so, october was the month i read marilynne robinson. plus one other book, so let’s talk about that first because this is a month-to-month record thing:
forty-six. thirty-eight witnesses, a. m. rosenthal.
this was unfortunately entirely forgettable. it’s essentially a reprinting of articles written about the kitty genovese murder, so there was nothing new in here i hadn’t already known.
so. marilynne robinson.
i started with gilead, then started reading homebut picked up lila because i wanted to read lila before the week of marilynne robinson events i planned on attending. i do wonder how the reading experience might be for someone who starts with home or lila because i felt that gilead anchored the other two books and created an interesting reading experience because we got to see some events in gilead from a different perspective.
one of the main things i loved about the gilead books is that robinson does such an exquisite job of portraying faith from different POVs. we have the very theological, biblical, but generous attitude of john ames, but, then, on the other hand, we have lila who grew up being taught to be suspicious of preachers and churches. we have jack who’s very bible-learned but whose faith is questionable — he knows all the right answers and can easily quote scripture and play hymns on the piano, but it’s not like he actually believes. we have boughton who’s very rigid in his beliefs and doesn’t see outside them, and then we have glory who doesn’t seem to think much about things like faith or religion — she has to take care of her elderly father and worry about jack, the prodigal son. and, all in all, i think robinson beautifully shows faith in different ways, and she doesn’t do so in patronizing or condescending tones. if anything, my main takeaway from robinson’s fiction (and from following her around nyc for a week) is that she’s a genuinely kind, generous, thoughtful soul.
forty-seven. gilead, marilynne robinson.
so my advice is this — don’t look for proofs. don’t bother with them at all. they are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, i think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. and they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. that is very unsettling over the long term. “let your words so shine before men,” etc. it was coleridge who said christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to that effect. i’m not saying never doubt or question. the Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. i’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment. (179)
this was a lot more poignant and heart-warming than i expected it to be. i thought john ames would be a stodgy, dignified narrator — and he was — but there’s also a warmth and affection and humor to his voice. you can feel the love he has for his son and for lila — there’s a beautiful tenderness running through the entire novel, and a lot of wisdom, too — i was honestly really surprised at how much bible (or christianity, i suppose) is present in gilead.
at the signing after the event at mcnally jackson, the only thing i could think to say to marilynne robinson was that her writing was teaching me how to write with boldness. (she was nice enough to say thank you to that.) and it’s true — i would say that faith is the thing i find hardest to talk or write about, especially on a personal level, so maybe, from that personal perspective, i find it pretty incredible how openly and generously robinson writes (and talks) about matters of faith. and i think it’s also a testament to her that she can do so but still be so generously received.
anyway, i loved that robinson didn’t just stop at gilead but decided to delve into the other characters in this world because i love how we get to see how things aren’t exactly as john ames writes to his son. in home and lila, we get different perspectives to certain events in gilead that make us see them (and, in connection, john ames) in a different light, not in the sense that ames is deliberately being misleading or trying to paint himself in the best possible angle in his letters to his son, but in the sense that we (as people) interpret things in different ways and, similarly, remember things in different ways. or, even, that we want to remember things in certain ways.
forty-eight. home, marilynne robinson.
“kinder to him! i thanked God for him every day of his life, no matter how much grief, how much sorrow — and at the end of it all there is only more grief, more sorrow, and his life will go on that way, no help for it now. you see something beautiful in a child, and you almost live for it, you feel as though you would die for it, but it isn’t yours to keep or to protect. and if the child becomes a man who has no respect for himself, it’s just destroyed till you can hardly remember what it was —“ he said, “it’s like watching a child die in your arms.” (294-5)
i would confess that i liked home significantly less than i liked gilead or lila. part of me felt like it was a little too long, and there was certainly a lot of talk about home that felt a little heavy-handed. i think i also was least compelled by the voice in home — robinson does such a wonderful job inhabiting ames’ voice in gilead, and the narrow third-person in lila is so intimate and close (at first, i wished robinson had written lila in the first-person but quickly dispelled of that thought). home is also written in narrow third-person, and i appreciated how robinson really kept it focused on glory — all throughout home, we are with glory; we see things through her eyes — but i don’t know, maybe it’s just that i wasn’t that taken by the boughtons.
