Wednesday, January 4

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

I just finished reading Marilynne Robinson's new book Gilead, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and which I cannot recommend highly enough. Wondering what critics had thought of the book (to show my detachment from the literary scene, I didn't even know that Gilead had won the Pulitzer until yesterday) I came across a website that compiled reviews from twelve respectable publications (The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Village Voice, etc.). In the course of reading the reviews, I noticed some unexpected similarities.

Mary Houlihan, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, and Mark Holcomb, writing in the Village Voice, single out exactly the same sentence for criticism:

Mary Houlihan: There are moments when the writing turns murky and incomprehensible, which turns the prose into a dry Sunday sermon: "How you would honor someone differs with circumstances, so you can only truly fulfill a general obligation to show honor in specific cases of mutual intimacy and understanding."

Mark Holcomb: . . . the book occasionally gets bogged down in dry scriptural analysis at the expense of narrative ("How you would honor someone differs with circumstances, so you can only truly fulfill a general obligation to show honor in specific cases of mutual intimacy and understanding").

The criticism in each case is not unreasonable, but neither is the sentence a particularly memorable one--I don't recall it from the book's 250-odd pages--so it is odd to find it selected for such similar treatment ("dry Sunday sermon" vs. "dry scriptural analysis") by two prominent critics.

A second example. Olivia Boler, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, and Mary Houlihan, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, make similarly-phrased comparisons to Harper Lee's singular (in several senses) literary achievement:

Olivia Boler: It's certainly a relief to fans who thought she might go the way of Harper Lee, as a one-masterpiece wonder . . .

Mary Houlihan: Would she be relegated to the ranks of one-novel wonders along with authors such as Harper Lee?

(It should be noted that while Mary Houlihan's article followed Mark Holcomb's, it predated Olivia Boler's.) Perhaps my imagination is reading a connection into a simple coincidence, but I would guess that the later reviewer in each case had read the earlier review. I don't mean to imply that there is anything wrong with a critic reading another critic's work or agreeing with another critic's assessment of a particular passage. This is not--if indeed it is anything more than accident--plagiarism; a single paraphrase of a commonly held opinion is harmless and probably unavoidable by even scrupulous self-editors. I note this only because I find the habits of professional reviewers--particularly whether they read and absorb each other's work--interesting.

And with that digression out of my system, the point of this post: my concededly unprofessional and brief review.

The reviews invoke comparisons to Melville, Flaubert, Willa Cather, Louise Erdrich, George Herbert, and even Hemingway. Each is fair, though inevitably incomplete. Robinson's voice is her own--and what a pure, unselfconscious and achingly beautiful voice it is. I won't try to improve on Michael Dirda's assessment, from the Washington Post, that "her new novel, which -- let's say this right now -- is so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it."

There is more poetry in Gilead than in a dozen volumes by most poets, more common sense and good advice than most parents ever convey to their children, and more insight into man's relationship with the world and the divine than in a year's worth of sermons.

The book is a single, episodic letter written over several months in 1956 by a 76-year old Congregationalist minister who has spent his entire life, with the exception of his time at the seminary, in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. The letter is addressed to his seven-year old son, who is never named, the product of a late second marriage to a mysterious and much younger wife (also never named), who appeared in his church as he was preaching on Pentecost Sunday nine years earlier. The Reverend John Ames's letter is a family history, a biography, and a lifetime's worth of fatherly wisdom intended to be read many years after his impending death (he has a failing heart).

Though a devout man of God, Ames knows and loves the world too much to welcome death. His digressions on baseball, fried-egg sandwiches, and his parishoners' casseroles are at once dryly funny and poignant. "Oh, I will miss the world!" he exclaims at one point, not rebuffing the divine but embracing creation. His observation of a long-lost tapestry that "Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay. There are some I dearly wish might be spared." is not blasphemy, not a rejection of a greater life beyond this world, but an acknowledgment of the beauty within the perishability of this world. Several times Ames speculates about the nature of the next life, once invoking Isaac Watts's great hymn, "Oh God Our Help in Ages Past," of which I am also so very fond:

"Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone . . .

"No doubt that is true. Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes. And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing. But that cannot be true. I can't believe we will forget our sorrows altogether. That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking. Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life." Out of context, this brief passage cannot convey the cumulative, elegaic effect of Ames's/Robinson's prose. Simple, direct, pared down to the quick, but purified rather than diminished by the reduction.

To say that Gilead is a religious book is both wholly accurate and misleading. The narrator is a third generation minister (at least--he speculates that preaching runs further back in his family than the limits of his genealogical knowledge) and his life has been lived in the shadow and the light of scripture, allusions and references to which fall on every page of his text. He wears his protestant faith and learning like a second skin, and moves effortlessly within it even as it defines, limits, and protects him. His life's work--2,250 rigorously composed and researched sermons (he has kept up his Hebrew and his Greek)--has been a critical engagement with Christian text and scholarship (his two great influences have been the believer Barth and the skeptic Feuerbach), and the casual reflections on biblical text scattered throughout his letter--Ishmael and Hagar in the wilderness; the placement of the Fifth Commandment--are as illuminating as a any sermon I have heard.

But Ames's faith is not only, or even primarily, intellectual. Dry prairie earth, dark streets of a small town at night, worn floorboards of an empty country church, even human suffering, are sweet and essential creations of an incomprehensible but intimately known and felt God. Ames's insight, repeatedly and evocatively expressed, could be Hopkins's: "[t]he world is charged with the grandeur of God." Gilead resonates with a living and lived faith.

One of Ames's stated goals is to provide his son with his "begats"--his family tree--which gives the narrative an atavistic gravity, a sense of history at once personal and universal. Ames's grandfather, a fire and brimstone orator and veteran of bleeding Kansas, who preached from the pulpit with a pistol in his belt in a shirt bloodied from riding with John Brown's murderous gang,* is a fierce and haunting presence for Ames, as he was in Ames's father's house and conscience, which rebelled and found solace in an equally uncompromising pacifism. This pacifism, tested and affirmed by the First World War, was passed down to our narrator, who accepts it, more or less, but with one eye turned always to his grandfather's contrary spirit. This family progression through the Civil War, the great drought of 1892, the Great Depression, and two world wars, is the novel's broad story, in which the history of one small Iowa town, and one man's life are tangled subplots. Robert Allen Papinchak, in the Seattle Times, faults Gilead for "a bland, placid story line," and it is true that not much happens in the novel, if one ignores the arc of American history, murder, death, birth, marriage, drought, family betrayal, and the countless, priceless moments of the examined life.

"There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient," Ames tells his son. There may not be quite that many reasons to read Gilead, but there are many, every one of them sufficient.

* "Osawatomie" John Brown, of whom Emerson said "he made the gallows as glorious as the cross," Hawthorne famously demurred "[n]obody was ever more justly hanged," and whose body still "lies a-moulderin' in the grave," is a fair model for Ames's grandfather--a fanatical (not, in this rare case, hyperbole) abolitionist whose antinomian zeal first renounced the human constraints of law and order and ended by spurning morality itself. There is nothing equivocal about the old Rev. John Ames--a man of a single blazing eye, Blakean visions, and a seismic temper. It is easy to imagine him thundering those terrible, prophetic words of John Brown to his cowed congregation: "the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." Other than the narrator himself, the old Reverend is the most vividly realized character in the book--like John Brown either a saint or a devil, and, either way, hardly of this world.


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