Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel, Housekeeping, came out in 1980, won several major awards (including the PEN/Hemingway Award for the best debut novel of the year), eventually landed on TIME‘s list of the 100 best novels from 1923 to 2005, and represented Robinson’s only published work of fiction for 25 years until she finally brought out her second novel, Gilead. And all that that novel ever did was win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is as if the literary world was saying:
Dear Ms. Robinson:
It is the opinion of our community that you should write more books.
All of us
Robinson’s strength, at least based on these two novels, isn’t so much her storycraft as her prose, which is just remarkable, unlike any contemporary author I’ve ever read, word-perfect and genuine and lyrical and any other florid term used to describe brilliant writing. She nails every task laid before the writer of a novel of emotions, as both of her books are, from descriptive passages to the idiom of language and even internal monologues, like this one, where the narrator, Reverend John Ames, stops to reflect on the way he’s writing this book, which is a letter to his young son in the form of a memoir:
In writing this, I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. I am thinking about the word “just.” I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed – when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. … There is something real signified by that word “just” that proper language won’t acknowledge. It’s a little like the German ge-. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story.
Reverend Ames is 76 years old at the book’s outset and is dying, slowly, of a heart condition, but at the same time is the father of a seven-year-old boy thanks to a second chance at love and marriage that found him marrying a woman many years his junior who happened to wander into his church one day, an event that turned out to be love at first sight. He knows that he’s dying and wants to leave a long letter to that son so that when the child is older he has something more to remember his father by than vague memories from childhood of a feeble old man who struggled to go up the stairs to his study. Reverend Ames walks back through the stories of his father and grandfather, both preachers but of wildly different sorts and temperaments, only to have to shift gears slightly when the son of his best friend, John Ames Boughton, drifts back into town after a long absence. The younger John Ames, named for the Reverend, has been a lifelong disappointment to his own father, another preacher, and to Reverend Ames, and to many others in the small (fictional) town of Gilead, Iowa. (Gilead is, itself, a place mentioned in Genesis, and the name apparently translates to “hill of testimony,” so I presume Robinson chose it as this novel is entirely the Reverend Ames’ testimony, not just of his faith but of his life.) Boughton’s purpose in the town isn’t clear, and he makes repeated attempts to talk to Reverend Ames – generally antagonizing him – before his purpose becomes clear shortly before the end of the book. Along the way, Reverend Ames presents his thoughts on all sorts of matters theological and mundane, interspersed with personal recollections from his own life and heartfelt passages about his wife and son:
I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.
I tell my daughter every day, multiple times a day, how much I love her, how much it has meant to me to have her in my life, how she is the center of my universe. Anything I have ever said to her in that vein has seemed wholly inadequate. I know exactly how Reverend Ames felt when he said those words.
Robinson didn’t wait 25 years for a follow-up, publishing Home, the story of John Ames Boughton, in 2008.
Next up: I must be out of my mind, but I’m going to try to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses. I just can’t stand seeing it on five of my “greatest” booklists without a check mark next to it, or at least the knowledge that I gave it a legitimate effort.