In 1980, when she was in her late thirties, Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping. Her way of seeing things seemed to have sprung from nowhere and was like no one else’s. The novel won awards, high praise from critics, and the devotion of readers, and it has not been forgotten: its fame has spread in a slow aftershock, passed on by word of mouth, cropping up on lists of the best contemporary novels. In the first few pages a train runs off a bridge into a lake in the middle of the night, and that is something like the experience of reading Housekeeping: a startling plunge into a language of icy sensuality and mysterious depths, where the world is reflected upside down.
Two little girls, Ruthie and Lucille, whose grandfather died in the train accident, are brought up in an eccentric all-female household at the edge of Fingerbone, a small town in the north-west of the United States, after their mother without any explanation drives her car into the same lake. When their grandmother dies, their aunt Sylvie gives up her life riding the freight trains and comes home to look after the girls, trying her best to domesticate herself but not entirely succeeding: the house fills up with empty cans and old newspapers; she buys the girls pink sequinned slippers but they don’t have clothes to wear to school. Sylvie prefers the house with the lights off and the doors and windows open; she doesn’t understand why she shouldn’t borrow a boat that isn’t hers. The two sisters have to choose whether to be saved for normal living or to take the risk of escaping it with Sylvie. Their dilemma is presented with generous even-handedness; sentimentality would have weighted it in favour of escape.
The novel depends on its distinctive diction: simple but with an old-fashioned schoolbook decorum. You read the first pages, the first time, with trepidation, in case it all turns out to be sham-archaic: Ruthie’s grandfather ‘escaped this world years before I entered it’; ‘From without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave.’ ‘Escaped this world’? ‘From without’? Is Robinson putting it on, making Ruthie’s quaintness charming? With time we come to believe that Robinson’s mind moves authentically inside Ruthie’s style. She wins the reader’s confidence partly thanks to the superbly imagined details: ‘A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and drenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and our cold hands.’ Robinson needs this lightly incantatory rhythm and glassy transparency of syntax and vocabulary in order to move as fluidly as she does between ordinary solidities and metaphysical questioning. Things – the lake, Sylvie’s dress, the flood, the contents of the grandmother’s drawer – are all luminous with a surplus of meaning:
Sometimes we used to watch trains passing in the dark afternoon, creeping through the blue snow with their windows all alight, and full of people eating and arguing and reading newspapers. They could not see us watching, of course, because by 5.30 on a winter day the landscape had disappeared, and they would have seen their own depthless images on the black glass, if they had looked.
The girls are haunted by their dead, and by their awareness of impermanence and loss; everyone sooner or later seems to vanish beneath the surface of the lake. They struggle to construct meanings to live by; they fear that Sylvie too will leave them, disappear somehow into the water. One winter they skate out as far as they can on the frozen lake to look back at Fingerbone; from this distance the world is stripped of familiarity and therefore of safety, but it is also open to revelation: ‘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.’ Lucille chooses to hide from this vision, burying herself in the ordinary; Ruthie is afraid that if she doesn’t keep herself open to it she will lose her dead, and the truth.
If the novel is religious, this is never merely asserted; it’s always tentative and experimental, set out on the page in complex sequences of thought and in the sensually experienced tension between fear and desire: ‘I simply let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones. Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings.’ The novel begins with annihilation and doesn’t end in any certain consolation, even if Sylvie and Ruthie, escaping from Fingerbone, crossing the railway bridge perilously on foot, may (or may not) hear in a moment of extremity ‘some word so true we did not understand it, but merely felt it pour through our nerves like darkness or water’. The book itself, of course, is a redemptive act, a way of ‘keeping’ the lost things. The writing is sometimes Hopkins-like, its natural world vibrating with ‘inscape’; though that could just reflect a coincidence of shared intuition. More crucially, for all the differences, Housekeeping is often reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn. Sylvie and Ruthie are fugitives like Huck and Jim, restless under the dispensation of things as they are, helpless to change, their difference intolerable to the peace of mind of settled folk. Their innocence disturbs a fallen world; at the end of the novel they are bound to ‘light out’ west. Robinson’s is a distinctively American sensibility.
