THANKFUL FOR MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S LILA

Featured

A week before Thanksgiving the National Book Award winners were announced. Previously I’d paid little attention to this event. Then I heard that Marilynne Robinson was being nominated for the year’s best work of fiction—her third nomination. So I was hoping the third time would be a charm. Sadly, Robinson was passed over again for an award she richly deserved. As luck or topicality would have it, the award went to a collection of short stories by a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

No disrespect to this year’s winner, but it goes to show that there should be no winners or losers in the realm of great writing. In my view, Robinson’s work goes beyond the scope of a National Book Award. Hers is Nobel Prize material.

I’d no idea of Marilynne Robinson when I bought a copy of Gilead in 2005. The title caught my eye. I wondered whether it referred somehow to the mysterious balm of Gilead mentioned in the Bible. Instead I was entranced by the voice of a country preacher, 77, with heart disease, writing a long letter to his seven-year-old son who would not grow up knowing him. This old man, Rev. Ames, had fallen in love with the boy’s mother when she appeared one rainy Sunday at the back of his small church. Here was the kind of literary figure considered impossible to make interesting: a sincerely good man. Even worse in terms of narrative challenge, he was a man of the cloth, with no checkered past, no addiction to booze, no action-packed city or frontier life to pepper the plot. Except that as a young man he’d lost his wife and son in childbirth and we find him after he’s spent 40-odd years a lonely widower. Ironically, his best friend, whom he has tried mightily—and at a crucial moment fails—not to envy, is a fellow preacher with a loving wife and eight children.

The most inspiring moment for me is when Ames tells his son how he fell in love with the boy’s mother, his much younger wife, who had stepped into his church simply to get out of the rain. She was a total stranger, and he didn’t even know if she was married. He admits that he flushed shamefully, lost track of what his sermon was about, and was only too well aware that he was doing everything in his power to hold this woman’s interest. If there is anything greater in modern literature about the mystery of love and the surrender of all pretense and dignity to the gaze of the beloved, I haven’t seen it. I wasn’t surprised when Robinson won a Pulitzer Prize for that novel.

Then came Home, set in the same place and time, but told from the perspective of a peripheral character in Gilead. This inimitable character is the youngest daughter of Rev. Boughton, Rev. Ames’ best friend, who—unlike her father—never passed judgment on her beloved youngest brother, Jack, the alcoholic black sheep of the family and godson of Rev. Ames.

Jack Boughton is a different kind of prodigal son. He comes home to the little town of Gilead no longer young, only to find that his father is frail and dying, and his godfather likewise. He’d been hoping to ask Rev. Ames to marry him and his common-law African American wife, whom he’d met after completing a ten-year prison sentence for a crime he had no memory of—perhaps it happened during a drunken black-out. He’d dared to hope that his wife and child might be accepted there, since the state, unlike its neighbors, had no anti-miscegenation laws. But he quickly finds that the community still holds him in deep suspicion, that his father cannot understand why the colored people have to riot in Birmingham and elsewhere (this is the fifties). And while he is there he gets a letter from the woman he loves, that seems to say she has succumbed to the wishes of her father—also a clergyman—to marry a black man who has promised to adopt the child she conceived with Jack.

Both Jack and Rev. Ames’ wife are present when the two old preachers discuss the topic of greatest torment to Jack: the religious doctrine of predestination—whether or not a person is doomed from birth to be destined for hell, no matter how mixed his or her life is with both selfish and goodhearted acts and intentions. The same conversation occurs in both Gilead and Home, and in both cases it is Mrs. Ames who ends it by declaring, “People can change.” In each case her words come as a shock, because she is a person of few words. All they know is that she arrived out of nowhere and that Rev. Ames loves her and respects her completely. If anything, she and Jack are almost equal in their isolation and outsider status. In fact, the only time we hear her name is when Jack says, “Thank you, Lila,” after she utters that resounding truth.

The high point of Home for me is the awkward, soulful talk Jack finally manages to have with Rev. Ames, when his godfather, who has long judged him as a disgrace to his family and his own name (he was baptized John Ames Boughton), sees that his seemingly ne’er-do-well namesake is actually a good man. He has given his whole heart to a good woman who loved him and bore him a son, whom he won’t be able to marry given the prejudice of society.  They both have sons who will grow up not knowing them.  Ames’ bitter disappointment in his godson is washed away in a flood of compassion and regret that he won’t live long enough to help Jack reconstitute his family. In that regard there will be no balm for them in Gilead. But there may be some when the reader pieces together the possibility that Jack was not doomed by God, but by the judgments of his own family and the secretly animosity of the man chosen to be his godfather. No wonder Rev. Ames longs to rechristen Jack as he leaves Gilead for a life of exile.

