by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 247 pp. $23.
Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, published in 1981, is an extraordinary work of art, and many readers have waited impatiently for Robinson to publish a second novel. I’m among them, although I’ve waited more in dread than in anticipation. Robinson describes American landscapes as superbly as Willa Cather and peers into the American soul as relentlessly as Herman Melville—and in Housekeeping she combined these talents to frighten me badly.
Housekeeping takes place in a waterlogged little town in the northwest, where two adolescent sisters, orphaned when their mother drowns herself, become the wards of their aunt, a drifter who leaves off riding the rails in order to come live with them. In the house left them by their dead grandmother, the girls wage a quietly epic struggle against the pull of their aunt’s transient ways, against the intrusive lake and its implacable tides, against the grief that becomes a universal solvent. Can the girls avoid the dissolution of their home, their futures, their very souls? Is there any ground on which they can plant an intimacy or nurture an ambition that will not be swamped by sorrow?
Robinson tells their story in a prose that embodies perfectly the entropic sadness that she finds lapping at all foundations and saturating every good intention. Her watery symbolism accumulates a depressing power, as everything begins to fall of its own sodden weight. Love reaches out only for what is out of reach, and eros provides no countervailing warmth, as the men of the family have long since slipped beneath life’s surface. Nor is there any prospect of spiritual rescue. Robinson finds among the flotsam some scraps of pagan myth and some pages from the Judaic testaments, old and new, but these wisdoms are themselves orphans, uprooted and adrift. There is no sign of an ark, of a Moses who might part the waters, of a savior who can walk upon the flood without sinking.
In this diluvian world the little church where grandmother used to sing in the choir is a source merely of unwelcome and finally fatal intrusions. The ladies of the congregation bring to the girls’ crumbling home not the good news of salvation but only casseroles and coffeecakes that are left untouched and uneaten. Their well-meant meddling incites the book’s climax, when the young women set fire to their house and flee across the lake into a life of endless wandering. The people of the church and the town suppose them to be drowned—as indeed they are, spiritually. In the contest of life and grief, grief has won.
Housekeeping bears repeated rereading, if one can stand the chill and the damp, and if one can surrender one’s secret hope (well, my secret hope) that next time it will turn out differently. It never does. Thus I approached Gilead with cautious alacrity. In Housekeeping Robinson had demonstrated the futility of any attempt to make a home; would she persuade me in Gilead that there is no balm for the sin-sick soul? To my relief, her project in Gilead seems to be not to tear down but to build up, or at least to restore to this world much of what she washed away in Housekeeping.
As narrator we have not a rootless and unchurched young woman but an elderly Congregationalist minister who has lived all his life in the same parsonage in the town of Gilead, Iowa. When this preacher (“preacher” is what he prefers to call himself) says things like, “I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings,” we know we are still on Planet Robinson, but these prove to be the sunnier latitudes of that melancholy globe. The prairies of Iowa and Kansas offer dry land aplenty, and water here is not a carrier of paralyzing sorrow but a healing substance, lustral and often luminous. Male figures, so conspicuously absent in Housekeeping , dominate the foreground. The preacher, John Ames, is writing out for his son an account of his life and the lives of his forebears, father and grandfather, who were also ministers of the gospel, dating back to before the Civil War. Thus the church, so dismissible in Housekeeping, is central to Gilead. Even those Christian casseroles are redeemed: Ames lived in his parsonage as a widower for some forty years, and he dined contentedly on the very dishes, donated by the ladies of his congregation, that the women of Housekeeping could not stomach.
The novel is a single long letter, written over the course of half a year or so in the mid-1950s. Reverend Ames, aged seventy-six, has been spurred to this epistolary effort by a medical diagnosis: angina pectoris could kill him at any time. His son, his only child, is seven years old; the letter will be given to the boy’s mother, Ames’ forty-one-year-old wife, to keep for the boy to read when he is grown. The letter is the preacher’s sole legacy (“I do regret that I have almost nothing to leave you and your mother”) and in it he attempts to enact the love that he will not be present to give the boy, offering advice, sharing memories, discussing life’s meaning—and occasionally (such is the force of professional habit) making notes for new sermons as they occur to him.
Ames writes of his grandfather, an abolitionist preacher and Free Soiler in the Kansas territory in the 1850s, and of his father, a young soldier in the Union army and later a preacher in Gilead, and of his own brief first marriage, which ended with his wife and daughter dead in a premature childbirth. He lived alone for decades—“I didn’t feel very much at home in the world, that was a fact. Now I do”—until the boy’s mother, a stranger in town, walked into his church one Pentecost Sunday: “She makes a very unlikely preacher’s wife. She says so herself. But she never flinches from any of it. Mary Magdalene probably made an occasional casserole, whatever the ancient equivalent may have been. A mess of pottage, I suppose.”
Ames has tried always to live as the Lord wants him to live, which for him entails ceaseless prayer, constant self-questioning, and a startlingly ferocious pacificism. He takes a certain modest pride in the fifty years’ worth of sermons he has stored in boxes in his attic, noting that he is “up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity.” Impatient with apologetics and uninterested in doctrine (“It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect”), he never tires of thinking on the loveliness of creation and the goodness of God (“Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true”). Occasionally he offers an insight from one of his favorite theologians: John Calvin, Karl Barth, and (yes) Ludwig Feuerbach.