After more than twenty years she has published a second novel, Gilead. It’s not clear why it has taken so long; she suggests in one interview that there have been false starts and unfinished stories put aside. She has published in the meantime two works of non-fiction: Mother Country (1989), about the British nuclear reactor at Sellafield; and a book of essays on ‘modern thought’, The Death of Adam (1998). Instead of embodying the tension of thought as the language of Housekeeping does, the essays are heavily opinionated, and in places seem to have been written in a lather of indignation. They have Robinson’s characteristic gravity, however, and are everywhere original; nothing she thinks is glib or second-hand. A beautiful piece in The Death of Adam, ‘Psalm Eight’, on her childhood experience of religious language, illuminates the sources of the mysterious power of the prose in Housekeeping. Elsewhere, though, the essays are too often addressed as if from the prophet in the wilderness to the benighted world: as if Robinson were the only one to see merit in Calvin’s religious thought, feel impatience at the zealotry of fashionable right-mindedness, feel outrage at depredations against the environment. It is characteristic, for instance, that in a book about the history of British responses to nuclear power Robinson never mentions CND or Greenham Common, and mentions Greenpeace only in order to include it in the general excoriations (Greenpeace successfully sued).
She is impatient with what she sees as the exaggerated respect of the American cultural elite towards all things European. She wants to encourage instead a proper pride in the original impulses of American independence: anti-aristocratic, inclusive, libertarian. Her furiously hostile interpretations of British social and cultural history are, however, ill-informed, even bizarre: she suggests for instance that in 1989 illegitimate births continued to be excluded from national statistics, and that the school leaving age would ‘probably soon be lowered to 14’. Perhaps when Robinson tells us in Mother Country that she has based her ‘history of modern England . . . largely on newspaper reports’, we need to imagine Sylvie sitting at the kitchen table in Fingerbone, piecing together the history of British social institutions from her old newspapers and a few dusty volumes left in the attic by her father. These two non-fiction books seem, finally, parochial; which is just the word Robinson would want us to use, because in all her work she fiercely defends the value of parochialism. The word for her has a double force: a parish is not only a small place left behind by a dubious urbanising modernity, it’s also a religious community. Parochialism for Robinson isn’t an attitude to apologise for: it’s a lever with which to try, against whatever odds, to overturn the disastrous errors of the great world. She writes in the introduction to Mother Country:
This book is essentially an effort to break down some of the structures of thinking that make reality invisible to us. These are monumental structures, large and central to our civilisation . . . If I accomplish no more than to jar a pillar or crack a fresco, or totter a god or two, I hope no one will therefore take my assault as symbolic rather than as failed. If I had my way I would not leave one stone upon another.
Gilead is narrated by the Congregationalist minister of just such a small, left-behind community, in Iowa in 1956. John Ames is in his seventies, married to a much younger second wife, Lila, and with a seven-year-old son; the novel is written in the form of a letter for the boy to read when he is an adult. Ames adds to the letter day by day; alongside stories out of the past of his own father and grandfather, he charts his difficult relationship with Jack Boughton in the present. Jack, who is about the age of Ames’s wife, is the son of his best friend; as a baby he was given Ames’s name and offered to him almost as a surrogate child, as if to compensate for the recent loss of his own first wife and daughter. The gesture never sweetened Ames’s loneliness, and has soured his relationship with Jack: Jack calls him Papa, but Ames only mistrusts that as part of the younger man’s suspect charm.
Ames’s developing relationship with Jack is the only strong narrative element in the novel’s present. When Jack comes home to Gilead to visit his dying father, Ames’s serene end-of-life reckonings are troubled by the complex resentments evoked in him by the younger man: by Jack’s religious doubts; by his squandering of his chances in life and the trail of damage he leaves behind; and, most viscerally, by the jealousy Ames feels when Jack becomes friendly with Lila. At the end of the novel, after Jack makes to Ames the confession he can’t make to his own father – that he has a son by a coloured girl he loves but isn’t married to – the two men are reconciled, and Ames blesses Jack before he leaves.
The book is full of such Oedipal jostlings between generations of men; even in the letter he is writing John Ames reaches out, with whatever benevolent intentions, to influence and instruct his son after his death. In interesting counterpoint to Housekeeping, here it is the men’s role to wonder, as well as to maintain and perpetuate the cultural forms that bind the community: Ames’s attic is piled high with all the books he has read and all the sermons he has written (2250, he estimates). His wife is a wildflower, a poor girl who arrived in Gilead from nowhere and took refuge in Ames’s church, watching him baptise as if witnessing mysteries: ‘“No one seen to it for me when I was a child,” she said. “I been feeling the lack of it.”’ Lila, Ames’s mother and old Boughton’s daughter Glory are the housekeepers in Gilead, shyly reverent or slyly amused at male perplexity; balanced against male authority, the female is supposed to have a spontaneous intuitive wisdom. These are the classically patriarchal imaginings of gender that one might expect from a sensitive, conservative-minded, elderly minister in 1956; the challenge for the reader is to decide why Robinson chose, fifty years later, to constrain her own thought inside the frame of Ames’s imaginings.