Lila is a novel written from Rev. Ames’ second wife’s point of view, and it is a masterpiece.

Why? Hard to say without sounding superficial. You see, this Lila is about as homeless as a person can be. She doesn’t know her real name, first or last. As a child she was stolen away from her natural family by a homeless woman called Doll who’d survived a near-fatal knife fight with a man. Doll may have done some housework for the girl’s family, or simply noticed that they had a daughter who’d been allowed to starve, whose legs were too spindly to walk on. Doll, by kidnapping her, saved the girl’s life, pulling her out from under the table where she slept in rags, carrying her away one night.

Over several years Doll had protected this girl, naming her Lila after the deceased aunt of a lady who’d let them stay with her while Doll nursed the child to passable health. Eventually they joined a small group of migrant workers, making their own campsites and sleeping out in the open or staying in occasional work camps, picking up whatever farming or other jobs they could find. For almost a year Doll took a job cleaning house so Lila could attend school and learn to read. With Doll and the others Lila learned the dignity of solitude, hard work, honesty, and not to trust anyone. In time the group disbanded, Doll got into another knife fight and this time killed her attacker, was badly cut herself, and probably went off somewhere to die. Lila was sent to work in St. Louis, unaware that the job was in a house of prostitution. It was after she’d left that place and went on the road by herself that she passed by the town of Gilead and stepped into Rev. Ames’ church to get out of the rain. She has no religion, no understanding of why people bother to go to church, and cannot understand why this kind old man (she does recognize that he is kind) would think twice about her.

What a love story.  She can’t believe or trust Rev. Ames’ love, and wishes she could be free of her love for him. They can hardly talk to one another. Lila carries an ocean of sorrow and untold indignity and destitution within her. Yet she has built a ship of self-reliance and inner dignity on which to navigate it.  She gives honest work for fair wages–cash or food–and when she feels overpaid out of charity she finds a way to work extra, unpaid. She catches her own fish and guts them with the knife she inherited from Doll.  She washes her body and her clothes in streams. There is deep beauty in how she sees things. I’ll offer just one quote:

She liked to do her wash. Sometimes fish rose for the bubbles. The smell of the soap was a little sharp, like the smell of the river. In that water you could rinse things clean. It might be a little brown after a good rain, soil from the fields, but the silt washed away or settled out. Her shirts and her dress looked to her like creatures that never wanted to be born, the way they wilted into themselves, sinking under the water as if they only wanted to be left there, maybe to find some deeper, darker pool. And when she lifted them out, held them up by their shoulders, they looked like pure weariness and regret. Like her own flayed skin. But when she hung them over a line and let the water run out, and the sun and the wind dry them, they began to seem like things that could live.  (p. 60)

Lila had been taught to walk past shop windows in towns, not to look inside, because Doll had told her not to want what she couldn’t have. She hated charity, and people’s pity. What she liked best about Rev. Ames was that he was well acquainted with loneliness. It was something they could share. Barely able to read, her vocabulary is modest, and she has to ask Ames what he means by “existence.” She quickly understands that it is something she knows from the ground up.

I could go on, but words are failing. Read Lila. It’ll give you a whole new dimension of the art of paying attention.

 

 

On the BIG QUESTION, “WHY?” When we all have to die…

Featured

REFLECTIONS ON “WHY? THE FICTIONS OF LIFE AND DEATH” BY JAMES WOOD

Wood is one of our finest literary critics, whose book How Fiction Works deserves to become a classic.  I was struck by his recent essay in The New Yorker (12-9-2013), which grabs you right off with his recent presence at the funeral of a 44-year-old man he did not know.  The deceased, brother of a close friend, was cut down in his fun-loving prime by a fluke illness, leaving behind a wife and children.  This spurs Wood to ask the Big Question: If we all have to die, for what purpose do we live, when most of us will soon be forgotten?

Wood confides that he lost his faith as a boy, when his parents could not explain why God let people die, like the single mother of his playmates who got cancer, or why some are born with mental and physical handicaps, suffer fatal freak accidents, and so on.  He writes that in his youth, to conceal his atheism—along with swearing, drinking, and listening to Led Zeppelin—he began to lie.  He began searching through novels for answers that religion refused to divulge.  Fiction seemed more honest because it “moves in the shadow of doubt, knows it is a true lie,” and “is always a matter of belief—for readers to validate and confirm.”

What was dangerous and troublesome in religion to Wood was “the very fabric of fiction,” “a ceaseless experiment with uncollectible data.”  Wonderfully put.  Who has not hopped onto the magic carpet of literature to be transported to distant climes and into the heads of characters so unlike—or shockingly like—ourselves?

