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?
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.
By Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, Home is a story about Jack Boughton’s return to Gilead, Iowa after a 20-year absence. His father Robert Boughton is a dying widower who is cared for by Jack’s 38-year old sister Glory Boughton. Through her eyes, through her hopes, sorrows, and disappointments, the story of Jack’s homecoming is told. A lost and scoundrel soul, Jack returns to Gilead with a carefully guarded plan to set his life aright. His stay is fraught with anxiety and tenderness, vulnerability and hope — always hope, especially by those who love him most and can be profoundly hurt by him. Countless scenes are so deeply moving that one stops in sheer amazement, as when Robert Boughton, eager to spend time with Glory, falls asleep at the table with his fork in hand, or when Jack gracefully plays the piano for his father’s enjoyment. Robinson is a master at evoking the reader’s deepest layers of experience, as well as making the presence of the past (excuse the expression) palpable in such everyday objects as shirts and lampshades. A marvelous achievement, Home is well worth your time. Savor Gilead first, otherwise a rich dimension of meaning will be lost, or as Robinson unforgettably writes in Gilead, you will miss “the great taut skeins of light suspended between them.”
Cross-posted from Between the Lines.
There are a dozen or so books I’ve looped over the years, that is, turned the last page only to start the first one again. A book that never ends, as it were. My favorite. Of the books I’ve recently looped, a few stand out as truly remarkable achievements: Crowley’s Little, Big; Cather’s My Antonia and The Professor’s House; Roth’s Patrimony and Counterlife; Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog; Saramago’s Blindness; and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home. The great and wonderful thing about a book you’ve looped is that it takes on a whole new dimension of importance. It even looks different. Books on a shelf organize themselves around it, as if they were showing it off or protecting it. I have no qualms about putting my coffee cup on The Orchard Keeper, but if I so much as sense a disapproving glance at Blood Meridian, I’ll submit your ass jiu-jitsu style, fast. Magical conspicuousness does have its drawbacks—as I learned last night, when my son, with his greedy, ravening hands, dumped Robinson on the floor as if she were a colander or a salad spinner. I shuddered. When I regained my composure and told him that everything he does is cute — that, a lie — I picked up Home and began slowly re-reading passages at random, only to close the book and smile on my good fortune. A kind of nostalgia or reverie or attunement, indescribably pleasant, swept over me. A word or a thought-feeling glinted in some deep layer of my awareness: luminous or frailty, hopeful or ashamed. And with that, I opened the book again and read a new passage, savoringly. Damn! Robinson can write. She makes Roth and Morrison look like lumbering tourists with disposable cameras trying their best to snap-snap-snap the Great American Photograph. That’s why I nominate Robinson as one of the greatest living American novelists. Anyhow, more on Home in a later post…