The most extraordinary and best of the stories in Gilead are to do with the quarrels Ames remembers between his father and grandfather; these are the hub of the novel’s arguments about the transforming power of religious faith. The grandfather was a passionate abolitionist, ‘afire with old certainties’, who fought alongside John Brown; he is another one of those disturbing innocents, impossible to live with and yet leaving the mark of his intensity on everyone he touches. When he was 16 he had a vision of the Lord in irons, holding out his arms to him, and knew he had to go to Kansas, where they were voting whether to enter the Union slave or free; he pitied his son, who was temporising and reasonable: ‘That’s just what kills my heart . . . That the Lord never came to you. That the seraphim never touched a coal to your lips.’ His son’s wife had to keep what little household money there was tied up in her handkerchief or buried in the sugar to stop the old man giving it away. The conflicts between the two men are powerfully dramatised in their own voices and in remembered scenes between them, so that we almost forget that these are being filtered, like everything else, through Ames’s narrative commentary:
My grandfather put his head in his hands. He said: ‘Reverend, no words could be bitter enough, no day could be long enough. There is just no end to it. Disappointment. I eat and drink it. I wake and sleep it.’
My father’s lips were white. He said: ‘Well, Reverend, I know you placed great hope in that war. My hopes are in peace, and I am not disappointed.’
Their conflict centres on an episode when the grandfather returns from a foray with a bloody shirt and climbs into the pulpit wearing it, with a pistol in his belt; for his son this is a turning point. He is sure that ‘this has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing. And I was, and I am, as certain of that as anyone could ever be of any so-called vision.’ This conflict between them is so potent in the novel because it is left unresolved. For all Ames’s ruminations on the subject, nothing can unpick the confrontation of ethical positions embodied in that moment, between the zeal that energises a revolutionary rejection of injustice, and the conscientious withholding of consent to any violence. It’s a moment both historically precise and resonantly universal.
The problem with the novel is that the quantity of rumination is disproportionate to the embodiment. In Housekeeping, Ruthie’s voice, arriving unexplained out of an unspecified future, had an openness and a poetic range which worked effectively like authorial omniscience. Down in the detail and rhythm of Ames’s language, however, Robinson has limited what we can see. He’s a plain-talking man with a homiletic habit, easily moved to delight or melancholy, given to a somewhat ponderous spelling out of his thoughts:
There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.
I’ve known young fellows who spent time in jail or got themselves sent off to the navy for behaviour that wasn’t any worse. But his family was so well respected that he got away with it all. That is to say, he was allowed to go right on disgracing his family.
This voice has things so comfortably sewn up, it doesn’t have any capacity for the truth-seeking exertions of fresh thought. If we are meant to infer from the novel a continuum between the grandfather’s activism spurred by passionate faith and Ames’s late-life celebrations of a world radiant with God’s love, the language is too bland to convince us. Ames’s mere acquiescence to the existence of Jack’s mixed-race child can’t stand all by itself for a significant engagement against injustice.
There’s plenty in what Ames tells us, and in the way he tells it, to support readings of his character and motivations rather more rounded than the account he offers of himself. He writes with unresolved bitterness about his brother and his father. For a minister, there’s a startling absence of interest in his flock, an overweening interest in himself. (We never learn what people do for a living in Gilead, or who comes to his church, or whether any of them fought or died in the recent war; their sorrows don’t seem to mark or move him.) He never questions as probingly as we might expect the worth of his attic full of old sermons (a marvellous metaphor for a lifetime’s endeavour which may or may not have been to the point). He displays all the narrow prejudices of his era in his attitude to the poor white family of Jack’s first illegitimate child. He’s capable of a tetchy shallowness as, for example, in his response to the flu epidemic: ‘Their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war.’ Perhaps he isn’t quite the blessing and blessed old man he thinks he is.
It’s impossible to know what to do with this surplus of characterisation. If Robinson’s purpose in Gilead is to represent the value of a religious apprehension of life which modernity, at its peril, has relegated to the parochial margin, she seems to undercut it at every turn. And yet it remains an interesting equivocation, this constraining of herself inside a voice that is less complex than her own best thought. It leaves readers in an uneasy relationship to the authority of the novel; but it keeps alive the doubt which otherwise would be missing inside Ames’s too ringing confidence in the goodness intrinsic in things.