BOOKS OCTOBER 8, 2008
By Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 336 pp., $25)
With the decorous taboos that once governed literary life bursting like soap bubbles, contemporary American fiction has become a groaning board on which characters and plots often seem chosen less for their inherent interest than for their ability to shock. Terrorism, the Holocaust, the full spectrum of sexual practice conventional and unconventional--things that were once off-limits, suggested indirectly or through omission or addressed not at all, are now part of the literary free-for-all. There is only one character who is missing among the parade of pornographers, suicide bombers, child molesters, hermaphrodites, and other erstwhile outsiders who populate our novels. That character is God.
It was not always so, from Hawthorne to Sinclair Lewis; but by now the absence of God from our literature feels so normal, so self-evident, that one realizes with a shock how complete it is. It is hard to think of a recent American novel that treats religious experience seriously, unironically. Religious characters, when they exist at all, are repugnant fanatics--born-again Christians or West Bank settlers or Islamic terrorists. Think over the work of David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Jeffrey Eugenides--does anyone ever go to church? (John Updike is an exception, but one would be hard put to call his vision of Protestant America an essentially spiritual one.) The primary function of Christmas, as in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, is to provide an excuse for a family gathering. Even Philip Roth, who has done more than any other writer to characterize the state of Jewish America in the postwar era, has always understood religion secularly, as a set of psychological tics or cultural trappings to be shed like a dead skin. Is the apocalyptic trash of Tim LaHaye really what now suffices for religious fiction in America?
All this is to say that Marilynne Robinson stands virtually alone. Starting with Housekeeping--an uncanny little novel, published in 1981, that quietly established itself as a cult classic--Robinson has devoted her entire career to the investigation of spiritual life. Or I should say "spiritual living," because her books wrestle with the question of what it means to confront the world as a religious person, a person who is committed to the tenets of Christianity--which Robinson summed up, in an essay published a few years ago in The American Scholar, as "grace, generosity, and liberality"--while at the same time participating as fully as possible in daily human existence. "What I might call personal holiness," she remarks, "is in fact openness to the perception of the holy, in existence itself and above all in one another."
In Housekeeping, perhaps because Robinson did not dare directly to broach such an unfashionable subject in her first novel, such perceptions are largely kept beneath the surface, emerging in the symbols and the subtexts of this extraordinarily rich work about two abandoned children under the care of a loving but deeply unconventional aunt. Twenty-three years went by before her second novel appeared. Then came Gilead, the life story of a Congregationalist preacher named John Ames, told in a diary-style letter composed over a period of weeks and intended for his young son to read as an adult. At the start of the book, Ames, who became a father late in life--he is seventy-six years old--has been recently diagnosed with angina pectoris, and reports that "a flutter of my pulse makes me think of final things." As Ames reminisces about his father and grandfather and contemplates the path his life took, the novel's true story gradually emerges from his meandering thoughts: the transgressions of Jack Boughton, the son of his closest friend, and Ames's inability to forgive them.
In a profile in The New York Times Magazine, Robinson remarked that she had been trying to write a different novel, "a darkly comedic story of a woman 'abraded' by her experience of the world." One day she tried writing a poem in the voice of the elderly preacher who was a minor character in the book, and out of this Gilead rapidly emerged. Now, four years later--the blink of an eye, in Robinsonian time--we have Home, which must be some form of that previous novel. We are still in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, but the story's center of gravity has shifted from Ames's house to the Boughton homestead, to which Glory, the youngest daughter, has returned to care for her dying father. But the Jack Boughton whom we see here--mostly through Glory's eyes, since the novel is told almost entirely from her perspective--bears little resemblance to the shiftless, unsavory delinquent of Ames's narration. Instead we come to understand him as his sister does: as a physically and emotionally wrecked man who is trying desperately to remain sober as he copes with a devastating loss.
The specifics of that loss will be familiar to readers of Gilead, since Jack's confession of his deeds to Ames, and the preacher's forgiveness and blessing of him, form that novel's conclusion. It is natural, and in some ways even essential, to treat these two novels as a pair, since they revolve around the same family story and even include some of the same scenes. But they are not exactly mirror images. Episodes are repeated, but with details or dialogue subtly altered, as if to emphasize that though the books may complement each other, each is its own distinct fictional universe.
