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Marilynne Robinson’s unsaved

Discussed in this essay:

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages. $26.

About ten years ago I stood with the novelist Marilynne Robinson, whom I was writing a profile of, at a church in Iowa that she had never been inside but which she had spent many years imagining her way into. A white clapboard building with red doors, it was the model for John Ames’s church in Gilead, where the elderly preacher looks up one day to see Lila, the young woman whom he falls in love with. It was clear that the spot satisfied Robinson; it had, as she put it, a “density of presence.” The same could be said of her own novels, which are deceptively quiet on the surface, but turbulent within. Though dramatic things happen — a teenage girl runs away from home with her aunt, a prodigal son returns home years after his neglected daughter dies, a former whore marries a Congregationalist preacher — the books are so inward-gazing that they feel almost uneventful and resolutely full of the everyday, the way most of life does. What one remembers is their luminous grace and the mood of wonder at “our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence,” as one character in Gilead puts it.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

If it’s one of the tasks of a novelist to allow us to see the mysteries of existence more clearly, few American writers at work today do this as well as Robinson. Perhaps this is because she, like Cormac McCarthy (whom in other ways she hardly resembles), has an idiosyncratic, visionary sensibility and is deeply invested in American history. (In Home, it feels shockingly contemporary when two of her characters purchase a black-and-white TV.) She is a liberal Protestant who stalwartly — and unfashionably — champions the work of John Calvin, and her strenuous moral seriousness has put her out of step with other writers of our time (if not with the readers or critics who have celebrated her books). Then, too, she is a preternaturally gifted lyrical writer, steeped in the rhythms of Shakespeare, Melville, and the King James Bible.

But it’s a duality in her work that truly sets her apart: while her polemical non-fiction presents a stern (even obstinate) view of American history, her fiction presents one of the most intuitive, absorbing, welcoming views of the profound ambiguities of character I know. She seems to have a sneaking sympathy with her nonbelievers and her struggling reprobates, to be able to understand what it might be like to resist a Christian worldview; indeed, there’s something nearly pagan in her savoring of the natural world and the pleasures of being an outsider. These are the traits especially on display in her new novel, Lila.

In retrospect, it is not actually surprising that Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, became a modern classic (although, according to Robinson, her editor didn’t expect it to get any review attention). Celebrated by the influential New York Times critic Anatole Broyard when it was first published (Robinson has said, “God love him”), its prose is suffused with the watery spaciousness of Idaho, where it is set. Robinson began the book as a series of metaphors inspired by her readings, and it is through metaphor that the novel persuades us of its force: “Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings,” Ruth, the teenage narrator, tells us. “One is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away.” While its preoccupation with the female outsider might be read in the context of the second-wave feminist 1970s — Ruth and her aunt Sylvie run away from their small town on the edge of a lake, rejecting their “housekeeping” duties to become transient train-hoppers — it is a book more broadly about existential loneliness and metaphysical yearning. As in the best metaphorical literature (Moby-Dick, The Tempest), its symbols resonate beyond themselves. (That “sheet dropped over the world’s true workings” isn’t just artful abstraction, but illuminates the characters’ everyday habits of perception: at one point Ruth says “the wind that billowed her [grandmother’s] sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary.”)

Robinson took twenty-four years to write another novel, although she wrote two well-regarded and opinionated books of non-fiction in the meantime; Mother Country, her exposé of nuclear-waste accumulation at the Sellafield reprocessing plant in Britain, was banned in England. Then, in quick succession, she published two novels, Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), both set in the mid-twentieth century in a small town in Iowa called Gilead. Now along comes Lila, a ruminative novel that takes place in the same scrap of territory.

The three books are being referred to as a “trilogy,” but they are not sequential, like John Updike’s first Rabbit books. Rather, like an old altarpiece, they form a triptych, telling overlapping and simultaneous stories. (Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy comes to mind; like those novels, Robinson’s are told from different characters’ points of view. Both trilogies offer stark lessons in subjectivity.) In Gilead — which is set in 1956 — we met Lila for the first time, as the young wife of John Ames, a seventy-six-year-old Congregationalist preacher. Suffering from heart failure, Ames has decided to write a long letter to his young son, Robby. Ames, in his fragmentary way, tries to capture the vivid world that is slipping away, explores his wonder at having found love and family so late in life, and reflects on his long friendship with Robert Boughton, the town’s Presbyterian minister. He imagines what it would be like to encounter his first wife, Louisa, who died in childbirth when he was a very young man, and the child who died with her. Gilead is also an extended family history and an oblique meditation on Midwestern abolitionism. (Ames’s grandfather was a violent-minded abolitionist and Civil War chaplain.)

What propels both Gilead and Home is the doctrinal question of predestination as it constellates around the return of Jack, Boughton’s forty-three-year-old son. Jack is a wayward soul: he steals, lies, drinks, and fathers an illegitimate daughter with a poor girl who lives at the edge of town. For these reasons, although Jack is Ames’s godson and namesake, Ames has never found mercy in his heart for him; Ames almost resents the unregenerate Jack for having lived when his own first child didn’t, and shudders at the idea that they share a name.