Anyone paying attention to how they pay attention would agree that great novels are so full of their own life that, while reading them, our own mortality is momentarily banished.  In Wood’s terms, “Death will roar back, but not yet, not now.”  Except that a few great novels are filled with death and dying in ways that may help not a few readers cope with it better.  Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is one.  The dying Ilyich, alone with his thoughts, reluctantly begins to review his ungratifying life from a previously disdained perspective—how little he has valued love in his striving for worldly status.

Most moving about Ilyich’s story, he seems entirely real.  This leads to where I differ from Wood’s choice of fiction as our best vehicle to convey what is dangerous and troublesome to religion and to any sort of received value or belief.  If we knew that this failed bureaucrat Ilyich was a real person who tried to work his way up the career ladder as we have, wouldn’t we take his moment of truth more seriously?  Lifelike fiction or real plodding human experience?  Not that we don’t love fine art, but—really.

There’s a reason so many Christians cling to the faith Wood found unsatisfying.  One reason, perhaps the biggest, is that Jesus, being born human and living among real people, had street cred.  There’s a kind of writing–not fiction, much as we love it–that carries the same credibility.

Wood overlooks something essential when claiming that novels perform “what God vouchsafes to us in Psalm 121: ‘The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in.”  Fiction preserves some of the history of our imagination, and much of what we imagine is based on real experience.  But fiction is also—and for some, most importantly—a means to travel beyond the borders of daily existence, to escape the finitude of the doors, rooms and routines we pass in and out of.  It’s just that some of us don’t always seek escape.  We want to face, to get help facing, whatever reality throws at us.

Woods overlooks the kind of writing that deals with the actual passages of our life, nonfiction.  Memoir, autobiography, personal journals and letters, to some extent biography.  In theological terms, the Lord’s promise to preserve our goings and comings is carried out partly by those created in His/Her image.  Even for nonbelievers, that instrumentality, the attempt to preserve and give meaning to our goings and comings, may be why nonfiction writing, especially memoir, has overtaken novels in popularity.

Memoirs are now written and published even by unfamous people whose lives do not make the history books or tabloids.  They are written and read for reasons that grapple with the Big Why of Woods’ essay, in non-imaginary realms, where readers realize that truth being stranger than fiction can be very entertaining.

Market research shows that memoir readers search for life stories that bear upon their own struggles and questions.  One of the strongest motivators for people to write about the darkest moments of their lives, strangely enough, is not self-promotion but to give others hope that they can survive their own particular shocks and horrors.

Here’s the thing, from a cosmic perspective.  Memoir writers and their readers can be likened to a communion of not-necessarily-saints.  A vast community of people trying to understand the perplexities of their own lives by learning about others’.  A bottom-line benevolent support system, so to speak.

There’s a deep undergirding of care to the whole enterprise of writing about one’s life and reading about others’ lives.  It involves a quality of attention that searches for healing and insight, and looks for hidden connections.  Whether perceived as divine or secular, this attention is life-affirming and mysteriously influential.  Shakespeare could have spoken for self-exposing scribblers and their readers in his famous, slightly misquoted line, There is a divinity [not “destiny”] that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we will.  (We translate ‘divinity’ loosely here as ‘that which increases understanding by means of quality attention.’)

Wood says fictional characters, even if they die, return to life when we reread their stories.  By contrast, he needn’t add, real people die and stay dead. But not if they write a memoir, fill a journal, or write letters that survive.

Memoir writers not only have to find a narrative structure for the portion of life they are trying to write about.  They must face the existential challenge of writing as truthfully as possible, even if it may offend people they care about or uncover shameful or humiliating details.  It is a soul-wrenching project—one that feels like we need an assist from God and/or the spirits of brilliant writers past.

Dredging up memories is the just the beginning.  Once you’ve written them down, you must put them in a some rational sequence, a narrative.  Enter the agonies of craft.  You cut, paste, supply names, dates and locations to episodes partially forgotten, and change names to protect the living.  Making a readable story requires playing God in your tiny written universe—deciding to cull extraordinary persons and intriguing sub-plots in favor of those that move your story forward.  Doing so requires that you constantly refocus and reevaluate what deserves your own and readers’ attention.

It is perhaps the ultimate human quest: how best to give voice and form to the truth of one’s own unique life.  Why?  Because we can.  Because once we’ve written something in our own voice, it is part of creation.  Possibly immortal.

WHY LOUISE ERDRICH’S NOVEL THE ROUND HOUSE DESERVES THAT NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

Featured

Funny how a few snarky reviews in major newspapers can turn readers away from works richly worth their interest.  Despite such reviews, The Round House deserves the comparison it is acquiring as the Native American To Kill a Mockingbird.  And yes, it  deserved the National Book Award.  Not just because it is narrated by a delightfully frank and not-so-innocent boy, as Mockingbird’s story was told by the fearless, hawk-eyed girl Scout.  Nor because its subject is the widespread, unprosecuted rape of Native women by white men.

