Marilynne Robinson • Gilead

I started writing a summary of the books I’ve read recently, as in my last post, but my summaries this time grew to full essays. Thinking it cruel to make you read over 5,000 words in a single blog, I’ve separated out my summaries and will be posting individual blogs on each book. I don’t know if I will continue with this practice, but I have another two pretty much done and a good start on a third. Apparently I have a lot of Thoughts about this batch of books.

As a reader and thinker, I’m by nature interested in style, in how a book or poem is written. Brittany comments on this all the time when we’re discussing what we read. I beg your patience as I rattle on about style at the expense of the substance of a book. When I formulate what to say, this is what comes to mind.

It strikes me that some of you might be interested to know what books I’ve read and whether I’d recommend them without me forcing you to read a whole bunch of spoilers. And there are a lot of spoilers. With that in mind:

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead. 2004 novel about a Congregationalist preacher in early 20th century Iowa. Recommended with reservations.

 Ernest Haskell, Kennebec Homestead

Ernest Haskell, Kennebec Homestead

Gilead has been on my radar since the 2015 conversation in the New York Review of Books between President Obama and Robinson, in which Obama says that “one of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through.” A rather strong endorsement! So what do we find in the book?

It’s the life story and theological musings of a 76 year old Congregationalist minister, John Ames, a bookish man about to die. He’s writing to his 7 year old son, so that his son might know who his father was. The narrator’s father was John Ames, and his father’s father was John Ames, both preachers, his father a pacifist, his grandfather a supporter of abolition. The tension you might imagine between these sons and men of God is the tension you find in the book.

Gilead is all about its style. There are no chapter breaks, just gaps between sections. It’s a plainspoken account of events with occasional academic delvings into questions of theology or flourishes of lyrical language to remind you that Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The action is presented circuitously in fragments, with bits given out here and there, with repetition and analysis and digression. Minor daily incident is placed next to major life event next to a discussion of baseball or sprinklers or weathervanes. You have to pay attention, for it’s a patient book. Robinson is a fine writer and the voice of Ames lulls you in a grandfatherly way. He has a gentle humour of the type that elicits a single chuckle and a thoughtful stare. His voice absorbs you.

The portraits of his forebears are delightful. His one-eyed grandfather, who moved from Maine to Kansas to fight for abolition, who steals everything to give it away, is the most memorable character in the novel:

I heard a man say once it seemed the one eye he had was somehow ten times an eye.

His father, a pacifist, opposes the grandfather to the point of going to a Quaker service rather than watch the grandfather as a wounded, bloody minister preaching the justice of fighting for abolition. The grandfather leaves Gilead and, in an affecting passage early in the novel, Ames as a child and his father travel to find the grandfather’s grave in Kansas. They find it in an overgrown, forgotten graveyard and clean it up.

You learn late in the novel that the father has left Gilead for an easier life in Florida. He has encouraged Ames to do likewise. But Ames is dutiful to Iowa and even in recollection gets angry:

He was expounding the wonders of the larger world, and I was resolving in my heart never to risk the experience of them.

So Ames has stayed in Iowa and spent a lonely life in study:

I don’t know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days, and people respected me for all those hours I was up here working away in the study, and for the books that used to come in the mail for me.

Passages like these shimmer across the slowly moving tapestry of the text. While suffused with warmth and light, the book is a melancholy one, a lament for an older way of living, thinking, believing. For these reasons, I enjoyed the book, and recommend it.

Yet there are a number of things that give me pause and make my recommendation a weak one.

Gilead is quite tedious at times and not only during the digressions about, say, the Fifth Commandment (for Ames, that’s the one about honouring your father and mother). Robinson does this thing that irritates me. She has Ames start a story, get distracted, and only pick the thread back up later on. In theory this is naturalistic, as if the old man is simply narrating his life: “I woke up this morning to the smell of pancakes, which I dearly love.” On the other hand, he’s supposed to be a preacher who has written over 2,000 sermons, putting deep thought into the coherence of his message. There is an unresolved tension here between the studious nature of the character and the fragmentary, casual style of the novel. Also this technique is patently used by Robinson to build narrative momentum.

Because Gilead, for all its straight-from-the-good-people tone, is a highly metafictional novel, both in style and in substance. It often feels like Robinson is using the character of Ames to get a rant off her chest. The theology in this book is all gospel and no law. There is no Judgement, there is no Hell. This merely positive theology feeds into the impression that Robinson is presenting a romanticized vision of smalltown life to elevate it, which is especially at odds with the questionable portrait of race relations, about which more in just a bit.

There is one character, Edward, the narrator’s older brother, an atheist professor, who feels like he was added simply to justify Ames’ cosmopolitanism. He is introduced as the reason Ames can quote Feuerbach and is not much of a character beyond that. Ames never travels except through books, which he has read a fabulous number of, including all the books that his older brother reads at university. Most professors I’ve known don’t read as much as Ames supposedly does. Thus Ames gets to be cosmopolitan even as he’s simultaneously as smalltown as it gets. Robinson has it both ways.

I wish Ames would have talked more about his wife, Lila, who is some forty years or so younger than he is. She was a stranger who passed through town, heard him preach, and after a short while asked him to marry her. You don’t get much of her, beyond a strange passage where Ames pretends to sleep while she and his godson talk as if they knew each other from before. Such an unusual pairing you’d think would be worthy of analysis but Robinson doesn’t get into it. You never see Lila. Ames had a previous wife, Rebecca, who died in childbirth, similarly unseen.

It’s the ending of the book in particular that gives me pause. There is very little narrative tension in the novel until Jack Boughton appears in town about ninety pages in, after being hinted about before. Jack Boughton, christened John Ames Boughton after the narrator, is the rebellious son of Ames’s lifelong friend Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian minister in Gilead. Jack always had a devilish streak in him, and is a very unlikeable character. Ames doesn’t like him and his placidity is disrupted by his godson’s return. Jack starts as a peripheral story and becomes the main plot.

Thirty pages from the end, the visual progression of fragments with only a gap between them is dramatically broken for the one and only time in the book. A paragraph ends, there’s a blank page, then a new chapter begins on the next page, with dramatic visual impact.

And what is this most dramatic moment as highlighted by the presentation? The revelation that Jack Boughton has a common law wife and they’ve had a child. His partner is black. This, in 1950s USA.

Jack tells Ames his sad story of wooing a teacher and how due to discrimination they can’t hold jobs anymore, can’t find apartments, are dead broke. But Jack was not exactly a successful worker before, had callously abandoned a previous child who then died from neglect, and is in no way redeemed by his story. In fact I would say that his story clearly illustrates that his wife is much better off leaving him, as she has, and should never have gone with him, not for any reason of race but because Jack is a bad man.

Yet it is precisely Jack who becomes the focus of a benevolent pity that the reader is asked to bestow upon a character who has suffered the hardships of discrimination. You don’t get any of his partner’s perspective. The book’s engagement with these problems, highlighted so strongly by the presentation, felt very shallow to me.

There is no resolution. The book ends sadly with Jack leaving Gilead and Ames waiting to die.

Gilead is worth reading but is frustrating.

Robinson has written two further books in the Extended Gilead Universe, Home and Lila, which I haven’t read, have no intention of reading, and know little about. Home is from the perspective of Ames’ friend Robert Boughton. Lila is from the perspective of Lila, Ames’ wife.

I read a couple of passages out to Brittany and it reads very well aloud (a strong compliment from me), so perhaps the audiobook is a good idea.