Issue Date: April 15, 2005
Reviewed by PATRICK GILES
That a novel narrated by a terminally ill 76-year-old Iowa minister largely preoccupied with religious arguments and interventions has received rapturous reviews, enthusiastic readers and both the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle prize might seem miraculous. But Marilynne Robinsons Gilead is exceptional in every way. There has not been a work so uncompromisingly devout and different in American literature since Flannery OConnors novels and stories. Gilead is a far more explosive and transgressive work than any other book American culture has had to deal with in years. It troubles the waters by placing so much faith in what the mainstream has ignored or mocked: the quietly speaking consciences of those for whom religion is a daily matter of life and death.
But its important to insist that Gilead succeeds on far more than religious or spiritual terms. It starts as a gentle letter written by ailing John Ames to his 7-year-old son to be read when that son is a grown man, but it quickly develops into a complex tale of sin and redemption contemplated from both personal and national perspectives. Without giving crucial evidence away, I can say there is a crisis at the heart of Gilead that only Ames can address, and this crisis is emblematic of our fervently religious countrys inability to live by its beliefs.
Gilead is set in a town founded in the 19th century to prevent Iowa from becoming a slave state; it was also a stop on the Underground Railroad. Ames grandfather, also a minister and a fierce visionary, sheltered John Brown from the law, joined the battle against slave sympathizers in Kansas and returned to preach to his flock in a bloodstained shirt. His deserting his vocation in despair at the fate of the abolition movement and his son and grandson (the narrator) wandering through Kansas years later to find his abandoned grave become a parable of Americas ambivalence over living up to its ideals, rather than ignoring or subverting them. And Ames writes his testimony to his son in 1955, just before the Montgomery bus boycott rekindles the struggle against racism, with still-unresolved results.
Whatever level it assays, Gilead masters. Page after page is filled with gravely beautiful writing; this 250-page novel is a slow but draining read. It has to be lived with, re-read, thought about, maybe even prayed over.
Gilead is also an edge-of-the-seat read. Complaints by a few critics that this is not so much a novel as a collection of meditations (or tirades) are simply obtuse -- and maybe prejudiced. Wars, passions, illegitimate children, despair and death are part of Ms. Robinsons story, but they are observed through the calm, sensitive language of a man who cant be imagined even raising his voice. This combination of moderate tone and deep feeling creates not boredom but suspense. Throughout the book we wait with Ames for something momentous to happen -- his heart disease makes him achingly aware of the perils and possibilities latent in every moment.
Ames memories, and his fathers, slide in and out of the daily routines he observes with his young wife and little boy. And, always, narrator and reader are on the lookout for grace, and it comes in moments of pleasure, or memories of pain, or else it whispers its presence to readers when Ames himself seems unaware of it. Some readers may miss intense actions and combustible characters, but Ms. Robinson writes with such command that a simple Bless you said by one character to another, or the description of a man and woman showered by water from tree boughs after a rainstorm, or the memory of smoldering Bibles and prayer books taken from a church struck by lightning and buried just as the dead are laid to rest, quake with the authority of transfiguration.
Ames honesty and Ms. Robinsons watchful, revealing control come from the deepest roots of fiction. The novel as a genre began as confession and as fictional letters -- Richardsons Clarissa, Laclos Dangerous Liaisons. Indeed letters is still a synonym for literature. Gilead, seen by some as almost shockingly new, actually revalidates a glorious tradition. Ms. Robinson, who teaches writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop, is said to frequently assign Whitman, Dickinson, Melville and other 19th-century Americans to her students, but the feel of Gilead is not Transcendentalist but Calvinist (Robinsons nonfiction book The Death of Adam is in part a defense of Calvin) with a French accent. One of the only works of fiction mentioned in its pages is Bernanos Diary of a Country Priest, and Gilead might even be seen as a Protestant version of (or response to) that earlier novel. There are many points of comparison: Both take place in the country and are written by dying religious figures with miraculous literary powers. Troubled subsidiary characters largely animate both plots. Epigrams on death, faith and grace stand out amid memories and narration of recent events. And each central characters ability to overcome personal obstacles to meet the suffering of another soul to soul, as the country priest puts it, is the climactic moment of both books.
But Ms. Robinson, who was born Presbyterian and is now a Congregationalist, also fills Gilead with concerns specific to her setting, situation and faith; indebted to Bernanos, she nonetheless succeeds unencumbered. In her novel, one character challenges Ames to explain (and defend) predestination; through this scene we realize that the ordinary human struggle with -- especially against -- predestination is a major theme of the work. Do we live our lives in anticipation of a pre-assigned place in heaven, or working to make a heaven of our world? And how well do we know our own souls, and those of our friends and families? Despite their lives of good consciences and deeds, we see the characters, and they see each other, in the light of impending eternity rather than in a healing present of grace. Gileads characters (and readers) forget the crucial teaching of Jesus that the kingdom of Heaven is to be brought into being by how we live rather than forecast and waited for. When grace fleetingly appears in the book, it is when preconceptions of fate and conduct are cast aside, and love and caring become free to be.
Gileads success indicates there are legions of readers who want the souls presence and work to be taken as more than a subject for satire. Gilead is an affirmation of our spiritual and creative hopes.
Patrick Giles is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.
National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005
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