Here’s why it deserves that prestigious award.  Like all great writing—it gets us to pay extraordinary attention.

Erdrich’s previous fiction often used a variety of narrators, to strong effect.  Some critics whine that she should have kept this approach.  But here her subject is so intimate, so fraught with potential revulsion, that a different kind of genius was necessary.  The author says the voice of an adolescent boy came to her as she was driving home from a visit to her parents, and she had to pull over to the side of the road to listen to it.  That was a decisive act of creative attention itself.

In The Round House, Joe Coutts is the 13-year-old son of a North Dakota tribal judge and his beautiful, much younger wife Geraldine.  She is raped by a man who came from behind and threw a pillowcase over her head so she could not see him or whether the assault was on Native or non-Native land.  In fiction—as in fact happens to so many Native American women—her rapist is a white man who cannot be brought to justice in today’s unfair mixture of toothless tribal and indifferent federal law.

Rape and the demeaning legal system (not) serving Indians in this country deserves far more attention than it gets, but it’s too grim a subject for most readers.  In Erdrich’s novel we are pulled in almost unawares when Joe’s account begins.  It’s a late Sunday afternoon in June, when he and his father notice that his mother is not home to start fixing dinner.

“Women don’t realize how much store men set on the regularity of their habits,” Joe observes. “We absorb their comings and going into our bodies, their rhythms into our bones.  Our pulse is set to theirs, and as always on a weekend afternoon we were waiting for my mother to start us ticking away on the evening.

“And so, you see, her absence stopped time.”

That got my attention.  Doors didn’t simply open on a story of rape.  I was jolted by a young man’s ageless insight—that men rely on the women they love to dance them through time.

Joe describes the impact of the crime against his mother in his adolescent voice, full of guileless asides and goof-ball, Trekkie dialogue with his pals on the reservation.  We almost forget that he is looking back with the older eyes, and eloquence, of the lawyer and tribal judge he, like his father, has become.

Off go Judge Coutts and his son in a borrowed car to find his mother, only to see her whiz by in the opposite direction.  Joe recalls how his father laughed, “so relieved,” and said, “She forgot.  Went to the grocery and forgot it was closed.  Mad now she wasted gas.  Oh, Geraldine!”  How those last two words are spoken convinces Joe that his father “had always been in love with my mother,” and “never stopped being grateful that she had married him and right afterward given him a son,” when he’d been resigned to being last in his family’s line.

Readers walk with them up to Geraldine’s parked car.  We see her sitting rigidly in the driver’s seat, and realize she wasn’t at all mad about wasting gas.  She is traumatized, covered in vomit and blood, and smelling oddly of gasoline…a hint of how the perp had intended to kill her before she got away.  Each horrible step is recounted with a fresh juvenile grace.

Joe describes his father delicately lifting Geraldine out from behind the wheel, opening the door to the car’s back seat, “and then, as though they were dancing in some awful way,” maneuvers her delicately onto the edge of the seat, very slowly laying her back and onto her side.  “She was silent, though now she moistened her cracked, bleeding lips with the tip of her tongue.  I saw her blink, a little frown.”

Wow.  The boy watches so intensely that he catches these small movements, where there had been none before.  We are right there with him.  Our gaze sharpens to keep up with his.

That gives a taste of the calibre of observation we’re dealing with in this narration, the quality of attention it inspires.  We’re not surprised when Joe takes it on himself, against the warnings of both parents, to investigate his mother’s crime scene, and hears her cries rising up from the floorboards of the old sanctified round house, where the tribe used to hold traditional ceremonies in the days when they were forbidden.

Talk about riveting detail.  Joe identifies his mother’s rapist with the help of the man’s deformed and abandoned twin sister, a white woman who lives on the reservation!  She had been crushed in the womb by her brother, and left in the hospital to die by their mother.  The hospital’s night janitor, an Indian woman, nursed the child to life and adopted her, raising her—in stark contrast to her brother—in a loving family.  (Her upbringing itself is a study in healing attention.)  But Joe does not get the information he needs from her until—attention again—he proves by the way he listens to her that he is truly interested in what she has to say, and no longer repulsed by her superficial ugliness.

Because his mother’s rapist is not prosecuted but released, and considers his victim’s death unfinished business, Joe takes us on a perilous, but at times hilarious and tender, search for justice.

We are left contemplating the lifelong price of any major act of vengeance.  A very somber, sometimes inevitable place to put our attention.  The Round House helps us prepare for, revisit, or reconsider the dimensions of such a place—in the company of a 13-year-old character we grow to love.