A blog by Barry Edelson

Of Steeples and the Abyss

The Extraordinary Novels of Marilynne Robinson

In the course of a lifetime's reading, it is an extremely rare book that ponders essential questions of existence so affectingly as to alter one's sense of what it means to be alive. The subtle profundity of Marilynne's Robinson's "Housekeeping", published in 1980, left me breathless when I first read it more than 25 years ago and has occupied my consciousness for most of my adult life. It is the most powerful evocation of the eternal question of being and nothingness that I have encountered in modern literature, perhaps the most insightful since Shakespeare. It opened a world of understanding that decades of my own thought would have failed to grasp: understanding about the frail illusions of everyday life, the thin veneer of human society, and the fragility of civilization. Repeated readings have only deepened my appreciation for the novel's unusual beauty and my sense of awe that any one person could be so wise.

The novel is about a woman, Sylvie, who returns to her family home in a small town in Idaho to care for two nieces who have been orphaned by the suicide of their mother, Sylvie's sister. Before coming home, Sylvie has been living as a vagrant, riding the rails and surviving on the refuse of the society from which she is estranged and indifferent in equal measure. She is neither a rebel nor a miscreant, but a very agreeable and contented person who evidently cares about her nieces, Ruthie and Lucille. Her problem as a guardian is that she is utterly oblivious to the conventions of ordinary living and incapable of conducting what most people would call a "normal" life. In short order, the house becomes littered with stacks of old newspapers and piles of tin cans and other trash. The story, narrated by Ruthie, describes her gradual recognition that she is very much like her Aunt Sylvie and her eventual adoption of Sylvie's ways, while Lucille moves in the opposite direction towards the security of convention.

"Housekeeping" takes place in a town called Fingerbone, on the shore of a vast, deep and frigid lake which has been the source of much of the family's tragedy. Decades earlier, Sylvie's father died when the train on which he was working derailed and plunged into the depths of the lake, killing all aboard. When the girls' mother commits suicide, she does so by driving her car off a cliff and into the lake. Thus, the lake is not merely a representation of the nothingness from which ordinary society typically averts its eyes, but an actual abyss that has swallowed the girls' immediate ancestors. The lake's powerful attraction never ceases to tug on their consciousness, as in this description of the girls ice skating far from shore:

"And as we glided across the ice toward Fingerbone, we would become aware of the darkness, too close to us, like a presence in a dream. The comfortable yellow lights of the town were then the only comfort there was in the world, and there were not many of them. If every house in Fingerbone were to fall before our eyes, snuffing every light, the event would touch our senses as softly as a shifting among embers, and then the bitter darkness would step nearer."

The rickety, single-track, wooden railway bridge that traverses the lake is a potent reminder that very little stands between us and our inevitable fate. The distant whistle of the trains, conventionally a symbol of romance and adventure, is here a chilling and omnipresent reminder of death. While most people understandably fear the bridge, Sylvie returns to it frequently and even takes Ruthie across it on foot, teaching her to embrace the unknown and to live, like her, as though nothing matters. Their precarious adventures, including a cold, late autumn ride across the lake in a stolen rowboat, ultimately prompt local officials, in the form of the police and the school, to address the girls' situation, which in the end prompts Sylvie and Ruthie to leave Lucille behind and take to the rails.

As fiction, "Housekeeping" contains many paradoxes. Robinsons' prose is simultaneously luminous and dark. The story is deeply philosophical and yet devoid of the sort of expositional passages that are so often touchstones for the larger themes in many a good novel. There is little in the way of plot or suspense, apart from the slow awakening of the town to the danger of leaving Sylvie in charge of her nieces, and yet it is charged with tension. The power of the story lies in the cumulative effect of the characters' responses to experience: but it is not the characters who grow and change, it is the reader whose awareness deepens through the course of the novel. Sylvie's other-worldly lack of concern wears down our resistance, and we become unavoidably fixated on the vulnerability of our individual lives and of the entire construct of the civilization that we count on to sustain us. The novel is not moralistic or cautionary. It is a stark and unflinching picture of the landscape that we all inhabit, whether we want to think about it or not. I cannot think of another work of fiction that contemplates such enormous questions about the very nature of existence in the context of such a seemingly commonplace narrative.

The Long Wait

So many years elapsed between the publication of "Housekeeping" in 1980 and Robinson's second novel, "Gilead", in 2005, that it long seemed as though "Housekeeping" would stand alone as one of those unique instances when an author's single fictional creation happens also to be a masterpiece. When her book of essays, "The Death of Adam", came out in 1998, I read it greedily, looking for clues to the thinking of the novelist I had come to revere. (Another collection, "Mother Country", was published in 1989.) While the essays were interesting and beautifully written, they were a mystery. I could not recognize the author of "Housekeeping" in these explorations of religious thought. There is barely a reference to a deity or church in the novel, even as exemplars of the many societal conventions that fail to tie Sylvie to normality.

Robinson's theological interest in "The Death of Adam" bears no relation to what is generally considered "Christian" in contemporary American life. Her interest is mainly in the liberal, reformist strands of Protestantism that were the foundation of the abolition movement in the mid-1800s and the civil rights movement a century later. She concerns herself not with church doctrine or dogma, but with morality in its essence. Robinson's Christianity finds its truest expression in the resistance to narrow-mindedness and oppression, whether in the form of slavery or Nazism. It is into this tradition of life and thought that the reader is thrust in the pages of "Gilead".