there were a lot of things about age and aging that i also appreciated in home. and also about being a parent and hoping for things for your child but everything ultimately being out of your control. i didn’t know what to make of the ending, though — i’m still ambivalent about it, though i lean a little more towards, “mmmmm … no?”
forty-nine. lila, marilynne robinson.
that boy out at the cabin, he knew her. married? to a preacher? sounds like you making that up. that his child you got there? meaning no harm, knowing no better. it seemed almost as if she and lied to the preacher when she said she didn’t know that boy. he had been at the edge of her sight all those years, orphaned, his whole life just that terrible little ember of pride, meanness and kindness all that he had to shelter it with, and the injured fearfulness that comes when anybody at all might do you the worst kind of harm, just by the way they look at you. this old man is beautiful and kind and very patient, she thought, and he if looked at me that way i might just die of it. well, but for now he is mine to touch if i want to. so when she brought his coffee she put her arms around his neck and she kissed his hair. might as well take pleasure where you can. (169)
i LOVED lila. like, this-book-broke-my-fucking-heart LOVED lila. i have so many feelings about lila — she’s so tough and alone but full of love — love that she sometimes can’t seem to help — and robinson writes her unapologetically and truthfully, not trying to paint her as a pitiful, tragic character we should feel sorry for because of her past. lila’s just a woman who had a hard life, unable to settle down or go to school or live a “normal” life, and this is just who she is, someone who’s had to fend for herself and figure out a way to survive on her own, and she’s tough but she isn’t brittle, she’s jaded maybe but she isn’t so cynical.
one of the things that really stood out to me was that, for lila, heaven and hell mean different things than they do to ames. i generally love how robinson approaches faith (or doubt, i suppose) in lila because it’s so different here than it is in gilead or home, where we have characters who have grown up with christianity (and the privileges it brings). robinson gives doubt (i don’t want to call it doubt, per se, but it’s the best word i can come up with at the moment) the same depth and genuineness and sincerity that she does faith, and, for me, it really came out in lila’s grappling with the concept of heaven — heaven and hell particularly are real to her in ways that they can’t be for ames or boughton. there’s a beautiful scene where lila’s talking to john ames, and she tells him that heaven is something he can take for granted because everyone he knows is going to be there. he doesn’t have to think about hell except as an almost theoretical concept, an idea of a place that exists but doesn’t really hold reality for him because everyone he knows and has known and loved is going to heaven, but, for lila, the only person she loved was most certainly never saved — so, if lila were to go to heaven, she would never see doll again.
and it sounds like such a simple thing, but robinson writes it in such wonderful ways that really bring lila’s hesitation (or fear, you could say) to life. it’s not that simple — faith is not that simple — love is not that simple — and, yes, at the heart of it, lila is the love story of lila and john ames, this kind of strange, unexpected pairing that just works. they’re good together, and not in a one-directional way — he’s good for her, just like she’s good for him — and there’s this tenderness between them that just makes your heart ache. the whole time i was reading it, i wanted to fall in love (sigh, where’s my old man love?!), and i kept worrying about what would happen to lila and robby after john ames dies. i know lila and robby will be fine, though, because lila’s a survivor. i still worry, though, because lila won’t have john ames anymore, and that thought still makes my heart twinge.
anyway, in other updates, i finished my book, sent it off to the hopefully-to-be-mine agent, and am now twiddling my thumbs and trying to suppress the anxiety pangs. ok that’s not all i’m doing — i started reading the brothers karamazov, then promptly had a brief fling with strong motion (i have a lot of thoughts about that, too, especially because i read strong motion right after re-reading his lecture, “on autobiographical fiction,” and i have a lot of thoughts about franzen’s oversharing), and i started working on my next book because, well, why not? i’ve also been eating kitkat by the XL-bar (aka three 4-piece bars in one giant bar) and sleeping a lot and thinking that i ought to get another tattoo because, fuck, i wrote a book, and that deserves celebrating, regardless of what happens to it.