There is something enchanting about a book entitled For the Time Being. Such a cliché for a title suggests a novel for summer reading, or, given the photograph of the Mongolian desert that graces the book’s cover, one might even expect an old-fashioned travelogue—perhaps something for the wayward tourist to flip through during a tedious layover. However, that which looks to be simple on the surface—indeed, what appears at first to be little more than surface—often reveals considerable depth upon closer inspection. Such is the case with Annie Dillard’s book. Both the title and the brevity of this work might very well deceive those who are unfamiliar with the author. Longtime fans will recall that Dillard dazzled the literary world with her second and most popular book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a work that won her the Pulitzer Prize and secured her place in the literary canon. Any proper discussion of this latest work must begin with the former, where both the similarities and the differences demonstrate her growth as an artist.
In the useful “Author’s Note,” Dillard describes the very specialized literary niche she has carved for herself in the “nonfiction first-person narrative.” It is a description that could easily be applied to both books. In the earlier work, Dillard ponders such matters as salvation and evil as they appear, respectively, in the images of the cedar ablaze with light and the dying frog. In the ensuing pages, Dillard bombards the reader with facts from science on the lives of insects, her observations of the natural world, and her very personal need to regain that initial vision of light despite her realization of her own mortality. What makes that early work so much fun for the reader, of course, is the obvious joy that Dillard takes in the play of language. Considering how the book bursts with statistics about the natural world, it is surprising to discover countless similes, metaphors, and puns. They reflect Dillard’s experience as a poet and help to unify the book’s peculiar mixture of science and her eclectic take on religion. The intervening decades since the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek have produced a writer who relies far more on intellect than on poetic devices to illustrate her ideas. Indeed, Dillard takes pains to emphasize this point in the “Author’s Note” of For the Time Being, where she states that the narrative “form is unusual, its scenes are remote, its focus wide, and its tone austere. Its pleasures are almost purely mental.” Clearly, Dillard is not writing for the masses.
One major drawback to the book from the reader’s perspective is the fact that, as Dillard herself admits, “its narratives keep breaking.” This is reflected in the structure of the book’s seven chapters, and while the chapters themselves lack titles, each is divided into ten sections: “Birth,” “Sand,” “China,” “Clouds,” “Numbers,” “Israel,” “Encounters,” “Thinker,” “Evil,” and “Now.” What is interesting about this approach is the tension it produces between the choppy narrative that results from the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated subjects and the cohesion created by the repetition of this pattern in every chapter. Given Dillard’s considerable skills as writer, one cannot simply dismiss this narrative structure as sloppy or inept. Again, there is the considerable evidence offered by Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where each chapter is devoted to a specific topic. Still, why resort to this fragmentation, where portions of a topic—such as “Evil”—are divvied up among seven chapters instead of being contained in one? There is no simple answer here, but it is clear that Dillard needed a new means of structuring her material, one whereby the medium—in this case, the fragmented narrative—becomes part of the message. Like it or not, these brief flashes of insight into apparently disparate subjects provide an accurate reflection of the fragmented reality confronted by the reader: Multiple sources of information—television, radio, Internet, cell phone—bombard the recipient with fragments of the past and present on a continuous basis. Indeed, the chapter subsections have something of the air of sound bites, but sound bites that become the stuff of art.
What makes this fragmentation acceptable is the fact that Dillard’s text interweaves these narrative threads into a convincing whole, something that is evident even in the first chapter. It begins, as already stated, with “Birth”—a clever play on words that alludes not only to the subject at hand and the beginning of her own text but also to the biblical Genesis, which also means birth. It is a disarming approach, one that is designed both to kindle the reader’s interest and to play upon the usual associations with birth: joy, hope, and renewal. However, Dillard thwarts these expectations by meditating upon the horrors of birth defects, elaborating on the many ways in which nature leads the...
(The entire section is 2053 words.)