Thursday, October 23, 2008

State of Grace

A note: I've named this essay "State of Grace," but these might be its alternate titles: Or, A New Kind of Book Review, Or, I ramble aimlessly for a few pages to try and articulate why I love the work of Marilynne Robinson so much.


I finished Home by Marilynne Robinson a couple weeks ago and I'm just now able to talk about it because I've been grieving the fact that I turned the last page. A bit dramatic, I suppose, but then again, how can anyone overstate the way it feels when a book moves you and changes you? There isn't enough hyperbole to do justice to that sensation. And the most amazing thing is that I've felt the same way about each of Robinson's three novels.

I was introduced to Robinson's writing late: I was in my early thirties before I ever read Housekeeping. It remains among my favorite books. I've never read another book that captured so accurately what it feels like to be different, to be weird, to be a writer. The book is not about being a writer, of course, but it is about being different. Even more than that, though, I think Housekeeping is about being yourself, and--most importantly--accepting yourself. Reading Housekeeping helped me to accept myself for who I am. It helped me to know that it's okay to be different, to stand apart, even to stand alone sometimes. I would have had a much easier life if I had read this book twenty years ago, but things come to us when they're meant to, I suppose. Suffice it to say that the book changed my life. And nothing better can be said of a book. Here's one of my favorite passages from Housekeeping, to give you an idea of her writing:

"To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is foreshadowing -- the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries."

I don't know about you, but I always sigh a little bit after reading that. For the beauty of it. But maybe out of a bit of envy, too.

I read Gilead as soon as it came out and fell in love with it, too. I never was able to decide which I loved most: Housekeeping or Gilead. And I still don't know. They're very different books, although they're very similar in that they celebrate individuality, compassion, kindness, aloneness. Gilead is like a long, wonderful prayer. I've always had a fondness for epistolary novels (among my other favorite ones: Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith and The Color Purple by Alice Walker) but Gilead is different in that it is one single letter being written over a long period of time, from an aged preacher to his seven year-old son, whom he has fathered late in life. The preacher, John Ames, fears that he won't live long enough to tell the son everything he wants to, so he starts the letter in the hopes of doing that. Real life intervenes, however, and Ames ends up telling the boy more about what is happening during the writing of the letters than memories or lessons learned. But Ames is always imparting wisdom to his son, and to the reader.

It's hard to say exactly why we love a book. It's one thing to enjoy a book, or to like it, but every once in a while we love books. I tend to think that we cross over into loving a book because we feel we know its characters, and John Ames remains very real to me today, years after I read that novel. He feels like an old friend who taught me many lessons. His voice was so authoritative, so vivid, that I will never forget it. Witness my favorite passage:

"For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you're only a little fellow now and when you're a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there's an intimacy in it. That's the truth."

John Ames is sort of like Atticus Finch in that he becomes everyone's ideal father while you're reading Gilead. But what makes him more interesting than being perfect is that he reveals his doubts and fears and faults to us. He becomes a human being there on the page, one with a beating heart. We grieve for him when he's sad and we feel happy when we're reading about him experiencing joy. Also what Robinson has done above is so efficiently capture that basic, fundamental thing that every parent wishes for their child (well, not every parent, but every parent should): that they never suffer, that they are happy. The most important thing, of course, is that every single line of the book is infused with emotion. This is what every writer--and every reader--should know: that a book is only as good as its emotion. This is a rule of thumb that has gotten lost in a lot of modern literature.

This is what I love most about Robinson's work, that she allows emotion to stand in every sentence. That's something that a lot of modern writers--especially the acclaimed ones--refuse to do. They think that everything has to be cynical, dark, desolate, gritty, graphic. Editors nowadays will say "It's too soft," or "it's not hard enough," or "it doesn't have enough edge." Well, not everyone has edge. My characters rarely do. They're not out being fierce and wild in the faddish way. They're being fierce and wild in their strength, in their hard work, in their love for one another, in their honesty. I think that's what most readers want: characters they can relate to, characters who experience the joys and fears that they do. That's why it's even more amazing that Robinson's novels have been so universally acclaimed. Not only are they quiet and poetic and weird and emotional, they're also about country people (gasp)!!! So the rules of modern literature would normally dictate that this kind of book not be taken seriously.

