Monday, August 27, 2012

The Rocky Places of Marilynne Robinson

The ongoing debate and discussion about Christian fiction versus fiction ebbs and flows. It calms down, only to erupt as writers argue and debate whether there should be a distinction or not (and this seems to be an issue only for Christian writers). It’s interesting, and thought-provoking, but it can lean to the tiresome with repetition. Then a writer like Eric Wilson will publish an open letter, asking it if it’s time for Christian fiction to die, and blow the lid off all over again.

Then there’s Marilynne Robinson, who, I think, makes Wilson’s point in spades.

Robinson is a writer of what could only be called serious, literary fiction. Her fist novel, Housekeeping (1980), had the good fortune of being noticed and reviewed by Anatole Broyard in The New York Times Book Review (he was afraid it would go unnoticed so he reviewed it himself). She went on to write non-fiction and essays, and published her second novel, Gilead, in 2004. Home, a kind of companion to Gilead but not a sequel or “prequel,” was published in 2008.

I first “met” Robinson through the movie version of Housekeeping. It’s the story of an irregular, more-than-slightly offbeat aunt who comes home to care for her two young nieces, whose mother has committed suicide. Actress Christine Lahti played the aunt, and she played the character perfectly. I read the book after seeing the movie. As much as I liked the movie, I forgot it as I read Robinson’s prose.

Housekeeping was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; Gilead won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. As good as Housekeeping is, I find Gilead even better.

In the story, it’s early 1950s Iowa. Minister John Ames, 77, is dying, and he’s writing a journal of his thoughts and history for his son, who is 7. How a 77-year-old minister came to have a 7-year-old son is part of the history. Ames’ father and grandfather were ministers, and his grandfather was a sympathizer of abolitionist John Brown and often packed a revolver during his sermons. Ames’ father embraced the Quakers; Ames himself is ministering to a Congregationalist church.

There are three things one sees about this story from the start.

First, the writing is extraordinary, almost a “poetic prose.” It is absolutely beautiful and often breathtaking.

Second, the structure of the story is unusual. It’s in the form of a long letter or extended journal. It is a first-person account of an elderly man who is honest enough with himself to tell a story without making himself the hero.

Third, the story is about relationships, and particularly the relationships of fathers and sons, those “rocky places” which is what Gilead means. (Historically, Gilead is a region in northern Palestine, east of the Jordan River; it was known for both its rockiness and its balm, a resin collected from its evergreen trees and used as an ointment).

The relationships include one character outside the Ames family, John Ames Boughton, who’s the son of Ames’ best friend but thinks of Ames so much like a second father that he calls him “Papa.” And these father-son relationships don’t follow a conventional story line; they twist and turn and surprise. The story that Ames tells is the story that history and ancestry matter, because the past shapes the present and the future in ways both obvious and subtle. That Ames’ grandfather was a John Brown supporter will matter a great deal a century later.

Gilead, to me, is one way to look at the Christian fiction versus fiction argument. It stands outside the genre of Christian fiction; it sits firmly within mainstream publishing. And yet it is a profoundly Christian novel, written by a Christian (who teaches at the Iowa Workshop for Writers), with Christian themes and concepts  and language and characters often juxtaposed against non-believers or those who have rejected the faith of their youth. And like so much of what we experience as Christians, there is a moment of forgiveness and blessing that is so quiet that it’s almost missed. When you’re startled into realizing what has happened, you go back and reread it. I did that, several times.

In fact, I found myself stopping and rereading passages of Gilead several times. The language alone is that excellent. The story, of recognizable people in recognizable relationships, is that good. In an interview with the Paris Review, Robinson wasn’t speaking of herself but she could have been when she said, “Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.”

That’s exactly what happens in Gilead.

This article was originally published by The Christian Manifesto, but the site was redesigned and the archive (with all of my posts) disappeared. So I’m occasionally reposting some of the articles I wrote for the publication.


Sheila said...

I think I've just found my next read. Thank you, Glynn!

Patricia said...

So glad you reposted this, Glynn. Love Marilynne Robinson's writing. Gilead is a treasure, and I think on this rainy post-Issac day, I'll take it out and read it again.

