Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's second novel (FSG, 2004) is a beautiful book. It is also the most profoundly Christian book that I have ever read. To me, the thrust of Jesus's message was toward compassion and forgiveness, and if there's another novel out there that meditates as lucidly upon compassion and forgiveness, I'll be very heartily surprised. Between the moral beauty of the tale and the aesthetic beauty of the novel, however, there is a delicate tension that makes me reluctant to say very much about this book. I'm far too clumsy not to bump into something, or to miss, completely, something else. While the narrator of Gilead, John Ames, gradually finds himself engaged in what might be called a spiritual crisis, the novel itself is all about mortality.
Not for all the world would I sketch the outlines of John Ames's struggle. Even to say that the struggle does not begin until well after the point at which this reader began to wonder if the novel were going to be more than the accumulated observations of an old man, afflicted with angina pectoris - even to say this is perhaps to say too much. (The accumulation alone would have been worth the read.) I will say that Ms Robinson avoids the most standard plot point of books that are built on this narrative pattern: the emergence from the past of someone or something that humiliates the central character and strips away the carefully polished amour-propre. The narrative tricks that make other books compelling would be vulgar here.
John Ames is the Congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa - a fictional town located in the southwest of the state, close to Kansas. He has lived in Gilead for all but two years of his life. He is writing a letter, in bits and pieces, over the summer of 1956, to his son. John is seventy-six, his son is not quite seven, and the two will never know one another as adults. The letter - the contents of the book - is a less a self-portrait than a recollection, in the amplest sense of that term, of a life. So imbued is Gilead with the utter piety of a life lived in service to God that the physical book would demand special handling if it were not for Lynn Buckley's rustic jacket design. The spiritual crisis, which sneaks up upon the writer as an annoying distraction, is experienced in the present tense as John rather distractedly recounts it in the letter. Only gradually does it emerge as the centerpiece - no, the crown, of Gilead.
When you read that a seventy-six year old man has a son who's six going on seven, you have questions. I am not going to answer those questions, because the narrator's gracious way of unfolding facts oughtn't to be upstaged. I came away from several reviews with some very mistaken ideas about Gilead, misinterpretations of what might have been other writers' misinterpretations.
One last observation, and then a beautiful passage. The chronology of the novel is such that John Ames's grandfather - like him and John's father a Congregationalist minister - was active in Kansas before the Civil War, on the side of the abolitionists. The book's full reach, therefore, is a century of American change, from frontier to fading town. The crazed fury of Kansas in the 1850s - the subject of Jane Smiley's excellent The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lydie Newton - bursts through the calm narration every so often, as if to remind us how recent the civilization of these parts is. This, combined with John's recursive style, coming back to certain memories and letting them out even further, gives this novel of two hundred fifty pages an uncanny scope. It is as though the past could be stored in concentrated form. I have a hunch as to why this might have been. It is clear, if tacit, that the people in this book do not have the habit of light conversation. Their words are purposeful, and often sub specie aeternitatis. Consider the first five or six sentences of the following - and then stop considering, just follow. This is a book that I can't help calling "blessed."
I'm trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all. I remember that day in my childhood when I lay under the wagon with the other little children, watching them pull down the ruins of that Baptist church, and my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn't. His hands and his face were black with ash - he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs - and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from inside his shirt, and he did break it, that's true, and gave half to me and ate the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then. There had been drought for a few years and times were hard. Though we didn't notice it so much when they were hard for everybody. And I guess that must have been no one minded the rain. There had been so little of it. One thing I do always remember is how the women let their hair fall down and their skirts trail in the mud, even the old women, as if none of it mattered at all. And then the singing, which was very beautiful as I remember it, though I'm pretty sure it could not have been. It would just rise up with the sound of the rain. "Beneath the Cross of Jesus." All the lovely, sad old tunes. The bitterness of that morsel has meant other things to me as the years passed. I have had many occasions to reflect on it.
Copyright (c) 2005 Pourover Press