Add to the list of reasons why it's shocking Robinson gets read that the books--especially Gilead--are very much about Christianity, and religion, and theology, and faith, and doubt. Not exactly subjects that the literati likes to read or write about, unless they're making fun of them. That is not to say that it is a Christian novel, or that it is something that only Christians will be interested in. I'm not sure Robinson intended it this way, but reading that book helped me to understand better how to be the Christian that I wanted and needed to be. Not the Christian that some preacher or my parents or some politician told me I had to be. I am someone who has struggled for twenty-some years with understanding my own faith, my own beliefs. Most of my own writing has been an effort in trying to figure out what I believe and how I believe it. And reading Gilead helped me to understand that better. It helped to show me that true Christianity isn't about judgement and exclusion. It's about compassion and inclusion. Other books and people have helped to show me that, too. But no other book besides The Color Purple and Jude the Obscure has more shaped who I am from a religious or spiritual standpoint. I was raised to think that holiness was not smoking, not cussing, not going to the movie theatre, wearing the right clothes. But then I began to think, and see, differently, and here is a passage in Gilead that helped me to see more clearly what real holiness is:

"I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . . I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I’ll pray that you find a way to be useful. I'll pray, and then I’ll sleep."


It may be simple-minded of me to have to read something like that to fully grasp my own definition of holiness, but that's the power of great books. Often our favorite books are shaped by what is happening in our lives. This one came at the right moment, when I needed it the most, when I was on the edge of losing any kind of faith at all. And this passage, somehow, saved me.

Arguably, one of the major themes in Gilead is racism. But I believe Robinson was using racism as a representative for all kinds of injustice and intolerance and evil. Although racism is still a subtle theme in Home, I believe the main theme is kindness, which naturally goes hand in hand with Christianity (the right kind of Christianity, at least) and racism (that being the opposite of kindness). Racism, then, is the impetus for the main theme, which is holiness.

That theme tumbles over into Home, Robinson's third and most recent novel, which has just been named as a finalist for the National Book Award.

And a lesson was learned in Home, too. Home reminded me that the only way we can better ourselves is by being kind to others, no matter how low we are ourselves. It is important that we not only recognize our own suffering, but see that of others and recognize it as being of more importance than our own. Again and again throughout Home we see characters being kind to each other, often at great expense or sacrifice to themselves. Home is told through the point of view of Glory Boughton, the daughter of Reverend Robert Boughton, who is in his last years, and the sister of Jack Boughton, the black sheep of the family. It is a sort of companion novel to Gilead (it takes place in roughly the same time as that novel and the characters show up in each book, but the focus is on different people and you don't have to read one to get the other) illuminating a minor character from that novel. That character is Glory, and she feels like a sinner, a failure, a disappointment, to herself and others. And she knows about being alone. And about being lonely. No other book I've ever read captures this more tenderly, or more accurately. To combat her lonesome existence she decides to be kind to others instead of striking out at them. You've heard people say that true courage is being afraid, but going forward anyway. Then it must be that true kindness is when you feel so bad you want to be mean, but you're kind anyway.

I love Glory for many reasons. Because she has that true kindness. Because she is reading The Dollmaker (one of my favorite books) during the novel. Because she appreciates sitting on the porch and watching the evening come in. But most of all because of the way she deals with aloneness and loneliness. As a writer, I am used to loneliness. Sometimes we writers are lonely when surrounded by others, even others that we cherish. It is our nature, and we couldn't be good writers otherwise. So that may be another reason I loved Home so much. These are characters who understand aloneness and loneliness (two very different things, the first sometimes desirable, the latter never wanted). My favorite passage in Home is a strange one, but I think it's so perfect it aches:

"She toasted two pieces of bread and ate them dry because she dreaded the sound she might make spreading butter on them. Then she went up to her room. Never had it entered her mind that their household could contain so desolate a silence."

