Part of my decision to get rid of most of my cable service grew out of my resolution these past few months to turn the TV off in the evening. I spend my working days plugged into two different computer screens, where I’m working, emailing, IMing and generally being bombarded by electronic communications. It’s insane.
Last summer was the beginning of my escape from the TV — I spent most evenings outside, in the backyard, with a fire in the firepit reading a book by the light of the Coleman lantern hanging from the apple tree. It was bliss. Now it’s winter, and the wind is blowing 40 miles an hour and I’m hunkered inside, but still trying to wean myself off the screens and remind myself that not only was I once a novelist, but that I love reading novels. I wanted to write because I love to read, love that feeling when you’re deep inside a book, inside another consciousness, inside another life. And so, a resolution for the new year, a book a week, and a review a week.
What I find alarming is how difficult it is to sit down to a book after spending my days all plugged in to the pulsing electronic world of the internet. It takes me a long time now to get to the place where I can calm the jittery, jangly feeling of being “connected” all day on multiple electronic devices and begin to enter once again the quiet interior world of a book. It takes a long time for the interior voices to come forth. To allow one’s imagination to fire up again. (And if I feel this way, the girl who went through six different elementary schools with my nose always in a book, the girl who read The Second Sex on the New York subway one winter when I wanted something hard so I’d have to concentrate and wouldn’t have to fully experience the subway, well, then I hate to say it but no wonder the publishing industry is going under.)
At any rate, it’s been a joy to get back to reading again, especially since Marilynne Robinson has given us two new books in the last couple of years. It’s been 28 years since Robinson published her now-classic Housekeeping and for most of that time it seemed that perhaps she was going to be one of those novelists who write one great book, and that’s it. Which was fine. If I had even one book as amazing as Housekeeping in me I’d be more than happy. But then, suddenly, in the last two years, we have two new novels from her. Gilead and Home are bookends to one another — portraits of two elderly pastors in small-town Iowa, portraits of the spiritual challenges that parenthood brings to each of them. I’m sort of fascinated by the history of Protestant thought in American history right now — I think it’s the way Obama’s speeches are so full of allusions to Lincoln and Winthrop and King. I’m also a sucker for novels about how difficult it is to be a good person, and these fall squarely into that category.
These two books are deeply entwined with one another, just as the Ames and Boughton families have been entwined. While Gilead is John Ames’s story, and Home is the story of his oldest friend and fellow minister Robert Boughton, the two books magnify one another when read sequentially. Because it had been a while, I reread Gilead before picking up Home, and after reading Home I wanted nothing more than to pick up Gilead again and read it in light of the events of the second book. They are entwined the way memory is entwined, and they are mysterious to one another the way we are all mysterious to one another. The precipitating event of both books is the return of Boughton’s long-lost prodigal son, Jack. Jack, the boy who never seemed to fit in to his own family, the one they all adored, and who disappointed them again and again, fleeing for good after getting an illiterate farm girl pregnant, a girl and her baby who despite the ministrations of the remaining Boughtons come to a bad end and left them stained with an enduring shame. But then, after twenty years, Jack returns home, shaky and alcoholic and thin and wary and desperate in only the way that someone hoping to save his own life can be, and thus begins a story of one father’s enduring and tender love for the son he cannot seem to help. Both Boughton and Ames are Protestants of the Puritan strain — Boughton a Presbyterian and Ames a Congregationalist. I’m enough of a Catholic that all Protestants seem strange to me, and one of the enduring wonders of these two novels is the way they dramatize the lived experience of a Calvinist worldview. Jack’s struggle is, in many ways, with the doctrine of predestination itself — what if he is cast out, what if that is indeed, the source of his lifelong discomfort and self-consciousness? His father loves Jack with a deep and tender love: “So many times, over the years, I’ve tried not to love you so much,” he admits. “I never got anywhere with it, but I tried.” And yet, Jack cannot seem to make a go of it: “Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?” he asks.
It is the glory of these two books that this question, that these big questions — how do we love one another, how does one live a life, how does one live a good life, what constitutes a good life? These questions take on the sort of desperate, if quiet, narrative tension that illuminates all great works — the stakes are high here, as high as they can be — will an elderly father’s heart at last be broken? will a life-long friendship survive? will a faithful sister’s love be forsaken? will a soul be irretreivably lost? In Marilynne Robinson’s hands, these novels shine with a quiet beauty, and will, despite the quietude of their setting, have you on the edge of your chair wondering, as one does with all the greatest books, what will become of these people?