Maureen said...

I tend to think that those who restrict their reading to labels such as "Christian fiction" miss out on some extraordinary writing. Robinson is a marvelous writer.

SimplyDarlene said...

I first learned of this author from you and I read "Home" about this time last year. Compared to Charles Martin (whom you also introduced me to), wow, what different writing styles. I struggled with liking hers because I was used to whiz-banging through a novel; but, like you said, Robinson's stuff needs to be read and re-read, and by the end, you don't want it to end.

Thanks for this review. (Ms. R and I hale from the same hometown, ya know?)


Diana said...

I think Gilead is one of the most gloriously beautiful books I've ever read, period. The fact that it is so deeply Christian is intrinsic to every page so that I don't think the label is misapplied - until I read other things that are sometimes called 'Christian fiction.' And then I think - this woman's work stands in a class, almost by itself. I don't know when you originally posted this, but I thank you for posting it again. I'm hunting for my copy to put it on my re-read stack.

H. Gillham said...

she writes beautifully

Chris Yokel said...

This has encouraged me to very shortly pick up Gilead and finally read it. It's been sitting on my shelf for awhile.

S. Etole said...

Sounds like it is well worth reading.

jte said...

Hi all, I'm new to this blog having stumbled to it via a Google Alert for "Marilynne Robinson," my favorite writer.

I don't read any "Christian fiction" for a couple of reasons: I hardly read anything these days (two small children and starting my own business) and I'm a stalwart atheist from a Jewish background. That said, I am not "anti" Christianity or religion of any sort, it's just that I'm not drawn in any way to them in a spiritual fashion -- they are fascinating to me intellectually, but that's it.

And THAT SAID, Robinson's writings -- Gilead and her relevant essays -- give me definite warm fuzzy feelings about Christianity. I don't have any inkling to take any leaps of faith, but I just might join the Congregational church down the street anyhow, especially if the minister's sermons are anywhere as wonderful as Ames' expressions in Gilead.

Okay, so all that was probably unnecessary introduction to a question/hypothesis I'll offer regarding a possible distinction between fiction like Robinson's and fiction that gets plastered with a "Christian" label. My impression of people who trumpet their Christianity (or any religion, or atheism for that matter!) on their sleeves is that they are utterly convinced about being right about this important topic, and usually not just right about it in the general sense but right about it down to quite a few of the particulars.

Robinson, it seems to me, has as deep and abiding a faith as others, and yet her faith is perfectly compatible with her humility regarding the limits of what she can know in any absolute sense, as well as with her deep curiosity and drive to understand that which she is able. And perhaps this is part of the distinction between any fiction genre and the stuff we call literary fiction? That fiction rises to the level of "literature" when the writer is able to access a certain depth of the human condition, a condition that, among other things, seems -- to me -- to necessitate a grappling with doubts of one essential sort or another. (Not having guidance from those properly educated in the Bible, that has always been my interpretation of Matthew 27:45 / Mark 15/34 ["My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"] -- that Jesus's role as God in human form only finally fulfills the human experience for himself when he has experienced doubt in his faith.)

Of course, some of the difference is not due to The Big Issues. I've worked in the book industry off and on for years, and I know that genre labels are largely marketing gimmicks. That Robinson happens to be an extraordinary prose stylist and so is given entree to the fancier "literary" category while others are stamped "Christian" isn't necessarily a reflection of comparative humility or comparative willingness to be the underdog in grappling with truth.

Nancy said...

I just read Gilead over the past weekend and commented on Facebook that I couldn't believe I hadn't read it before. One of my friends directed me to your review here.

It was a spectacular read, the language and reflections so very good for my soul.

hopeinbrazil said...

I appreciated your comments on this book, which is one of the most beautiful novels I've ever read. I'm anxious to read Home.

Girl Detective said...

came via semicolon. I seek out fiction with religious and mythic themes because I find the books more toothsome, and full of ethical issues. There's lots of great fiction out there with Christian themes. I just read Peace Like a River, Tinkers and Vestments for one of my book groups, and they have many overlapping themes. The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse... I don't consider them Christian fiction so much as great fiction that has Christian themes.