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The Living by Annie Dillard (audio)

the livingMy difficulty and back-and-forth feelings about Annie Dillard continue with this epic story of pioneer families in my place of residence, Bellingham, Washington.

The Living spans more or less the second half of the 19th century, and it expands to fill all those years and all that space. It is a big story, with lots of characters – several families, over generations – and I’m not sure it ever chooses one or several to center around. This is not a book that benefited from my regrettable new habit of taking months to finish an audiobook: I flailed a little in trying to finish, and I confess a feeling of relief now that it’s over.

There were certainly strengths. Dillard is an inspired writer, some of the time, and there were certainly passages I paused to appreciate, and will share with you here, in a little while. The stories were often moving – individual episodes, that is, within the larger saga – and the characters were often compelling, interesting, diverting people I wanted to get to know better – but again, only for a moment, and then we’d zoom out and on to a different character who was less intriguing. These were all small pieces of a whole that, as a whole, failed to capture my attention. There were moments of glittering, evocative, engaging story or character, but then we returned to a larger, sweeping view that repeatedly challenged me to continue to care. Again, this might work better with a quicker reading. It certainly didn’t work for me in the way I experienced the book.

Witness these shining moments of writing, though…

She lay under mats in the bottom of a canoe once, during the Indian troubles, and Rooney told the Haidas she was clams. Lived in five or six different places, including a stockade. She felt her freedom, reared two boys to manhood, busted open this wilderness by the sea, buried the men on their lands. She saw a white horse roll in wild strawberries and stand up red. She took part in the great drama. It had been her privilege to peer into the deepest well-hole of life’s surprise. She felt the fire of god’s wild breath on her face.

Great imagery there, and a strong retrospective view of the gravity of this woman’s life and what she’s seen.

He had long ago concluded that he possessed only one small and finite brain, and he had fixed a habit of determining most carefully with what he would fill it.

A funny and wise moment.

She read books as one would breathe air, to fill up and live. She read books as one would breathe ether, to sink in and die.

And, who among us doesn’t love such a quotation?

But the whole thing might have worked better if presented as a series of vignettes; the parts of it that I loved were relatively few and brief, with a great deal to be slogged through in between. Dillard created some likeable characters, but it’s almost as if she didn’t like them very much, herself. She asked some interesting questions about humankind and the broader sense of what we’re doing here, but she spent so much time setting them up as sort of clinical questions that she forgot to make me care about them, or about the little creatures involved.

I’m sorry to say this one didn’t work for me, especially (by coincidence) as it came up against Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain, an infinitely better, more compelling story with its own momentum.

This review was short because I’m a little sick of The Living and very glad to be quit of it. I’m sorry. You can find better reviews elsewhere; me, I’m looking forward now, not back.


Rating: 6 deaths.

2 Responses

  1. Reading this review brings sorrow, because I believe you have missed a wonderful book, perhaps due to bad timing & poor media (audio) choice. Rather than try to explicate our many differences, for another view (below) I simply offer my journal response when I finished it in April this year. As my comments suggest, I had savored the reading & lamented its ending.

    Yes, Dillard is often difficult to read. Eudora Welty once famously said “I honestly don’t know what she’s talking about at times.” In the 70s a reviewer speculated that she had written under the influence of drugs (she denied it.) This book was challenging as it is not a conventional epic narrative, but it is accessible; I relished the rewarded effort. That said, I cannot imagine a successful audio experience.

    Further before my comments, a little more background: Dillard wrote this book while living on Lummi Island near Bellingham, my recently adopted home. She moved here in 1975 to escape the east coast at age 30 after her first divorce and to escape the publicity of her newfound success. She taught part time at WWU 4 yrs as writer-in-residence while extensively researching the book, and met her 2nd husband at WWU. For the book she immersed herself in reading material only from the period or earlier, and committed to writing with only anachronistic language. The “period” voice is intentional.

    This is a first novel for her, and is not mentioned among her “major works” – but it is the first of her work I have read aside from individual essays. My interest grew from the book’s deep & positive reputation among long-time & literary Bellingham residents, which aligned perfectly with my conscious & determined interest in absorbing a full sense of my new place. Though unexpected, it also fit well with another of my reading themes: a growing conviction that American history of ~1860-1930 is a pivotal period in understanding much of what went awry with this Republic’s grand experiment.

    So, now my journal comments on the book:

    I place The Living in the running for great American novel (esp. as a first novel!) Dillard’s research appears excellent, imbued in the endearing characters themselves & including the period writing style; her language is luxurious & verdant, especially her 3rd person voice celebrating the natural world (so many words for PNW sky & island prospects!) I enjoyed gorging on period details of our PNW home.

    Her themes are many overlaid skins:
    tough, vulnerable, resilient settlers struggling to survive in a challenging natural world vs their progeny seeking to conquer & profit from same;
    an existential, in-the-moment, prudent “living” ethic vs a cynical American colonizer disregard;
    a detailed glimpse of pivotal history (here, 1855-1897, following on this repeated theme);
    gender divide between male brawn conquering the frontier vs women nurturing children & flora;
    mechanics of industrial capitalism blooming (banks, labor, debt, capital, gold currency, steam engines, coal, booms, railroads, greed);
    the Tribes’ tragic decline, and their humility, culture, generosity, naïveté & resilience;
    cultural contrasts between East, West & Tribes (“arrows of pity” flying between them all!)

    Like all history, like war, it is those surviving, The Living, who write the history & create the narrative that informs a culture.

    • I am glad that you had such a positive experience with this book, and appreciate your outline and reaction, since I wasn’t much up to the task. I think it’s true that audio is not a good way to go for this one (or at least, listen to it in a shorter time!). All of that said, I just want to reiterate that it is *valid* for us all to have different reactions: we can’t all like the same things, and it’s okay that this book was not the one for me.

      I did enjoy learning about this place and its history, both in fact and in atmosphere. I enjoyed many moments in the book, in fact, just didn’t find it a strong cohesive larger piece.

      Thanks for your comments.

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