One could hardly imagine a protagonist more different from Sylvie than John Ames, the thoughtful and sensitive preacher who narrates the story in "Gilead". An old man with a bad heart, Ames tells the story of his life and family, and of the town which gives the novel its title, in the form of a lengthy letter to the young son he will not live long enough to see grow up. "Gilead" has some superficial similarities with "Housekeeping": it is told in the first person; there is a story but no real plot; and it is graced by Robinson's exquisite prose. But there the similarities end. I must confess that, the first time I tried to read it, I was so disappointed that I could barely see it through to the end. When "Gilead" won the Pulitzer Prize, one could only assume that it was retroactive recognition of the achievement for "Housekeeping", which went largely unnoticed by the major literary awards at the time of its original publication.

The Triumph of "Home"

I didn't appreciate "Gilead" until after I read Robinson's third novel, "Home", which came out earlier this year, barely two years after the publication of "Gilead". "Home" cannot accurately be called a sequel to "Gilead", because the two stories take place contemporaneously and the action of the two novels overlap. "Home" is about the family of Ames' best friend and fellow minister, John Boughton. While Ames was widowed as a young man and childless until his old age, Boughton had eight children who were all grown and long gone from Gilead by the time Ames remarried. Boughton's son, Jack, who is Ames' namesake, is as prodigal a prodigal son as has ever been conceived in literature. Jack had always been an outsider even in his own family, a troubled and troublesome child who grew into a troubled and troublesome adult. He returns home after a 20-year absence in somewhat mysterious circumstances. His sister, Glory, in emotional distress from the failure of a long relationship, has also recently returned home to take care of their ailing father. Glory is the youngest of Boughton's four daughters, Jack among the eldest of the four boys, and so they go about learning to be siblings all over again, gingerly avoiding direct questions about their respective histories.

The novel is an agony of familial misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Despite the extraordinary lengths to which Glory, Jack and their father go to be courteous and considerate of one another, the household is such an emotional minefield that they can hardly take a step or speak a word without offending or hurting one another. It is easy to imagine "Home" adapted into a stage play in the style of Eugene O'Neill: a protracted object lesson in why family members ought not to tell one another the truth. By the end of the book, the reader is worn out from the devastation of the characters' failed lives, particularly Jack's.

Though "Home" did not win the plaudits or prizes that were bestowed upon "Gilead", it seems to me a far more fully realized and satisfying novel. It is also more easily understood as a part of the continuum of Robinson's body of work, and sheds light on its companion novel. In Sylvie, Robinson created a character who felt comfortable on the edge of the abyss, who had calmly faced down the inevitable darkness and had no fear of it. Jack is as lost as Sylvie, and every bit as incapable of submitting to the niceties of respectable society, but he is terrified of what he has made of his life and is frantically trying to claw his way back. Sylvie is indifferent to the fate of her soul, if she even knows that it exists; Jack is painfully aware that he has probably destroyed any chance for his own redemption and that he cannot count on the grace that is the stock-in-trade of both his father and his namesake, John Ames. Much of "Home" concerns Jack's futile attempts to earn the good opinion of Ames, much as "Gilead" is dominated by Ames' obsession over the influence Jack might have over his young wife and son after he is dead. Sylvie's inability to connect with Lucille or any of the other "normal" people in Fingerbone is analogous to Jack's permanent status as a fugitive from decent society in Gilead and elsewhere. The tragic difference is that while Sylvie could not care less, Jack could not care more.

It is tempting to think that Robinson's depiction of Ames and the other deeply religious people in these later novels is, in part, a political statement about modern American views of Christianity, or at least a sociological one. Like the essays in "The Death of Adam", "Gilead" and "Home" could be seen a protest against both the way in which Christian ideals have been perverted for political purposes by certain leaders and sects, and the one-dimensional way in which people of faith have been depicted as a result. She presents a number of complex characters who struggle mightily with their faith and who have good reason to doubt God's benevolence. The fictitious town of Gilead, Iowa was founded as an abolitionist settlement, an obvious outgrowth of Robinson's abiding interest in the people and ideas of the reformers of that period that she expounded upon a decade earlier in "The Death of Adam". Many people migrated west in the pre-Civil War era from a deep moral conviction that slavery was profoundly evil and it was worth the sacrifice of their lives and livelihoods to prevent its spread to the new states and territories. Ames and Boughton are from rival Protestant denominations — Congregational and Presbyterian, respectively — but their lifelong friendship and occasional attendance in each other's churches attest to a fundamental decency and tolerance that they inherited, in part, from their reformist forebears.

Completing the Circle

In its examination of man's darkest fears, "Home" is not so much the companion novel of "Gilead" as of "Housekeeping." The titles could not be an accident. The gentle religious sensibility of "Gilead", as Ames struggles endlessly to understand what God wants of him, gives way in "Home" to the despair of a man who has surrendered any hope of such understanding. The arc of human experience from Sylvie to Ames to Jack is a strange but compelling one. Robinson has left behind the abstraction of "Housekeeping" and its pure distillation of the terrifying void man faces when the supports of everyday life are stripped away. But after we get past Ames' good-natured confidence in God's grace, we return to an emptiness in Jack that is almost too painful to witness. In Jack and the Boughtons, we find a more fully realized cast of characters, more emotionally complicated and more deeply drawn than Sylvie and Ruthie and Lucille. But we are left with the same unavoidable reality: that faith and home and all of the other pillars of ordinary human life may in the end be nothing but hollow illusions, but they are all we have to hold on to by the shore of the bottomless lake that we call home.

November 15, 2008

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