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Marilynne Robinson: Fiction reaching deep within

Posted by Ron George on March 20, 2015

Archetype small-town church in Iowa

Archetype: Small-town church in Iowa
By Brian McMillan

Marilynne Robinson’s fiction is not for everyone. There’s no action. At least the two I have read (so far), Gilead and Home, are set in a dreary rural town, and they dwell upon melancholy, loss and regret.

Sound like fun?

Fortunately, fun is not – at least not yet – the sole criterion of value in American culture. (Popular culture, perhaps.) Somewhere in the outer reaches, away past the asteroid belt, there is an orbit for fiction that does not rely on vampires, spies, impending doom or catastrophe; or, for that matter, sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, vast accumulations of wealth and other forms of egocentric power.

Robinson’s themes are deeply human, her characters flawed but not flamboyantly so, her prose elegant and her insight crystalline. She brings the heart and skills of an essayist to her fiction, which casts not a broad net but drills into the psyche; yes, the human soul, whatever that term has come to mean. An old friend once said “psychology” was misnamed, that it should have been “auto-logy,” knowledge of the self. Robinson’s work, though, is true psychology – a reasonable account of the soul.

Non-Christians may be cloyed by these works, for many of their conversations are rooted in Jewish and Christian holy scripture. These characters, though, are not Bible-thumpers in the moralizing traditional sense. Their conversations comprise the contradictions and cruelties of the ancient texts; indeed, these are often points of debate. More important, however, they take into account the flawed fabric of human being, especially those in our midst who struggle to appreciate and appropriate the Bible’s higher themes while failing – or refusing – to accommodate its strangeness and downright irrelevance.

What honest Christian hasn’t had to deal with that?

Most disarming for this reader, and perhaps for any ordained person, is Robinson’s uncanny sense of the mind of a preacher.

Main street small-town Iowa

Archetype: Main street, small-town Iowa, 1950s
By Bernard C. Shine

Gilead’s literary conceit is that of an elderly Congregationalist pastor, John Ames, who, having married late in life and with a chronic heart condition, fears that he won’t live long enough to see his young son grow into maturity. He’s writing a long letter to the boy that imparts a fragmentary memoir, reflections on the nature of things and an account of his long friendship with the Presbyterian pastor next door, a younger man now old, whose troubled son Jack has returned home and still seems nefarious.

The Rev. Mr. Ames feels beset by his circumstances, which include relinquishing control of a congregation he has served all his adult life and that he inherited from his father who inherited it from his. The old church is likely to be demolished once Ames either steps down as pastor or dies in office. The lay leadership, while treating him with utmost respect, also seems to have benched Ames as a resource: His opinion is no longer valued let alone decisive as it once might have been.

Still, Ames is a disciplined preacher within an intellectual tradition that embraces modern biblical scholarship at a time when the term “liberal,” as in liberal Protestant, hadn’t been reduced mud slung by rightwing political reactionaries. Ames, too, like the tradition within which he lives, participates intellectually in the internecine squabbles among factions that embrace various theological schools of thought – Barth, Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr and the like – all of which “take the Bible seriously” but in different ways.

Ames discloses his flaws, too, and is disarmed by them. Envy seems to be his besetting deadly sin; and, of course, perhaps due to his pastoral role, Ames also is susceptible to pride. Ames has reached a point in life – near the end of it – that generates envy of those who will live on, especially since one of them will be his neighbor’s nefarious son, Jack Boughton, who seems to be taking a shine to Ames’ wife, a woman much younger than Ames. To his credit, Ames tamps down his pride with practiced, professional ease, mostly by excoriating himself for feeling the way he does about Jack.

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson: True psychology
Photo by Alec Soth

Home covers the same narrative territory as Gilead but from the household perspective of the Rev. Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian pastor whose health is declining rapidly. Boughton and Ames are best friends of longstanding. Where Ames is the quietly courteous introvert, the Rev. Mr. Boughton has been all his life an exuberant extrovert, father of eight and passionately committed the to making of a home in Gilead. His youngest, a 38-year-old daughter named Glory, has returned to Gilead to care for her father and bearing the scars of a failed engagement.

Boughton no longer preaches, at least not from a pulpit. Of the two pastors he is the more committed to taking the Bible at face value, and its texts are constant features of his conversation. One can only imagine the contrast of these two men in the pulpit: Ames, who composes his sermons in writing and keeps them stored in boxes in his study; and Boughton, flamboyant and extemporaneous, though probably referring to notes for quotations from Calvin’s Institutes and, of course, biblical citations.

Boughton’s obsession, though, is Jack, the prodigal son among his brood: It’s this theme that Robinson shreds and teases out into quiet revelations throughout Home. Jack is annoyingly apologetic but unrepentent, the preacher’s son who no longer believes in God if he ever did, sentimentally named at baptism for his father’s best friend, Ames, whose knowledge of his godson’s cowardice and petty criminality strains their relationship.

Glory is Jack’s rescuer, seduced by his frayed charm and yearning for attention and a level of trust from her older brother. She dreads the path her life is taking, especially with its exposure to small-town pettiness and censoriousness. She loves her father and Jack with stern gentleness, refusing to give up on either of them. Her underlying existential pain is evident in every tear she sheds so easily that she quickly dismisses this outward and visible sign of her inward and spiritual angst.

Ames’ young wife, Lila, remains peripheral to all of this, but she is the focus of the third in this trilogy of novels. Believe me, it’s on my list.

By the way, there is a surprise near the end of Home, and it’s worth waiting for, but like everything else in this beautiful work, it’s quiet, unassuming and made of pure gold.

Robinson mines the parable of the prodigal son for all it’s worth in Gilead and Home. It is hard to imagine an unalloyed happy ending to this potent story rooted deeply in Christian tradition, though only in the Gospel of Luke. The Bible gives us somewhat of a happy ending, but it also provides food for imaginative thought and reflection upon the milieu within which the father’s forgiveness occurs. What unexpressed resentment remained in the father’s heart? Would the prodigal son ever fully forgive himself and accept the forgiveness of others? Would the brothers ever truly reconcile? And what of the shame and public humiliation suffered by the family by dint of the prodigal’s notorious behavior?

As they say, love conquers all. Really? Well, yes, but it’s not a just-so story.

Robinson unpacks a robust though not original theory in Gilead and Home that this gospel parable is unfinished, and whether that’s by design is irrelevant. Christians are called to carry these Jesus stories into the world in which they live in order to discover their truth in real life; indeed, perhaps it is a Christian vocation to test these stories against real life, generation by generation, and to examine whether they contain any truth at all. Robinson concludes that this one does, but also that life is messy and that, while love may conquer, it’s hardly ever without pain and suffering.

Sound like fun? No, but it needn’t be to be worthwhile. 


One Response to “Marilynne Robinson: Fiction reaching deep within”

  1. Jim Abbott said

    On my long! list of things I should read. Thanks for your introduction.

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