Saturday, April 05, 2014

Review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

In order for me to get to what I found interesting about Marilynne Robinson's short novel Gilead, I think I need to first describe the basic shape of it, the turns it took, and as such, this review is chock full of spoilers. So you know.

The book is framed as a long, open letter from Congregationalist minister John Ames to his son. Ames is in his seventies, a man who has married (for a second time) late in life to a much younger woman after many years alone. Now he has been diagnosed with heart disease, and he writes in part to fill his time as the living winds down, and more overtly to offer an account, as well as what wisdom he possesses, to the boy whom he realizes will grow up without him. It's a lovely tone in these beginning parts--sweet, slow-paced, and contentedly lonely. Ames is a thoughtful and humble man, and a deeply loving one, who sees fatherhood and family as an expression of Christian grace, and his philosophies feel like wise ones, informed by his theology.* He's an inquisitive soul--well read--but he's also an accepting one, declining the excursions from the obsolete old abolitionist settlement that others in his life had taken. He's at peace in Gilead.

And so it's going to be that kind of book then, just like the cover blurbs would have you believe. Except that it's not.

Returning to town in these days is one Jack Boughton, that is to say John Ames Boughton, the son of his best friend, who was named after the old pastor. Jack's a charming man and an uneasy soul--your better sort of scoundrel--and one who, despite the name connection (or more likely because of it), old John has never felt comfortable around. There is a dynamic between them as if the younger man had always insouciantly challenged the older to solve and save him, but the older one never figured out an access point. Ames' narrative starts concentrating unduly on his godson, who grows from a snag in his thoughts to a full-on obsession. (And it's not even just Jack: Ames' old firebrand grandfather is clearly not as put to rest as he'd hoped either.) The pastor understands and respects reasoned debate, but it comes out that he has an insurmountable difficulty with people who don't accept existence at face value, who are restless and uneasy in it.

It's flat-out unpleasant to read the old man's narrative veering off from his peaceful adages, but it's also fascinating, and I truly didn't anticipate the story going that way. Though he still keeps his unbreakable decency and his calm religious persepectives, the reader can see that these tools are now failing him. Jack is a man of many sins, but his mortal one was to father a child (when he was college age) with a broken-homed, criminally young girl, and then more or less ignore her. His revealed secret at the time of Ames' writing, which comes late in the novel, is that he's returned less to care for his elderly father and more in hopes of finding a home for his new and already troubled mixed-race family, which in the early 1950s might not be an easy fit, even in a town founded for the cause of abolition.

It took the featured biblical story of Hagar, about halfway through this novel, to clue me in that there's some subtext going on as well, that doesn't quite penetrate the consciousness of the kindly old man. He pictures himself in the sermon as dutiful old Abraham, trusting the godly advice that his difficult actions are indeed for the best. But let's not forget that this is also one of the more perverse Old Testament stories (and sure, hello The Handmaid's Tale), which in novelistic terms, must present some kind of meaning. Old man, young slave, creepy inappropriate sex, reluctant but obligatory shunning. The map isn't perfect, but I still jumped from here to the conclusion that Jack and Mrs. Ames surely had some kind of history with one another, and this is in fact confirmed before long. And although it is not made explicit, it didn't take me much longer to suspect that this young woman (thirty years younger than John and ten younger than Jack), this quietly-spoken woman of mean upbringing who chose to walk into a more socially well-adjusted world, is the very same feral girl that Jack knocked up years before and thereby nailed shut the coffin of his own ruin. Is there a better reason that she would be drawn to curiousity about the first John Ames? If it's not the same person, then it's her deliberate analog.

There is some weird goings-on too, I want to add, about names. The young wife is named only once (for all her presence, she's usually "your mother"), and not by the reverend. She's an interesting character, and I wish we could have had her presented her more as herself. The boy (also deeply present as "you") is not named at all, nor is Jack's Folly (if she is someone different from Mrs. Ames), and her tragic child with Jack, it's noted, is further impoverished by never receiving one in the first place, despite living to three years old or so. Meanwhile, John and Jack are connected by name. "John Ames" is the source of their bond, and of their difficulties as such radically different people.

And okay, I guess I'll make a nod after all to the German-style dialectic as I see it here. John breaks out of his unsettling focus on Jack by opening up about the passion he felt for his wife, in a way he had elided before. It's an innocent sort of passion to be sure, but he was still an old man who fell improbably in love with someone, and he had all the usual symptoms. He truly and genuinely doesn't give a calm fuck about his wife's past, whatever it is, and he loves her for precisely who she is. Which is really a pretty awesome thing. And it's over this understanding where he at long last finds a bond with his living antithesis. Old Ames is as decent a man he believes himself to be, but the wisdom of his days delivered him a late-burning fire in his belly that his rootin' tootin' forebears would have understood. His accepting worldview doesn't leave him, but he's now leaving the world as a whole person. It's brilliantly done, the whole thing.

* If there's conflict evident in this stage, it's a philosophical discussion with the likes of Ludwig Feuerbach, the pet philosopher that his late brother had once taken home. And even that ends up as a gentle chide, respecting the atheist's joy of life, but finding it incomplete without the axiomatic divinity that informs his own spiritual views. (Feuerbach evidently took spirituality as a kind of anthropological epiphenomenon. On those grounds, I'd probably like him quite a bit.) Unfortunately, I'm not a good one to tell you how deeply this philosophical argument underpins the novel, but based on Ames' limited name-dropping, there very might well be a sort of dialectical structure to sniff out here.


bright said...

K, do also read the follow up Home.

Keifus said...

Thanks, Bright. I could sure use something.