Robinson skillfully impersonates this sober, righteous, progressive parson with a hint of poesy in his voice as she interweaves the three themes—his family history, the abolition of slavery, and his practice of the Christian faith—that dominate his seemingly discursive jottings. Suddenly, however, a new event intrudes upon Ames’ autumnal reflections: the ne’er-do-well son of Ames’ neighbor Boughton, the Presbyterian minister, unexpectedly returns to Gilead. Pastor Boughton is Ames’ best friend, and the returning prodigal, now a middle-aged man and still mysteriously erratic, is Ames’ godson. Why is he back after so long away? And why does he show such interest in Ames’ wife and child?
This matter is resolved, though not wholly to the benefit of the book’s integrity, for in concentrating on it Robinson veers away from the carefully crafted illusion of a digressive letter and begins to write scenes straight from, well, a novel. When Robinson’s wrap-up of important themes is done, John Ames finds, coincidentally, that he has written enough to his son, and he brings his letter to an elegiac close.
Reviews of Gilead have been numerous—ranging from rapturous to respectful—but uniformly superficial. Ames is taken to be a reliable old fellow who imparts his nuggets of gospel-tinged wisdom and his small-town epiphanies with Robinson’s unequivocal approval. Robinson is commended for daring to employ so unpromising a mouthpiece and is praised for the artistry with which she (mostly) keeps the loquacious minister from being a bore.
Such readings underestimate both Robinson and Ames. As with the emblematic casserole on the parsonage table, the presentation is homely but the dish is not simple: there are layers upon layers, and it has been simmering a long time. Ames the facile sermonizer finds candor elusive; he steels himself to speak but often draws back; he acknowledges that he is skilled at concealing from himself his own motivations, and he worries repeatedly about people who can “see through” him. Some reviewers have said that Robinson skimps on “plot.” But there is no shortage of fraught and suspenseful episodes, including murder, religious terrorism, apostasy, fornication, child abandonment, and secret miscegenation. Of these Ames is the most reluctant of chroniclers, generally proving to say most where he says least. So obliquely and unemphatically are the deepest wounds divulged—his grandfather’s commission of a gratuitous and monstrous sin against Ames’ ten-year-old father, and Ames’ father’s loss of his religious faith (abetted, unhappily, by Ames himself)—that a reader who blinks may miss them.
Into Ames’ apparent ramblings Robinson has carefully built many omissions, suppressions, and avoidances. Unobtrusive and only dimly sensed, they contribute to one’s uneasiness and a sense of buried intrigue. Never does Ames address his son by name or even report his name. (Would not a father writing such a valedictory naturally chant, sing, caress the beloved name of the son of his late age?) Never does he speak the name of his wife, and about her past he is mute, though the single clue of “Mary Magdalene” posted here by the author reads like an unsubtle semaphore. Also questionable are Ames’ repeated self-exculpating apologies for his family’s looming poverty (“There was no way for me to make any changes to provide for the two of you”). Indications are that his congregation has the money to build a new and bigger church—after he is gone. So is Ames tacitly conveying the congregation’s rejection of his new wife?
All in all, Ames’ reticent revelations give an impression not so much of mellow wisdom securely possessed as of a pitiable impactedness bravely struggled against. His erotic-domestic resurrection by a wayward young woman late in life has rolled back the stone behind which he had buried his heart. In this new access of feeling, he is dimly aware that some of the warmth of his pastoral compassion derives from the old, banked fires of anger toward his father and grandfather that lie within. Newly alive to so much, he expresses keen regret that he will not be present as a father to help his boy grow up. But is there also, perhaps, a certain relief that he will not be there to wound his son or to suffer the wounds that sons can inflict on fathers? His demanding but beneficent creator, Marilynne Robinson, seems to know about this deeper layer, but she has taken care to keep the good old man from suspecting it himself.
Robinson is far too fine an artist to offer us the sort of univocal and easily mastered fiction that some have taken this book to be. She is both persistent and brave. In her superb first novel she gave voice to the griefs and losses of the mother-daughter relationship, placing them in a near-mythic world of flux and darkness. Here she attempts a harder thing, imagining her way into the conflicts and joys of the father-son relationship and staging them more terrestrially, on the familiar American prairie, in the prosaic Midwestern light, along the arc of some of the most impassioned episodes in American history.
It is brave of her, too, to try to body forth, in John Ames, some version of what the church has to offer in response to the ever-fresh and never-less-than-bitter news that we have here no lasting home. The novel may prove to be of less interest as a vehicle of Christian wisdom than as a portrait of fathers and sons—indeed, not all readers will agree that what Ames preaches and practices is (doctrinally, theologically, ecclesiologically) Christianity. But the preacher, damaged as he is and elusive as he may be with other people, is admirably assiduous in trying to turn his face always toward his Lord. With his Bible in one hand and his Feuerbach in the other, he tries to understand the world as God’s gift and to offer back unceasingly his thanks and praise. “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration,” he says in closing his letter to the son he must leave behind. “You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
J. A. Gray was formerly Associate Editor of First Things.