Online Edition: Spring 2005

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Gilead

Marilynne Robinson

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux ($23)

by Ted Pelton

Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is very much a Midwestern book, a wonderful evocation of a regional temperament that Easterners, urbanites, and agnostics might see in others but never feel first-hand. True Midwesterners are capable of scheduling day-long outings to walk around in what seem to those used to oceans or mountains as flat, fairly nondescript fields. Iowa's John Ames, the narrator of Gilead, is full of such small observations: “Trees sound different at night, and they smell different, too.” And a true Midwesterner always seems to describe such things as ultimate. They admit that there are greater sensual delights to be found elsewhere, but they seem slightly frightened by the prospect of them, as if one escargot or ascent of Pike's Peak would ruin everyday life forever more. We like it here just as it is and just as we are, thank you very much.

I'm being facetious, but these two symbolically different views of life—one that seeks unusual experience and new sensations, and thus has an affinity with experiences of impermanence, and its opposite, what I am caricaturing as “Midwestern”—these are the two conditions, respectively, of Robinson's two novels, published nearly a quarter-century apart. Perhaps this was the author's intention. Having written in 1981's Housekeeping so remarkable an evocation of the Pacific Northwest, ephemera, uncertainty, natural disaster, and broken family life—all catalyzed by crazy aunt Sylvie, one of the most memorable characters in late 20th century American fiction—Robinson may have pushed Gilead to investigate the opposite: a quiet life in a quiet place lived by a man who is to all appearances quiet, though certainly not without inner turmoil.

Gilead's conceit so unassumingly issues from within the Midwest—Ames, the elderly minister of a “plain old church” that “could use a coat of paint” and the grandson of an abolitionist firebrand, is writing his last remembrances for the son of his late years, 70 years his junior—that one hardly notices the appearance of a Sylvie figure in the form of his tortured namesake-godson, John Ames Boughton, the now-grown son of his best friend. This tension develops throughout the latter half of the novel: Ames fears the influence “Jack” will have on his son and his young wife, Lila, and with good reason; in a moment when the old man feigns sleep, Jack and Lila discover they both share experience of St. Louis, the big city, that the narrator has never seen. Though Ames is careful not to make his judgments of Jack's character public, they are in no way secret: he disapproves of Jack, and has from the time he was a boy. Robinson registers with dead-on accuracy the peculiar power of Midwestern judgment, where lack of overt condemnation leads to hugely oppressive conditions of unanswerable judgment, because the judge can simply fall back on the doctrine that it's not within his power to judge, though in practice everyone knows differently.

Ames, however, is also self-conscious and self-scrutinizing, and much of the novel is devoted to his fighting through to a place where his faith and position can mean something real; likewise Jack, who plainly suspects he is himself damned, has returned home in adulthood in the hopes of finding if the grace he has heard about his whole life actually exists. This is a novel that is ultimately as affirming of Christianity and the power of Christ's ministers on earth as Housekeeping was doubtful that anyone in authority would ever be any help at all, anything but a threat to be fled or hoodwinked. The conservatism of this cultural vision will no doubt disappoint many of Robinson's readers; Gilead is a Midwestern novel through and through, right through to its narrative requirements and stakes, and its denouement backs off from the terrible forces unleashed in Housekeeping (or even, to choose a Midwestern novel where the center does not hold, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres). In short, it is a novel by an author who allowed herself an out at the end. It might bring us to the verge of collapse and tragedy, but then it dissolves into blessing and the feeling that life goes on, institutions intact, roll credits. It stops short of truly confronting mystery, contenting itself with a simulated confrontation with mystery through a character whose world is already so well-established that it will remain in place despite whatever forces the novel allows to challenge it. Its drama is thus at one remove, and so a done-deal, a settled question, like watching a thriller re-run.

Despite all that, for sheer execution, Gilead will still earn any reader's respect. Robinson is a fine writer and doesn't sentimentalize, which requires something of a tightrope walk here, given the storyline. But if anyone should claim that this novel lives up to Housekeeping, don't believe the hype: this is not a novel that will require twenty-plus years for its author to overcome. Very few novels are, it's true, but Housekeeping was one of the rare ones—perhaps only Toni Morrison's Beloved is as perfect, clean, and organic a novel by an American author in the last quarter-century—and led one to hope that lightning would strike twice. But that's not the way things are in a certain Midwest, where you wouldn't want anything too disturbing. In the end they all like it there well enough, thank you very much.

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Spring 2005 Table of Contents