Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Cain murdered Abel, and blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job's children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted. That is why the first event is known to have been an expulsion, and the last is hoped to be a reconciliation and return. So memory pulls us forward, so prophecy is only brilliant memory--there will be a garden where all of us as one child will sleep in our mother Eve, hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine.

Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is revelatory--both in the sense that it was, for me, a revelation to discover a novel of such clear, confident prose, and in the sense that it communicates an apocalyptic vision of the world, one which promises a final unification of all things.

Ruth, the novel's heroine, lives in a life of constant abandonment in the remote far West town of Fingerbone. Her grandfather (in a train) and her mother (in an automobile) plunged into the same lake. Her guardian great-aunts, Lily and Nona, foist Ruth and her sister Lucille off on their aunt Sylvie, who returns from a drifter's life to take care of them.

Sylvie is peculiar. Like a transient, she sleeps on the top of her sheets, in her shoes. She seems not to care that Ruth and Lucille do not attend school. She keeps the light off in the parlor to hide the mounting collections of tin cans and old newspapers. Lucille, understandably, does not like her. But Sylvie acts the prophet for Ruth, communicating through her actions the possibility that time will bring all things back together:

Who would think of dusting or sweeping the cobwebs down in a room used for the storage of cans and newspapers--things utterly without value? Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping, and because she considered the hoarding of worthless things to be proof of a particularly scrupulous thrift.

It seems to me that Housekeeping is the kind of book that could only be written in America, where we struggle with the consequences of fierce individualism and expansionism, and even then only in the West, which is the frontier also of that struggle. Isolated and "chastened... by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere," the town of Fingerbone longs to be knit back into that whole. Not only with the rest of the world, but with the lake it surrounds, which Ruth frequently imagines as a parallel world where the dead live, inaccessible. Even the name "Fingerbone" suggests the limitations of flesh and bone, which prevent us from joining the spiritual realm.

Sylvie's haphazard care threatens to have Ruth taken away, because like all prophets, she is misunderstood:

Imagine that Noah knocked his house apart and used the planks to build an ark, while his neighbors looked on, full of doubt. A house, he must have told them, should be daubed with pitch and built to float cloud high, if need be. A lettuce patch was of no use at all, and a good foundation was worse than useless. A house should have a compass and a keel. The neighbors would have put their hands in their pockets and chewed their lips and strolled home to houses they now found wanting in ways they could not understand.

This really striking parable becomes truth twice--once literally, when the town floods, and once figuratively, when Sylvie finally impresses Ruth into a life of drifting. Houses and homes, perhaps, are doomed attempts to connect with one's environment. I also love the bold, sharply American way that Robinson rewrites these Biblical tales, which she does even with the Gospel:

And when He did die it was sad--such a young man, so full of promise, and His mother wept and His friends could not believe the loss, and the story spread everywhere and the mourning would not be comforted, until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as He was. There is so little to remember of anyone--an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the hear in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not meant to keep us waiting so long.

I find that piece of prose incredibly difficult to respond to in writing. Beyond its simple beauty, it is incredibly, outrageously bold, and yet, its spirit seems to me to be in keeping with the Gospel. And its hope is boundless! As Robinson tells us, "That most moments were substantially the same did not detract at all from the possibility that the next moment might be utterly different." Life can be such a patched-up, threadbare affair, but fear not:

For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are a sleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?


billy said...

Did you read Gilead by this author?

billy said...

Did you read Gilead by this author?

Christopher said...

No, but I own it.

Brent Waggoner said...

Gilead is great. This sounds really interesting too. Her writing is something special.