In Home, Robinson retells these same events from the perspective of Boughton’s daughter, Glory, a thirty-eight-year-old former teacher whose engagement has just been called off (her fiancé, it turns out, was already married). The two novels are companion portraits of two aging preachers and their relationships to their children, and, by extension, to the flocks they care for. The ailing Boughton is optimistic that Jack will “come home” — by which he means not only return to Gilead but also find his way back to God — and in his preoccupation he neglects Glory, whose ministrations (games of checkers, dumplings, tactful bathing) he takes for granted. The books are painful in their lucid articulation of familial love — its extraordinary sacrifices and minor redemptions, as well as its cruel shortsightedness.

When Robinson wrote Gilead, she has said, she did not know that she would revisit the character of Lila. In Gilead, Lila is a kind of cipher: Ames loves her, but there is much he does not know about her. (“Her familiarity with the world may be much deeper than mine,” he muses.) From Ames’s diary-memoir, we know that Lila simply appeared one day, that he immediately fell in love with her, and that not long after she asked him to marry her. We are given hints, in Home, of a “worldly” past — she has plucked eyebrows — and of a former life of hardship and wandering. Otherwise, Lila’s existence before she arrived in Gilead is remote even to those who know her. In Lila, Robinson fills in backstory and gives us insight into this intensely private woman.

The book opens mysteriously, with Lila, a neglected toddler, sitting “on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping.” The adults inside have thrown her out because she was making noise; along comes Doll, whom the young Lila hates because she would always “go scrubbing at [Lila’s] face with a wet rag,” to carry her off into the night. Lila herself doesn’t know or remember exactly where all this happened. Her life begins, as it were, with Doll’s act of rescue. Doll has no job, no worldly goods; soon they fall in with a group of itinerant farmworkers led by a man named Doane and his wife, Marcelle. In the eight years before “the Crash,” Doll and Lila do well enough, but their mule dies, and then, Lila recalls, “Everyone else started getting poorer and the wind turned dirty.” Doane grows distant as “most of the farmers that used to know Doane and Marcelle sold up and left . . . and the ones who stayed didn’t want any help, or couldn’t pay for it.”

Lila recalls her drifter youth, for all its hardships, as a kind of prelapsarian time: “There were those few years when it seemed that they knew who they were and where they should be and what they should be doing.” At one point Doll enrolls her in school, where Lila discovers to her surprise that she knows very little, not even the fact that she lives in a country called the United States of America. The other students find her ignorance risible; a teacher encourages Doll to leave her in school, explaining that Lila is smart. But instead of book learning, she and Doll “knew what time of year it was when the timothy bloomed, when the birds were fledging. They knew it was morning when the sun came up. What more was there to know?” Lila speaks in a crude dialect that can be hard to match up with the thoughtful character of the book, but this must be part of Robinson’s point: Within all of us are staunch contradictions, accidents of education and birth that have little to do with our deeper selves.

Formally, the novel cuts back and forth in time, as Robinson contrasts Ames’s courtship of Lila, and the civilized routines of his life, with Lila’s rough memories. What makes Lila’s childhood vivid to her is the bond she still feels with Doll. Doll and Lila live in a kind of bubble, sleeping curled up against each other outdoors, sharing food, acting as one, until Lila gets older and begins to understand that Doll is not her mother, and that she took her away without anyone’s permission. Lila begins to ask questions that Doll will not answer. Ultimately, Doll sends Lila on her way, though this turn of events is vague: all we know is that Doll “told [Lila] to go out on her own and live as she could” and that she was very lonely for a spell. One day, Lila is working as a house cleaner when Doll shows up “all bloody.” Lila discerns that Doll has killed someone — possibly Lila’s own father, who has come looking for her — and has been stabbed. A sheriff shows up to take Doll to jail, where, to protect Lila, Doll pretends not to know her; still gravely injured, Doll escapes and loses herself “in the woods or in the cornfields.” Lila is unmoored by this: She ends up in St. Louis, where she finds work in a whorehouse. Unable to primp and flirt, she has almost no customers. Still, she feels “the shame that many women felt before her” and hitches a ride to Iowa, where she squats in a shack in the woods until she gets lonely enough to wander into Ames’s church.

These events, however, are simply background to the main, interior drama. The question animating Lila is how a person might reconcile herself to the idea that many of those she loved were “unsaved.” After meeting Ames, Lila begins avidly reading the Bible and is later baptized. But she continues to worry over the state of her soul and the souls of those she knew and cared for. As she listens to Ames debate scripture with Boughton, a rebellious part of her thinks: “If Doll was going to be lost forever, Lila wanted to be right there with her, holding to the skirt of her dress.” At one point, troubled by the idea that Doll, Marcelle, and Doane’s daughter Mellie will end up in hell, she “washed the baptism off” in a river. All this happens without much outward reverberation: Lila is a close-lipped soul.