Glory will not learn Jack's full story until the novel's emotional last pages. Such withholding may at first seem coy, but it is intrinsic to the workings of Robinson's fiction, in which restraint, both literary and psychological, seems to be a virtue equal to faith, hope, and charity. ("Her family was slower to forgive a failure of discretion than they were to forgive most things actually prohibited in Scripture," Glory muses at one point.) Though Jack and Glory yearn for intimacy, neither is ever able fully to unburden themselves to the other. The catharsis, when it arrives, must come from outside. The novel's main drama consists in waiting: for the mail to come, for their father to die, for something finally to be revealed. Though there is a certain tedium in all this waiting, it is a sign of the novel's quiet power--yet also of the novel's quiet failure--that it can also feel sometimes like an experience, in Robinson's phrase, of personal holiness.
The first time we hear Glory's voice, she is praying. She is thirty-seven years old, she has suffered through a long engagement with a man who turned out to be a fraud (in the process losing her job as a schoolteacher), and now she is back home. "Dear God, she thought, dear God in heaven. So began and ended all her prayers these days, which were really cries of amazement. How could her father be so frail? And how could he be so recklessly intent on satisfying his notions of gentlemanliness, hanging his cane on the railing of the stairs so he could, dear God, carry her bag up to her room?" Three "dear Gods" in nearly as many sentences, each of them heartfelt. As we become further immersed in the workings of the Boughton household, there can be no doubt that we are in a world where religion is brought to bear on every aspect of life. The girls of the family are named Grace, Hope, and Glory. Of the oak tree in the garden, Glory reports: "Their father said if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa."
Yet how little comfort their religion offers them! In Housekeeping, Robinson offered a vision of spiritual life on behalf of the girls' grandmother, who, "though she never spoke of it, and no doubt seldom thought of it ... was a religious woman": "She conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and ... one's destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting." If only it were so easy. Glory and her father trust in their God, but their paths have not been straight or self-evident. Both are still suffering over the episode from Jack's young adulthood that led to his desertion of the family. At the age of twenty-one, he fathered a child with a girl from a poverty-stricken household on the wrong side of town; her age is never given, but she seems to have been barely a teenager. Jack would have nothing to do with the girl or their child. His family visited often and offered money for the baby's care, but their efforts were rudely rebuffed. At age three, the child died of an infection, and Glory has not entirely gotten over her loss: "It embarrassed her to remember how happy she had been, those three bitter, urgent years until it all ended."
Jack's sin, and the question of whether a person can ever repent fully, is the focus of Gilead. (Ames's very personal and initially very stern judgment of him is never entirely explained, except by the fact that the preacher lost his own first wife and child at an early age, which does not quite feel sufficient. ) But in Home the question becomes how a person can live in the present knowing that past sins are irrevocable. And there are no simple answers in what the novel at one point calls "difficult, ordinary life." Intimacy, even between a brother and a sister, is not automatic; it must be earned through daily activities such as brewing a pot of coffee in the preferred way, or sitting up at night talking until the bars close and temptation is removed, or cooking a meal of chicken and dumplings after the darkest night of the soul. In Housekeeping, everyday chores such as hanging sheets to dry amount to "performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith." In these novels, human relationships are by definition impermanent: marriages end or never happen in the first place, people die unexpectedly or commit suicide. The "intimacy of the ordinary," as Glory thinks of it at one point, achieved through perseverance and repetition, is all that can hold them together.
These intimacies, of course, all center around the home. If the novel's bland title never feels as perfectly suited to it as the brilliant choice of Housekeeping, the idea of coming home is nonetheless the current that drives its steady flow. One need not be a biblical scholar to notice the similarity of Jack Boughton's story to the parable of the prodigal son, that great tale of homecoming from the New Testament, in which a young man squanders his fortune on "riotous living" and returns to his father to repent, and his father receives him warmly, saying, "This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." (Like the elder son in the parable, Glory is jealous of the childlike eagerness with which her father welcomes Jack, and his fawning attention to his son's needs.)
The ideal of the perfect homecoming finds something of a realization in one particularly lovely scene:
"[Jack] came into the kitchen with cucumbers from the garden. His shirt bloused and his pants gathered a little under his belt, but [Glory] was pleased all in all with the way he looked and she could tell he was, too. He managed to seem a little dapper, somehow, a thing his pride required. She knew this was a relief to him. He washed the cucumbers. 'Cucumbers smell like evening,' he said. 'Like chill. Need any help?' When she said no he went to the piano and sat down and began to play 'Softly and Tenderly,' a favorite hymn of his father's. He played it softly, and, she thought, very tenderly. She went into the hallway to listen, and he glanced up at her sidelong, as if there were an understanding between them, but he played on pensively, without a hint of detachment or calculation. 'Come home, come home, ye who are weary, come home.'"
