Annie Dillard seeks to build a bridge between the two.

Annie Dillard is one contemporary author evangelicals should get to know. She is one of the few among the cultural intelligentsia who has a reasonably accurate concept of what an evangelical is. Fundamentalists that appear in her narratives are usually treated with understanding, sympathy, and warmth. Although she writes mainly for the non-Christian, the skeptic, the agnostic, she admits to seeing one of her tasks as “trying to mediate a bit between Christians and humanists—especially between evangelical Christians and my colleagues in academia and the arts who think a Christian is a madman with a white sheet and a gun.”

After a five-year hiatus in publishing Annie’s work, Harper & Row last year brought out not one but two fresh books. Teaching a Stone to Talk is a collection of writings; Living by Fiction is a highly original discussion of modern fiction. The two have virtually no overlap, and with them Dillard reaffirms her place in the first rank of living American writers. In 1974 she won the Pulitzer Prize for the best seller Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Selections from Teaching a Stone to Talk have appeared in magazines as disparate as Yale Literary Magazine and Self. Advanced college writing classes are already photocopying chapters, analyzing their constituent parts, and applying to Dillard’s prose the same rigorous criteria she applies to other authors in Living by Fiction. Those students will discover a masterful use of words, an uncanny sense of pacing, with witticisms and mordant apothegms tossed in for mental relief.

Teaching a Stone to Talk draws together 14 pieces of varying length, which the book-jacket copy calls “personal narratives.” Many of them, notably “An Expedition to the Pole,” “On a Hill Far Away,” “A Field of Silence,” and “God in the Door,” center in Christian themes. The longest chapter, “An Expedition to the Pole,” is perhaps the most direct in expressing Dillard’s thought and opinions, but simultaneously it is the most indirect in the style she chooses for that expression. It splices together descriptions of expeditions to the North and South poles with her comments on the church. Dillard approaches God and the Absolute with the same mixture of fear, fascination, and confusion that a coterie of Arctic explorers demonstrates in its quest for an earthly pole.

“I have been attending Catholic Mass for only a year,” she writes. “Before that, the handiest church was Congregational.… Week after week I was moved by the pitiableness of the bare linoleum-floored sacristy which no flowers could cheer or soften, by the terrible singing I so loved, by the fatigued Bible readings, the lagging emptiness and dilution of the liturgy, the horrifying vacuity of the sermon, and by the fog of dreary senselessness pervading the whole, which existed alongside, and probably caused, the wonder of the fact that we came; we returned; we showed up; week after week, we went through with it.”

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But Dillard is on no soapbox. She writes with humor and affection as a participant, not a critic outside the church. “How often, how shockingly often, have I exhausted myself in church from the effort to keep from laughing out loud?” she reflects. “I often laugh all the way home.… In two thousand years, we have not worked out the kinks. We positively glorify them. Week after week we witness the same miracle: that God is so mighty he can stifle his own laughter.”

She lodges against the church not the dreary complaint of so many modern writers—its irrelevance to our modern age—but rather the opposite: If Christianity is true, then why on earth do Christians seem so insensible of conditions? “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?”

The chapter builds to a pyrotechnic climax that can only be experienced, not analyzed. It includes dancing bears, a guitar mass, a troupe of circus clowns passing out Girl Scout cookies, the Catholic ritual of passing the peace, a Frisbee game, a description of severe frostbite, and a barefoot pianist banging out “On Top of Old Smoky” while riding an iceberg. Her last line: “But how can any of us tone it down? For we are nearing the Pole.” Indeed.

Other backdrops in Teaching a Stone to Talk offer more substance for her gimlet gaze. The book flashes through scene changes ranging from the Ecuadorian jungle to a farm in the state of Washington; only a fine writer can make a rooster or a Labrador retriever as interesting as a sea lion or marine iguana. A sense of enigma always lurks in the shadows: “I alternate between thinking of the planet as home—dear and familiar stone hearth and garden—and as a hard land of exile in which we are all sojourners.”