As Ames and Lila court, she watches him, gauging how much she can trust anyone and whether she loves this man who is so very different from her. She continues to tell herself she might leave at any time — after all, she thinks, if Ames knew about her time in the whorehouse, her friend Doll the murderer, he might want her to go. While Lila’s wariness can feel a bit staged and repetitive, if you’ve read Gilead, it’s easy to understand why she doesn’t feel she can share any of this with her gentle preacher husband, who spends his spare hours fretting about fine points of salvation. Ames’s life is guided by strict principles that are alien to Lila’s more creaturely relationship to nature. As Ames explains to her that the moon is closer to the sun, she remembers that she used to wonder “why some stars came unstuck and others didn’t” and thinks “it was nice to be talking about the stars. She could hardly think of them apart from the sound of cicadas and the smell of damp and clover. . . . Children come up with these notions, and then after a while they forget to wonder about it all.”

Lila is about having no home in the world except one’s own powerful perceptions. As a companion piece to Gilead, it is a marvelous novelistic exploration of subjectivity, showing a courtship we already know a fair amount about (or thought we did) from the other side. It’s almost painful to read — while the relationship brings abiding comfort (and grace) to both Lila and Ames, Robinson deftly portrays their ultimate loneliness, how very far apart two consciousnesses finally remain. Ames is shy, self-conscious, a little unworldly, and Lila is distrustful, awkward. What connects them are their questions: Ames takes seriously Lila’s doubts and wrestles with how to answer her in a meaningful way. That he never is quite able to, that the answers in this world must be partial and groping, is one of the satisfactions of the book. Robinson has written, “To identify sacred mystery within every individual experience, every life, giving the world its largest sense, is to arrive at democracy as an ideal and to accept the difficult obligation to honor others and oneself with something approaching due reverence.” Lila is, in a sense, a fictional exploration of that otherness, a way of explaining how two people tolerate marriage.

How, you might wonder, does Robinson manage to skirt sentimentality in a novel about two people finding love in an otherwise — yes — hopeless place? This was an issue in Gilead too, and at times that novel verged on the self-serious. But in both books a wry, steely sense of humor punctures the more rapturous passages, and what might otherwise seem like sweetness is tartly complicated by the weighty problems. How can the beautiful world, if it be divine, be also governed by the problem of hell? How can those who spend their lives studying scripture be themselves — like Boughton and Ames — so stubborn, judgmental, and blind to the needs of those closest to them? Unlike in Housekeeping, the drama of each novel in the Gilead trilogy is the drama of belief and the very real challenges it poses to the questioning faithful.

Indeed, at moments, one wonders whether readers will find Lila’s internal struggle about salvation as suspenseful as Robinson finds it. After the publication of Gilead, the critic Lee Siegel wrote that “unless you are a believing Christian with strong fundamentalist leanings, you cannot truly understand Gilead” (echoing T. S. Eliot’s claim that you cannot understand Dante unless you are a believing Catholic). Of course, as many retorted, even those of us who are agnostics or atheists do read and garner much meaning from Dante and, for that matter, Eliot.

But it may be the case that we’re not reading those authors the way they wished us to, an issue we dismiss because we are encountering history when we read them. We are so unlike Eliot and Dante in myriad ways that it hardly seems to matter that we’re unlike them in this way too. In Robinson’s case the question is foregrounded because she is our contemporary. But Robinson’s faith is bound up in a love of the actual, of the sheer sensuality of existence and its primal patterns, in a way that many of us can enter or understand even if we are not believing Christians.

All her novels have at their heart a parent-child relationship of some kind, complex stand-ins for the relationship between the self and God that allow Robinson to explore questions of responsibility and vulnerability: What do we owe one another, and why do we fail to understand one another? But one never feels the plights are staged for the benefit of hammering home a larger point about the human-divine relationship; Robinson’s mode is always suggestive, never didactic. The parents and children are just parents and children, too.

Then there is the beauty of the books, a beauty that rarely feels decorative or ornate; her prose is imbued with a kind of moral gravity, as if the experience of beauty were a form of ethical testimony. Early on, Robinson establishes how powerful Lila’s connection to Doll is using one simple image: “Lila knew it couldn’t have been the way she remembered it, as if she were carried along in the wind, and there were arms around her to let her know she was safe, and there was a whisper at her ear to let her know that she shouldn’t be lonely.” We understand a great deal about what Doll means to Lila after reading that sentence: When another person feels elemental to you, how can you disavow her? “You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision,” Robinson told The Paris Review in 2008, noting, humorously, “a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me.”

This mystery in the everyday is Robinson’s enduring subject, the one for which she has the truest feel. She has a way, as A. O. Scott noted in 2008 in the New York Times, of restoring to “dowdy, common words — words like courtesy and kindness, shame and forgiveness, transgression and grace . . . a startling measure of their old luster and gravity.” It is easy to miss what is radical in this, but it is, indeed, radical in a world that so often turns its back on history. Anyone who has experienced loss knows that when something is on the verge of disappearing, old words become newly meaningful. What is amazing is how fluidly Robinson is able to resurrect them.

’s most recent book is Once: Poems (W. W. Norton).

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November 2014

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