But the words of the hymn are not exactly transferable to real life. The weary can find some respite at home, but their troubles will follow them there. And if home, as the old quip goes, is the place where they have to let you in, a real homecoming is simultaneously necessary and impossible. "What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?" Glory wonders. In a treacly yet beautifully expressed epiphany, she realizes that "the soul finds its own home if it ever has a home at all." But it is a fundamental human drive to anchor a spiritual home with a home on earth, be it as permanent as a hundred-year-old house or as makeshift as the tent that Jack constructs out of a tarp and a clothesline in the attic, creating a facsimile of shelter that brings tears to Glory's eyes when she discovers it, so plain is its longing: "There was a floor of newspapers, a rumpled blanket and a pillow. He had set a wooden box on its side as a table and shelf. A flashlight, a few books, a mayonnaise jar with a handful of her oatmeal cookies in it. ... It seemed almost domestic, and yet there was a potency of loneliness about it like a dark spirit lurking in it, a soul that had improvised this crude tabernacle to stand in the place of other shelter, flesh."
Robinson's reverence for the ordinary--and what can be more ordinary, by definition, than the place one comes home to?--finds its deepest embodiment in the language of her novels. Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home are all written in a plainspoken style that can veer from unbearably stiff to unexpectedly sublime. When Robinson is at her best, no contemporary writer equals her in the perfection and the economy of her style. Her language is often elegant, but never elevated; its slightly old-fashioned quality--each of these novels takes place during the 1950s--is exactly calibrated. She has a gift for plucking a forgotten word out of the depths of linguistic memory, as when, in Home, a character talks "with the intermitted constancy of a pot simmering"--and "intermitted," though it gives a moment's pause, really is the right word, rather than the more common "intermittent." In Housekeeping, the narrator's grandfather has done a nature painting in which trees on a mountain are painted at right angles: "Every tree bore bright fruit, and showy birds nested in the boughs, and every fruit and bird was plumb with the warp in the earth." Listen to the rhythm of that last line with its string of one-syllable words, eleven of them, at once simple and strange. In Gilead, by far the plainest of the three novels, men standing outside a garage are "strong with gasoline"--it could not be said more briefly.
Housekeeping and Gilead, each less than 250 pages long and with a very limited cast of characters, showcased this style in its best light without overwhelming it with too many demands (although the plainness of Gilead at times becomes pious and overbearing). But in Home, nearly one hundred pages longer than its predecessor and more ambitious in scope, there is a surprising slackness. The novel, though written in the third person, is told almost entirely from Glory's point of view, and she tends to punctuate her thoughts with frequent "Dear God"s or "Ah well"s, which do a certain amount to establish her character but can also feel insipid. At one point she goes up to the attic to seek out some of her father's old clothing for Jack to wear, and finds some shirts "in a cedar chest, laundered and ironed as if for some formal event, perhaps their interment. They had changed to a color milder than white, and there was about them, besides the smell of time and disuse, of starch and lavender and cedar, a hint of Old Spice that brought tears to her eyes." The first image, of the shirts prepared for burial, introduces a note of dry humor that is all too rare in Robinson's work, and "a color milder than white" is just as good; but the sentence then starts to unravel into cliche and finally sentimentality. Glory is herself a somewhat sentimental character, but her creator should not have indulged her so much.
Yet the greater problem afflicting both Gilead and Home--a direct result of Robinson's choice to tell the novels from such a stringent perspective--is that the failings of the narrators translate into failings of the narratives. Glory is limited, as a character and thus as a narrator, by her own reticence and fear and propriety. There is a point beyond which she simply will not go--not when questioning Jack about his past, which she could be no more reluctant to touch if it were an actual gaping wound (and indeed Jack is once referred to as "a wound in his father's heart, a terrible tenderness"); and not even when thinking privately about her own history, about which the most she will allow herself is "The truth was, she wished there had been more to her endless supposed engagement." (From the next sentence, "That there was not her fiance's extremely scrupulous respect for her to, in retrospect, embitter her sense of the fraudulence of it all," I hesitantly conjecture that Glory is regretting a lack of sexual experience.) Robinson sometimes mistakes simplicity for lucidity, and mystery for depth.
