So I finally read Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-winning novel, Gilead.
Let me start off by saying, because it's all about me, always, that this book made me feel, as a writer, like a total juvenile smartass poseur. As the critics have all said, this is a serious book. I thought I had gotten over that "why bother" feeling when reading published novels, even the Great Ones--it's all just material for stealing. But now I feel inadequate not only as a writer but as a person.
Still, a deep sense of inadequacy is, as we've all seen, a powerful motive to keep on talking. And so I will offer the following observations about the novel. Observations which I've made. Which are mine. And which will follow. The next thing I say will be my observations about Gilead.
Told in the voice of John Ames, a Congregational minister in Iowa in the early 1960s, the book contains many images of sparkling light and especially water. In a post on H. G. Wells, I suggested that this type of imagery is strongly suggestive of childhood. There's a kind of "light of childhood," I said, that shows the ordinary world anew--making it strange, wonderful, and (perhaps paradoxically) nostalgic. Though Ames sometimes uses such imagery in connection with children or childhood, for him they are more explicitly an aspect of divine grace. Water in particular, he explains, is used in blessings because of its clarity and beauty. In this book, the light of childhood is the light of the sacred.
Of course nostalgia for childhood is in there too, especially because Ames is dying, and also because he's writing this narrative as a letter to his young son, whom he will not see grow up. He's nostalgic for his son's childhood, much of which he will miss, as well as for his own. However, because he believes in God and in an afterlife, the beauty of light and water is also a promise that this world is not the end. It is, perhaps, a mere reflection of the heaven that awaits...well, in Ames's view, probably most all of us. He's deeply committed to his particular faith, and wants others to embrace it--but when they don't, he does not exclude them from his life, nor does he assume that God excludes them. He tries to understand what it is, within himself, that makes him want to turn away from them. And then he tries to turn back toward them--not with a veneer of false politeness, but with genuine openness. This plays out in the growing conflict between Ames and his best friend's son, named after Ames, who, by any reasonable standard, is a scoundrel. Imagine doing that--truly, honestly doing that--with someone that you really have every right to despise. It's damn hard, and it's hard for Ames, but he makes himself do it. His reading of the Bible is a humble one; the only way for him to behave is humbly.
That's the other extraordinary thing about this book: it is the self-accounting of a profoundly good man, but it is neither hectoring nor boring. It's actually inspiring and exemplary. Mind you I'm not going to run off and join the Congregationalists or any church. Ain't gonna happen. But this book provides tremendous hope in terms of what Christianity can be--and how degenerate it has become in the loudest segments of our current culture. For those of us who can't buy the whole God construct, it's helpful to think of Ames's religion as a language, which is not to trivialize it in any way. Rather, he has a beautiful language to express the world to us, a beautiful lens through which to see it.
Now back to writing my smartass poseur novel.