georgia, with a light breeze. Wonderful in the shade.

And on my walk it came to me that I hadn’t taken an essay I wrote for my last packet of the semester (dropped in the FedEx box last night around six) far enough. This is the kind of thought that’s most likely to occur when my mind is free to roam. Which underscores the importance to writing of time away from desk or computer.

From The Maytrees:

Every book he read was a turn he took…He started new notebooks without having made the least sense of any old notebook.

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the person underneath

Well I’m going to momentarily halt my attempt to reduce the number of books in my to-be-read piles and reread The Maytrees.

Because I want to, she sings from the rooftops.

In the comments to my first post on the novel, I admitted that when I began reading it, I wasn’t sure I liked it, that the tone seemed brusque and clipped, almost as if the book were a person who wanted to keep to herself.

The more I read, though, the more the tone seemed to soften, and I discovered I liked the person underneath.

Often when I suspect I don’t like a book, I read quickly–to get it over with. Now I’m going to reread The Maytrees so I can enjoy each word.

At the very end of my edition of Annie Dillard’s The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a nonfiction narrative published in 1974, she writes an Afterward, written in 1999, and then a More Years Afterward, written in 2007. In the latter, she describes the style of The Maytrees as one of spareness–“short sentences, few modifiers.” She also writes:

“The Maytrees are a woman and a man both simplified and enlarged…The Maytrees’ human tale needs only the telling. Writers’ styles often end pruned down. (I knew this happened; I did not know I was already that old.)”

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time to adapt again

I was going to write a bit more about The Maytrees, but yesterday I read a post by Alexander Chee in which he wrote about, in addition to many other wonderful things including the connection between novels and the news, his pre-writing rituals and the need to adapt. This post was timely. For the last few days I’ve been thinking about changing how I begin my day.

Let me interrupt this logical sequence to say I just now realized yet another possible reason why this post came back to me this morning as I was crossing the border between asleep and awake (as I was leaving my sleep–still playing these CDs constantly). One of the things the novel I finished a year ago (and that I have not sent to very many agents yet and that I keep telling myself I need to make time to do so) is about is the impact the news has on one woman.

Nabokov, in an interview for Playboy in 1964, wrote that in the winter, he would wake up to an Alpine chough (which I thought was a typo for church until I just googled it) alarm clock around seven and then that he would lie “in bed mentally revising and planning things.”

Dani Shapiro wrote, in one of the How We Spend Our Days posts, that as she gets her son off on his morning, she tries to “reserve just a bit of myself in that quiet, dreamy state of just-waking, so that once my family is out the door, I can turn to my work.”

For a little more than a year, my black, rectangular alarm clock has been waking me up at 6:30. I get right on the treadmill and watch Morning Joe for thirty minutes before getting my son off to school. This morning, I lay in bed for that thirty minutes and a thousand things entered my mind and they’re still coming. Maybe, as Chee wrote, “It is time for me to adapt again.”

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the maytrees

Annie Dillard published her most recent book, The Maytrees, a novel, in 2007. The cover of the paperback has recessed letters that I can feel with my eyes closed and uneven pages that make me think the book was created by a real person. It’s interesting, I think, coming from me that the unevenness makes me think of a real person.

On the inside are characters I can see with my eyes closed and imperfect lives that echo our own. The Maytrees is the story of two individuals who came together once upon a time in a place I love–Provincetown.

The following sentence from a storyteller narrator who is hereafter rarely seen begins the four-and-a-half-page prologue:

“The Maytrees were young long ago.”

There’s also a preface, which starts out with this sentence that divides the Maytrees into two individuals:

“It began when Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree first met.”

After the preface, there’s a page break and the apparent first sentence of the novel in which the narrative distance has shrunk yet again:

“Of course she glared at Maytree that fall when he came by barefoot at daybreak and asked if she would like to see his dune shack.”

Or is it the first sentence? What follows those words are what appear to be eight unmarked, short chapters. Then, you turn the page to find on page 61 the heading, “Part One,” and this first sentence:

“That winter the crowd on the frozen corner parted for Lou, saying, He’s okay, it’s all right.”

I wonder if this is a way of saying you needed to know all that came before but now we’re getting to the real story. The novel continues with an Interlude, Part Two, Part Three, and finally an Epilogue, which includes a space break and another short section.

My favorite passage comes right before Part Two and shows Lou discovering who she is:

“The one-room ever-sparer dune shack was her chief dwelling…Lou had long since cut out fashion and all radio but the Red Sox. In the past few years she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care. She ignored whatever did not interest her. With those blows she opened her days like a pinata. A hundred freedoms fell on her. She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.

And then toward the end of the book, after a certain event, she discovers something else about herself:

“She bade her solitude good-bye. Good-bye no schedule but whim; good-bye her life among no things but her own and each always in place; good-bye no real meals, good-bye free thought. The whole flat flock of them flapped away. But what was solitude for if not to foster decency?

So much to say about this one, but for now I’ll leave you here.