Sunday, June 16, 2013

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough.  You feel that you are with someone.  I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you're only a little fellow now and when you're a man you might find these letters of no interest.  Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons.  Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed.  That is to say, I pray for you.  And there's an intimacy in it.  That's the truth.

I actually read Gilead a few months ago, but then my roommate stole it before I could post on it.  In his defense, it's a good book to steal; as lyrically accomplished as Robinson's Housekeeping and even more emotionally affecting--affecting, in fact, in a way that few books written in the last half century seem to me.

The narrator of Gilead is John Ames, a minister in Iowa who is, he knows, in the final stages of his life, writing a last series of letters to his young son, the product of a marriage to a much younger woman.  These letters become an exploration of ideas that Ames knows he won't live to share with his son, an exploration of the nature of God as well as of his own history, his relationship with his wife, and his relationship with his father and grandfather, tracing his family history all the way back to the Civil War.  Like in Housekeeping, Robinson's prose is really something to marvel at, but writing from Ames' perspective forces Robinson to curtail some of her more baroque tendencies.  Yet somehow, that limitation strengthens the writing by giving it a colloquial groundedness:

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.  I know that this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that.  There is a human beauty in it.  And I can't believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.  Because I don't imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.

There is something beautiful and audacious about calling life "the great bright dream of procreating and perishing," yet those words seem as if they come from Ames, and not from Robinson speaking through him, and that's a really difficult tightrope to cross.

Ames' project becomes troubled when Jack Boughton, the black-sheep son of his closest friend, returns home after a long absence.  Robinson cannily keeps the sins which Boughton is guilty of under wraps for most of the novel, instead focusing on the anxiety that overcomes Ames when he sees how close Boughton is becoming with his wife and son.  But Ames needs Boughton; his return allows him to confront his own believes about forgiveness, family, and love:

There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or a parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality.  It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal.  So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?

I wish that my thoughts on this book were a little bit fresher, because looking through the pages I've dog-eared, I see any number of really striking, heartfelt passages like the one above that I'd like to talk about in relation to the novel as a whole.  But what I recall about it the most is that it resounds with a real sense of humanity--one that Housekeeping, though fantastic, often lacked.

1 comment:

Brittany said...

I took a wonderful grad class where we read author's first novels followed by whatever was considered their masterpiece. I really liked Housekeeping, but just could NOT get into Gilead. The aspects that seemed to connect with the novel and my classmates who loved it are ones that I don't have (I don't have kids, both my parents are alive, I am not religious and was not raised with any religious influences, while my dad rambles quite a bit, he is not so much in the advice giving business, and I don't hear his voice at all in the narrator's), and I couldn't find enough in just the writing to keep me compelled to finish. It's on my list of books-to-finish-someday, but so many other books end up before it on the list.