Friday, April 07, 2006

Review: Gilead by M Robinson [Edit]

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus, Giroux: New York, 2004. 246 pages, hardcover.

[Eight hours after posting I reworked a few paragraphs and corrected some spelling errors. I have never written a review and am still a bit flummoxed about how one goes about it, but I've tortured this pile of words long enough.]

For the harried I offer the Sermon on the Mount review: Yea, Yea.

For those less serious about time-management (that you're reading here is sufficient evidence of this): I warn you that I am a sucker for ideas dressed as great truths and stated starkly with an earnest, wise inflection, for koans I can chew indefinitely. More than once I have mistaken this mastication for spiritual and emotional sustenance, so when I say Gilead gave me plenty to chew it might not mean much. I confess that I bought it because of just such a quote in Ann Hulbert's review in Slate:

Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true: 'He will wipe the tears from all faces.' It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.(p. 245-6).

Sorrow is central to the story. Even so, I enjoyed it--if there were vitamins in this dessert I do not care. I read quickly, pulled in and pulled through by anxious curiosity--first to the ankles, the knees, the waist, then to 'waters to swim in'--which is just the way I like a book to treat me. I read novels for pleasure and this one gave me pleasure.

Better, it was pleasure untinged by cringing at crassness or crudity. Though fornication, murder, death, and strained race relations figure prominently they are somehow rather in the background. The tone is that of a pious father telling a young, beloved son about family issues--which is exactly the vehicle of the novel--with love for all involved and all the gentleness and delicacy he can muster, but without any fear of the issues and with no attempt to hide the horror that such things exist and must be discussed. (Gilead passes the Grandmother Test: I'd give it to my saintly (and religiously conservative) grandmother without worry that she'd be offended.)

I'm not sure what else of value I can tell you. I'd say it moved me like a great book, but it is too soon to tell for sure. For this, Time is the great test (that most books fail); ask me in three or four years if the characters are still with me--if they ambush me unawares, if they comfort me as old friends. For now they do, but the original reading, not yet forty-eight hours dead, still 'hath me in thrall.'

On the other hand, it is already too late to tell if there is spiritual value in the reading--though I think perhaps there is. Having done something very much like forgiving each of the characters and thus been enabled to imagine a glimmer of their beauty, I cannot rewind and erase our shared history; I can no longer remember experiencing the world any other way. And yet I do have a feeling of being changed; it does seem that the world is more naked now and not less beautiful for it, and I think it happened Tuesday night.

Enough musing. It's the story of... I'm not quite sure, but it is set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956. As I mentioned earlier, the vehicle is the diary of an elderly minister, John Ames, addressed to his seven-year-old son. How is it that a man comes to be sixty-nine years older than his child? As I said, curiosity pulled me in, gently, with revealings all the way to the end.

As befits a preacher the text is rather biblical--a record of begats and dealings of the Lord with forefathers and preachings and blessings. It's full of sacramental imagery--there's 'water, water every where, nor any drop to drink.' This is communion and baptismal water, "made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash" (p. 28), "...the purest, clearest of liquids...the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit" (p. 23-4, quoting L Feuerbach). If John were not a preacher it would be awkward and overkill; as it is it has the feel of a life steeped in scripture and in the pain those waters are to wash away. Ironically, the baptism that is the novel feels to me to be an immersion--at variance with John Ames' sprinkling creed.

If I had to identify a single theme it were grace--defined "as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials." It enables us to "forget all the tedious particulars and just feel the presence of [another's] mortal and immortal being" (p. 197). It is the sight that enables us to see, not that we must forgive because we see another's glory, but that in seeing their glory we realize that their sins are almost nothing compared to the majesty of their soul. Such is Gilead: a meditation on sorrow distilled to its essential joy. I recommend it.


At April 07, 2006 8:43 PM, Blogger C Jones said...

I couldn't read this book fast, I thought the writing was just so beautiful that I had to read it slowly and linger over it.

At April 09, 2006 8:40 PM, Blogger Edje said...

Touché! I read quickly but not... hurriedly(?) I wanted to find out what would happen and what had happened so I didn't dawdle but I also didn't just roller-blade through.

It's more like a (South American) missionary walk pace--if you don't walk quickly you'll never get there, but everyone you see along the way is someone you want to meet, so you stop often.

At April 10, 2006 10:28 AM, Blogger Lollygagger said...

Have you read Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping? It is one of my two favorite books of all time. It is more of a traditional novel (i.e., not epistolary)and also involves generations of a family, though not so pointedly and deals almost exclusively with women rather than dealing almost exclusively with men like Gilead.

At April 10, 2006 3:19 PM, Blogger William Morris said...

Gilead is definitely one of the finest novels of the past four decades and a treasure to be savoured upon first reading and revisited every so often afterwards..

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