Dillard tries to wring meaning from whatever she touches, be it Darwin’s finches or a fey neighbor with a pet rock. And therein lies the reason for this collection’s title: Annie Dillard is trying to coax speech from a stone. She succeeds, if only by reminding us that nature’s silence is its one remark.

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Living by fiction takes a different approach altogether. It surveys modern fiction, voicing openly the questions all of us wonder about but are afraid to ask: Why is modern fiction so weird? Why doesn’t anyone write like Tolstoy anymore?

Dillard has never before attempted such a brazenly didactic approach. Here is Annie the college professor pulling every trick out of the hat to keep her class inflamed with passion for literature. If all literary critics—better, all textbook writers—wrote about literature with such personality, perhaps people would read books, not just the reviews about them. Dillard achieves the remarkable feat of making her survey understandable and enjoyable to readers who have read little contemporary fiction.

Why does modern fiction shatter the narrative line and read more like a collage than a linear sequence of action? When is a work about meaninglessness and when does it simply become meaningless? (Or, how can you report accurately a boring conversation without boring the reader?) What happened to in-depth analysis? Dillard attempts answers to these and other questions, giving the most attention to the important, but ofter overlooked, issues relating to meaninglessness.

Applying objective criteria to works of art is always a tricky business, and Dillard waltzes around some of the slipperier questions; but she does, at least, make a distinction between honest and dishonest work. The key, to her, is a self-coherent structural unity. She concludes that fiction has moved “from depth to surface, from rondure to planes, from world to scheme, from observation to imagination, from story to theory, from society to individual, from emotion to mind.… It prizes subtlety more than drama, concision more than expansion, parody more than earnestness, artfulness more than verisimilitude, intellection more than entertainment. It concerns itself less with social classes than with individuals, and, structurally, less with individual growth than with pattern of idea. It is not a statement but an artifact. Instead of social, moral, or religious piety or certainty, and emotional depth, it offers humor, irony, intellectual complexity, technical beauty, and a catalogue of the forms of unknowing.” If you can follow all that, you are well on your way to appreciating contemporary modernist fiction.

In Part Two, she turns her attention to more pragmatic questions. For instance, why does not this brand of fiction wholly dominate—why do some, like Saul Bellow, still write traditional fiction? And, most befuddling, why do millions of readers cling to the old forms? Dillard launches into a review of the influence of college literature courses and the prejudices of critics and book industry executives, considerations so often absent from academic discussions about art.

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Part Three moves away from strictly literary themes into a grandiose epistemological question Dillard entitles, “Does the World Have Meaning?” The issues considered here have crept in surreptitiously throughout the entire book: Now that we live in a post-Einstein, post-Heisenberg age of relativity and subjectivity, is knowledge of any kind certain? Crudely put, can anything be known truly? And is beauty only in the eye of the beholder?

Evangelicals tend to get touchy on these questions. Dillard does not really take an advocacy position, but rather walks a tightrope between an appreciation for the new techniques of fiction and a desire to retain some absolute standards of judgment.

In a few places, Dillard hits at the impetus for her own writing. “Can we not loose the methods of literary criticism upon the raw world?” she asks. “May we not analyze the breadth of our experience? We can and may—but only if we first consider the raw world as a text, as a meaningful, purposefully fashioned creation, as a work of art.”

In the last chapter Dillard confronts the thorniest issue of all, trying to define art. Does the human capacity for creating art suggest a basis for order in the universe? Or, a more appalling possibility, is “the natural world which churned out the mind a wreck and a chaos, like a rock slide”? If so, the brain itself seems unsuited to its task by allowing abilities far in excess of those needed for survival.

Dillard admits that an interpretation based on utter randomness is the most dismal view of all. But she stops short of forming a clear alternative. If Living by Fiction does not entice you to experience the fiction for yourself, it will assuredly excite you about the potential of very fine nonfiction, as crafted by the guide herself.


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