I've been there. I've imagined the sound of that scraping knife. But I don't believe I could have ever articulated it so perfectly. Anyone who wants to learn more about writing would be well-advised to study that simple little paragraph. Look at the perfectly chosen nouns and verbs, the simple words strung together in such a way that they become elegant. The rhythm, so present and alive you could tap your foot to it. Most of all, the mood of the sentences, the way they establish an atmosphere and draw you in and make you a part of the novel and the characters and the scenario.

There's lots more where that passage comes from, too. I wish I could tell you the last three paragraphs because they're among the best passages I've read in literature, ever. But I won't spoil the book for you by doing so, although it's tempting.

I haven't gotten too specific about any of these novels because I don't want to give any of the plots away. Some people say that Robinson's novels are slow and boring. I admit that it took me a few tries to get into Housekeeping. And that Gilead occasionally dragged just a little bit. But I was never bored; there was always too much beauty just around the corner, and I knew it was waiting for me. To my mind, Robinson's novels are meditations, prayers, praises. A dear friend of mine said that reading Home was "like being in a state of grace." This is true, and I believe the same can be said of all three of Robinson's novels. If you haven't read them, prepare yourself for a revelation.
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Check out this beautifully-written review of Home by my friend Aimee Zaring
Some good interviews with Marilynne Robinson:
NPR Interview

7 comments:

Minner Bucket said...

Thanks for writing this, Silas. Your thoughts about Marilynne Robinson's work really touched me. Anything you write is always a gift to your readers. I've been wanting to read GILEAD and HOME, but I just haven't had the opportunity to do so. After reading this, I'm eager to read them as soon as possible.

Kelly Thompson said...

Hi Silas,
I enjoyed your review of Marilynne Robinson's work and, the best part, you turned me on to the fact that there are two more books I need to read. I read Gilead and found it amazing- and talk about different! I experience her writing in Gilead as unique - very different from anything else I've read that I can think of and I have read a lot. I think she makes you work as a reader and that it's well worth the effort. I am looking forward to reading HOME and HOUSEKEEPING.
Again, thanks. I always enjoy your thoughtful words and am currently reading The Hurting Part.

Warrior Librarian said...

I haven't had the pleasure of reading a Marilynne Robinson book, but on the strength of your lovely words I intend to remedy that by reading each book. They definitely sound like my kind of reading. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I have had Robinson's HOUSEKEEPING on my to-read list for years. After reading your post, I plan to read it sooner rather than later.

Also, what you write here resonates with me: "[H]ow can anyone overstate the way it feels when a book moves you and changes you? There isn't enough hyperbole to do justice to that sensation."

For the record, that is the way I felt when I turned the last page of CLAY'S QUILT. I hated to see that book end. The day I can write half as well as you will be one happy day.

Peace, Silas.

Kathy in Kentucky

Anonymous said...

Silas, I adore your books because they are a refreshing counterpoint to the vast sea of novels that are 'gritty' 'hard-edged' etc. Your work is delightfully quiet, poetic, and emotional without being overly sentimental. The emotion is always understated, which of course makes it more powerful. It saddens me though that when you mention the literati you sound cynical. There is the danger that the negative energy generated by this will effectively block your connection to the literati, and Silas, this would be tragic. You deserve to be just as acclaimed as Steinbeck (and hey, isn't East of Eden just fab? Grapes of Wrath, however, is my all-time favorite classic). I would really love to see you tackle a powerful universal theme like Grapes of W and explore it in your own beautiful poetic way. That would be some book indeed, and I have a strong feeling this book is going to appear one day.
Amanda from Australia

lu said...

You get it.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Silas. I appreciated your comments about Robinson's work so very much. I, too, loved Gilead in a way that is hard to express...Ames is a person I want to know so very badly. I want to talk with him and have him as my pastor! Her skill with words, her ability to move seamlessly between past and present, and even future as Ames thinks ahead to the life his son will live after he is gone, is beyond description...so, my friend, let the hyperbole begin and never end!