I thrill at the power of religious language. But it sets my alarm bells off in a hurry. After all, there’s an important difference between realism and usefulness, on the one hand, and confabulation, on the other. So while I don’t buy the theological tradition of Reverend John Ames, I do buy John Ames, wholly. I love him in a way that I haven’t loved another fictional character since Lyman Ward in Stegner’s Angle of Repose, Ántonia Shimerdas in Cather’s My Ántonia, and the blind woman in Saramago’s Blindness. One of the central images in Gilead is the “palpable currents of light” that arc between the rising moon and setting sun in the twilight sky of Kansas, where John Ames, then a young boy, and his father are tending to the blighted gravesite of grandpa Ames. There, the future Reverend Ames stands as a young boy, rapt between the rising moon and setting sun, between the birth and death of life at that very instant. The image nicely illustrates one of the spiritual insights of the synoptic Gospels. Anyone can participate in the miracle of reality, this present moment, here, now. “May those who have eyes, see; and those who have ears, hear.” And that’s precisely what John Ames does, he sees and listens to everything, to his friends and parishioners, to the prairie life of Iowa and Kansas, and to his own personal joys and sorrows. Then there’s the leitmotif of water. John Ames (again a young boy) throwing a baseball with his older brother Edward, who after working up a good sweat baptizes himself with a glass of tap water; or the couple who soak themselves with glistening beads of dew by shaking a bough of a tree. And lastly, Gilead offers powerful reassurance that the significance of one moment can redeem the darkness of many long years, and that the hope and faith we have in the existence of this one moment, beyond the horizon, isn’t entirely misplaced.
Fans of Marilynne Robinson’s gentle storytelling style know that Lila has hit the shelves.
Bitter, injured psyches are healed mainly by their connections to others but also by their connections to texts, memories, and the little glories of nature.
Little glories, big significance.
Like shimmering leaves, sweet elderberries, and a burning bush.
“She had never been at home in all the years of her life. She wouldn’t know how to begin. But the shade of the cottonwoods and the shimmer of their leaves and the trill of the cicadas were comfort for her. The pasture smell. Elderberries grew in the ditches by the road, and they picked them and ate them as they walked. Sometimes it was dark when they turned back toward Gilead. Once, he noticed a bush glimmering with fireflies. He stepped into the ditch and touched it, and fireflies rose out of it in a cloud of light.”
I have a love affair with fireflies and can’t resist them, in nature or in literary texts.
Which is after all the first step in connecting with others.
I marvel over literary descriptions of commonplace things. If only there were a reality TV show pitting two writers against each other. At the sound of a bell and the pointing of a finger, they would be told to “Describe this!”—say, a scene of the sun and moon each on a horizon’s edge. Well, I’m delighted to report that two literary heavyweights are game and the contest is on.
Enter Willa Cather, from One of Ours:
“The sun was already low. It hung above the stubble, all milky and rosy with the heat, like the image of a sun reflected in grey water. In the east the full moon had just risen, and its thin silver surface was flushed with pink until it looked exactly like the setting sun. Except for the place each occupied in the heavens, Claude could not have told which was which. They rested upon opposite rims of the world, two bright shields, and regarded each other, —as if they, too, had met by appointment.”
And Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead:
“At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.”
Is there a winner of this literary cage fight?
Can there be a winner?
I solved the problem of existence when I was 38. In itself this isn’t a big deal. Plenty of other people have solved it, too. What’s tricky is communicating it to others. That’s no easy feat. Plato shares it, but Aristotle doesn’t. Spinoza delivers the goods, but Kant flounders. Cervantes nails it, but Chaucer blows chunks. Sorry, he does. Proust gets it and gives it, but Joyce, that drunken Irish pirate, only amasses details and complexity. Among American novelists, M. Robinson (Gilead) and C. McCarthy (The Crossing, No Country for Old Men, and The Road), as different as their subject matter and narrative techniques are, both solve the problem of existence, while Roth, DeLillo, Pynchon, and a host of other splendid writers do not.** Of course I reserve the right to change my mind about Roth because American Pastoral strikes a profoundly revelatory note. Wait, yes, I just changed my mind. Roth is in the mix. Which is apropos, because his mentor S. Bellow follows in the footsteps of Plato, Spinoza, Cervantes, Proust, and other great unriddlers of life.
If you’re an exceptional writer and you’re compelled to revisit your fictional world, to expand on it, polish it, or tinker with it, do something different, for crying out loud, something interesting and formally inventive. Marilynne Robinson is a good case in point. She revisits Gilead, Iowa and the Boughton family and in particular Jack Boughton from a different point of view, with a different narrator, and in a different genre altogether. The result is a glorious amplification of fictional realities. Agnar Mykle, I’m afraid to say, is a bad case in point. In the transition from Lasso Round the Moon to The Song of the Red Ruby, Mykle spurns the heavy lifting of artistic creation. He merely lengthens the original novel by adding a couple hundred pages to the narrative so that we can glimpse another year of Ash’s virility in action. He uses the same narrator and the same point of view, and writes in the same genre, and even uses the same framing device. If your writerly treatment is uninspired, why should my readerly attention be any different?