Marilynne Robinson — Gilead

October 9, 2008 at 1:19 am 6 comments

A lot of great novels are dispiriting — I don’t ever remember coming across a great novel so thoroughly spiriting as Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful Gilead (2004).


The heart and soul of Robinson’s Pulitzer-winner is the Revd. John Ames, the novel’s utterly convincing and highly likeable narrator. An elderly man with a new wife and a young child, Ames’ narrative takes the form of a long letter from father to son, to be read posthumously, blending reminisces about past generations with a diary of Ames’ present-day life in the town of Gilead, Iowa, 1956. The framing device has built-in poignancy, on which Robinson capitalizes from the first words:

I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life.

When Ames’s sinister namesake, John Ames Boughton, “Jack”, the prodigal son of a lifelong friend, returns from self-imposed exile, Ames feels his destiny has become strangely intertwined with that of this errant wanderer, whose  darkly mysterious past adds suspense to the narrative.

How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it?

Ames makes frequent offhand remarks on theological topics, and these diversions are, surprisingly enough, Gilead‘s trump card: measured, thoughtful and modest, they are in some sense plainly Robinson’s attempt to encourage a new perspective on the austere “Bible Belt” Protestantism that Europeans tend to regard with sniggering contempt.

It seems to me that people tend to forget that we are to love our enemies, not to satisfy some standard of righteousness, but because God their Father loves them. I have probably preached on that a hundred times.

Ames is smart enough to see the barriers between human understanding and ultimate truth. He is sceptical of the reach of language and argument: “Does God exist?” he asks himself, and refuses to answer — not because he lacks faith, but because he doesn’t even consider himself capable of truly grasping the content of the question. But Ames’ introspective musings also illuminate, albeit obliquely, Ames’ troubled mind as he negotiates the threats that face him: fatherhood, age, death, and Jack.

As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer. I know this, I have seen the truth of it with my own eyes, though I have not myself always managed to live by it, the Good Lord knows.

Not much happens in the novel’s present-moment, but it doesn’t have to. In Ames, Robinson has given an authentic voice to the “lost continent”: Mid-Western small-town America. The subtle, laconic, understated prose, presumably honed through Gilead‘s 24-year maturation, is something to savour. The writing reads like a relic from an gentler, simpler, antiquated time: it is not obviously a work of fiction at all, such is the precision of Robinson’s craft.

I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There was the feeling of a weight of light — pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening even the trees a little as a late snow would do. It was the kind of light that rests on your shoulders the way a cat lies on your lap.

But what surprised and pleased me most in Gilead was the rare virtuousness of its characters. In a time when many authors (including many of my favourites — Philip Roth, for example) plumb the depths of taboo-smashing libertinism in search of a good story, few deal with the enduring problem of how to be good. I’m open to suggestions, but I think Robinson may be one of the first authors since Dostoevsky to grapple with the question head-on. John Ames joins Alyosha Karamazov and Prince Mishkin in that tiny drawer marked “virtuous heroes”.


Entry filed under: Book Reviews, Robinson Marilynne. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Wally Lamb — The Hour I First Believed W. G. Sebald — The Rings of Saturn

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Candy Schultz  |  January 9, 2009 at 3:47 am

    Glad to see you back. I agree with you about the dispiriting books. I just finished Revolutionary Road and it was very dispiriting. I don’t even want to see the film.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  January 10, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks Candy. Revolutionary Road… it’s a book I’ve been thinking about reading for some time. It certainly seems to divide opinion.

  • 3. Mike Crowl  |  January 10, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    Good summary of this book! Thanks for the comments you left on my blog.

  • 4. Marilynne Robinson — Home « underthought  |  May 13, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    […] 11, 2009 I mistakenly thought Marilynne Robinson’s Home (2008 ) was a sequel to Gilead (2004). It’s not. It’s contemporaneous — the same story from a different […]

  • 5. Keli  |  December 24, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Phmnoeenal breakdown of the topic, you should write for me too!

  • 6. nj auto insurance quotes  |  January 6, 2015 at 4:59 pm

    I have exactly what info I want. Check, please. Wait, it’s free? Awesome!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


%d bloggers like this: