Written by Daniel Hazard
Robinson's 'Gilead' is 'prayerful meditation on life in ordinary time'
Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly - "A good sermon," Marilynne Robinson writes, "is one side of a passionate conversation." It has to be heard in that way. So, too, a good novel. It is a conversation between the novelist, the reader and — as in the case of a sermon, perhaps, for some — God.
That may be true of all first-rate fiction, whether acknowledged or not, because the best novels are always a dialogue — sometimes an argument, perhaps a prayer — with the world and its meaning. In Gilead, Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel, God works as a second, unstated addressee, a mostly implied presence whose reality is suggested by the pervasiveness of prayer.
Gilead is better than a good book. It is a slim, spare, yet exquisite and wonderfully realized story that will long stand as one of fiction's finest reflections on the sacramental dimensions of life, especially the Christian life lived in the routines and wonderments of prayer. It is, like a good sermon, a passionate meditation.
The book is slender only in the number of its pages — a mere 247. Otherwise, it is a fuller, richer and more deeply textured novel than most contemporary fiction twice its size. Robinson, a member of Congregational UCC in Iowa City, Iowa, makes use of a classic form — the epistolary novel — but one of the most difficult to pull off well. Its deliberative pace can often seem forced, cumbersome and irritating for contemporary ears more attuned to e-mail and instant-messaging rather than the carefully considered craft of composing a letter.
Robinson's epistle takes the form of a letter by the 76-year-old John Ames, a fourth-generation Congregationalist minister, to his just-about-7-year-old son. Ames is suffering from heart disease, and his letter, written in 1956, is a summing up of the past sprinkled with anecdotes and advice and sketches of the present, especially of his son and wife and his best friend, also a minister.
Robinson has given her protagonist a strong, unique voice — he disdains what he calls the pulpit talking — that seems in its own way biblical but not the bible of the King James Version. It is rather the more vernacular English of the Revised Standard Version, the translation of the KJV published in the early 1950s that aimed at the plain-speaking of Americans at mid-century. Reading this "letter from John" to his young son, one might be excused for also calling to mind those pastoral letters near the end of the New Testament in which another John addresses "my little children" and his "beloved," and which, like John Ames' letter, are also suffused with a sense of light.
Ames' letter is quietly but vividly told family history: the apparently disjointed recollections jotted down over time of his grandfather, a militant abolitionist given to biblical-like visions who went to Kansas to join John Brown and lost an eye in the Civil War; his father, who, recoiling from his father, became a pacifist; his brother, whose theological studies in Germany led him to disbelief and alienation from his father; and his Presbyterian minister- friend Boughton and his family, especially Boughton's son and Ames' namesake, John Ames Boughton, another prodigal from the family fold whose homecoming is eagerly awaited by his father.
Fathers and sons and their mysterious and maddening relationships — loving, prodigal, forgiving — are the central spine of Robinson's story, and the biblical resonances remind one how timeless and wondrous those themes are. Ames himself was the good son in the prodigal parable he tells his own son, "one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained."
But, he adds, almost in the "pulpit voice" he tries to subdue, "There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal."
Less obtrusive but also a constant theme in the novel, as it is in American life, is race. Ames' grandfather is formed by the abolitionist vision; the Iowa town of Gilead was a stop on the underground railroad (Ames' recounting of pieces of that history provides the novel with some comic elements); and race figures importantly in the novel's denouement.
Robinson's handling of the issue is careful and tragically appropriate for the story's time — two years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision, and just months before the beginning of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott, which would launch the modern civil rights movement.
Very little of the politics of the outside world intrudes directly into Ames' letter to his son, but the events that forge and form the characters — war and the Great Depression especially — are there as a constant backdrop to what, in a liturgical calendar, would be called "ordinary time."
Gilead is a profound, prayerful meditation on, and a joyous thanksgiving for, life in "ordinary time" — the sacramental character of physical, everyday existence as well as "the gift of physical particularity and how blessing and sacrament are mediated through it."