Thursday, February 10, 2005

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I reviewed Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead for The Weekly Standard last month. Robinson's eerie and beautiful first novel Housekeeping is well-known, and her second novel was long awaited, so it isn't a work whose virtues are likely to go unnoticed. Reviews have been prominent and laudatory, and I'll bet has dozens of reader comments by now. Still, I make a few observations about the novel I have not seen elsewhere, so my piece may have its little value.

You can click on the published review at

or else read the author's cut below. (The edit, done with my permission and input, wreaked no violence to the piece, but I prefer my slightly different version.)

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 247 pp., $23.00

By Gregory Feeley

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s second novel -- her first since Housekeeping appeared in 1980 -- begins in gentle retrospection and affirmations of family love, but quickly turns to questions of moral responsibility and conscience, which it frames with Old Testament severity. Housekeeping, which won Robinson a celebrity that remains undiminished after the quarter century her readers have spent waiting for another novel (she has meanwhile been writing non-fiction), is a mysterious, lyrical work that resists all but the most reductive summary. Walker Percy called it “a haunting dream of a story told in a language as sharp and clear as light and air and water,” and his brief remark catches both the novel’s odd way with narrative mimesis (it seems less a story than a dream of one) and the pervasive, shimmering water imagery that every reader comments upon. Water may be “sharp and clear” but it also refracts and distorts, and Housekeeping -- a novel whose every beautiful paragraph seems as limpid and sharp as a glimpse of pebble on a lake bottom -- ripples and wavers, a book one can love without claiming, even after multiple readings, to understand.

Like Housekeeping, Gilead is a first-person narrative, a voice speaking from a small-town America of some decades ago. Four of its characters are named John Ames, of successive generations, and it is the third who narrates it, born in 1880 and a near lifelong resident of Gilead, Iowa, from which he now writes at the age of seventy-six a long letter to his young son (who is not the fourth John Ames: things are more complex than that), which his son is to read only as an adult, long after his father, suffering from heart disease, is dead. We are, perhaps, reading along with that son, a generation after 1956, the words of one long dead, who indeed writes as one long dead.

Son of a minister whose life was dominated by the legacy of his own father, a fiery abolitionist who came from Maine to Kansas in the 1830s, the narrator -- himself a minister -- spends many pages discussing the conflict and final estrangement between the first John Ames (“In course of time I learned that my grandfather was involved pretty deeply in the violence in Kansas before the war”) and the second (who once cried to his father, “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt. And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus”). The present John Ames claims to be writing to offer his son various insights he will not live to relate in person, but ends up repeatedly returning to these nearly century-old matters. They prey, of course, on his own mind, for reasons the reader must try to work out.

Robinson’s anguished but perhaps unreliable narrator circles back and forth, worrying about current problems -- including the return of the fourth John Ames, his godson and namesake, a prodigal son who now seems to be paying attention to his wife -- while refusing to let go of his tormenting past. At one point (it is perhaps the emotional center of the novel, although Robinson characteristically gives us no warning), he recalls a story his father once told him, of hearing sounds one night as a boy and going outside to see John Brown’s mule make its way down the steps of his father’s church. Several horses, one ridden by a wounded man, followed and disappeared into the darkness, and the boy spent hours cleaning blood and manure off the church floor, only to discover that a U.S. soldier had already come by and guessed the elder Reverend Ames’s involvement in Brown’s activities. The later events of that night created a rift between father and son that neither their later service in the Civil War, nor their shared ministry afterward, sufficed to bridge. It is this terrible divide, Biblical in resonance, that their son and grandson, come so late to fatherhood, must obsessively contemplate.

Gilead is a tale of sons as profoundly as Housekeeping is one of daughters, and in many ways seems its mirror opposite. Its imagery is overwhelmingly that of light: sunlight, lightning, fire, divine radiance, illumination and its lack. While Housekeeping’s eerie dreaminess precluded much of what must be called (for lack of a better term) social consciousness, Gilead -- anchored in a specific era, as the hovering, almost immaterial Housekeeping is not -- is charged with it. “Remembering and forgiving can be contrary things,” reflects Ames, on his way to an unwelcome self-recognition.

His voice is the novel’s texture: well-meaning, not entirely honest with himself, deeply troubled. The Reverend Ames begins a letter to his son, uncertain why he is doing so, and 245 pages later concludes it. This letter -- bereft of chapter divisions, titled sections, or any other traditional literary appurtenance -- is what we have, the entirety of a novel that discloses and withholds, dramatizing the swerves and evasions of an unquiet soul uneasy with his life even as it nears its end. In the sere beauty of its prose and the fierceness of its passion, Gilead is a work of startling power: a seemingly simple artifice that reveals more complex and finer structures the closer we approach it. It is a subtle, gorgeously wrought, and immensely moving novel.


Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

I can't wait to read it when I have a brain again.

I might recommend it for my book group. Do you think it would be a good suggestion? We range pretty widely.

8:02 AM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Maureen, I keep trying to post a comment but it never appears.

The short answer is: Yes.

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