And Jack is no more courageous when it comes to revealing his secrets. The first 250 or so pages of this novel are little more than a chronicle of the pair's elaborate duet of discretion. More than two-thirds of the way through, it is disheartening to see Jack still backing away when confronted with anything painful: "There was still courtesy, taken back to what was for him its essence, the dread and certainty of being unwelcome, a bother, out of place." One wants to scream: No! This is not courtesy, this is insanity! Somebody, please, say something!
Frustrating though it may be, this decorum is essential to Robinson's philosophy of fiction. For the trouble is not just that Jack and Glory lack the ability to open their hearts, to explain themselves to each other. This lack, in Robinson's view, characterizes our species. Ames punctuates the musings of Gilead with the frequent sigh, "If only I had the words to tell you," or the lament that his words fall short. Words are our best tool for understanding one another, but like all human constructions they will always be imperfect, because only God possesses perfect understanding. Ironically, although Ames is eternally aware of his own deficiencies, it is he who offers the most eloquent summation of this vision:
"In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable--which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among ourselves to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us."
In this spiritually atomized context, Glory's resignation to Jack's "inaccessible strangeness" becomes more understandable. And in the context of Robinson's spiritual vision, it takes on an added level of meaning. As she wrote in her American Scholar credo, Robinson believes--in strict contrast to evangelicals and other "born-again" Christians, and also in contrast to the concept of predestination, against which she vigorously argues--that a person's fate is always up for doubt. We all err, and so nothing can ever be taken for granted--not Christian doctrine, certainly not our own salvation. "To object, to dispute, to counter text with text--all this is legitimate and necessary," she writes, and continues: "This acknowledgment of inescapable fallibility has been called the origin of scientific method, and in this form we know that doubt and self-doubt are allied with truth--and that truth as we know it remains forever partial and provisional."
Robinson's spirituality of the provisional, the contested, the indeterminate certainly has precedents in many religious traditions, but there is a literary precedent for it as well. I have in mind Keats's doctrine of negative capability, which he defined as "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." This is the foundational doubt not of philosophy but of art. And if there is a religious satisfaction to be found in not knowing--it is the mystical satisfaction par excellence--there may also be an aesthetic pleasure: the pleasure of imagination, which entertains multiple possibilities and perspectives without being required to settle dogmatically on a single one. What Robinson seeks in religion can be sought also in literature. The ambiguity that she attributes to the inspiration of spiritual life she might just as well have attributed to the form of the novel itself--a deeply secular form, and one that perfected the wisdom of the partial perspective, and in which what we call omniscience is merely a method for describing the very limited understandings of other people, real and imagined.
There is a poignancy in all this decorum and restraint, and it pays off in the novel's stirring conclusion, which is the more deeply felt for all that it leaves unsaid. "Jack didn't trust me well enough to tell me much about anything that mattered to him," Glory says at the end. "It's always been that way. There's a lot I didn't tell him. Maybe that's just how we are." Well, maybe it is. But maybe it isn't. This lets the novel off a little too easy. We might recognize that a book's characters find one another unknowable, and find such unknowableness interesting as far as it goes for them, but we as readers will still want to know more than they do. It is up to us to supply their awareness, to know them better than they know themselves. This requires an imaginative leap--or a whole series of them--over the gaps; and Home, in its monastic adherence to the precept that less is more, sometimes does not give us enough to go on, and thereby seems to deny one of the premises of the novel, which is that fiction is also a form of knowledge. The leaps of the imagination should not be entirely leaps of faith.
The sin of Jack's past, his involvement with the under-age girl, remains utterly opaque: the novel offers no hints at all about his motivations, and so our imagination is powerless to attempt a picture of what might have brought the two together. Likewise with Glory's fiancé: how did they meet? What exactly was he doing all those years? And most importantly, why did she allow him to deceive her? We cannot even begin to guess. And so reading a novel by Robinson comes to feel uncomfortably close to an act of faith. Yet the reader's belief in the writer cannot be like the believer's belief in God. And the writer, I mean the writer who is responsible to her art and its audience, cannot be a deus absconditus. However subtly or enigmatically or obliquely, the writer must provide meaning, or the conditions for the construction of meaning. The novelist has often been said to play the role of God, the lordly puppetmaster who brings the stage to bright life with human drama; but the agnostic reader of Marilynne Robinson may find herself sitting alone, and unfairly, in the dark.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.