10 November, 2014Issue 26.3FictionLiterature

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The Storms that Rise in It

Kristin Grogan

Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
261 pages
ISBN: 9781844088805

“I got feelings I don’t know the names for,” declares Lila Ames, the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel. “There probly ain’t any names. Probly nobody else ever had ’em.” Lila, raised as a drifter, feels intensely but cannot articulate her experiences; the fields and the seasons where she has lived and laboured have defined her life far more than words or books. Throughout Lila, Robinson ventures to bring the full complexity of these unnamable emotional experiences to life.

Robinson’s first book, Housekeeping (1980) was quickly—and deservedly—hailed as a classic. She would not write another novel for twenty-four years. Then, a decade ago, Robinson returned to fiction with Gilead. Set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa in the mid-1950s, the novel is a series of reflections written by the elderly Reverend John Ames for his young son as he prepares for death. Ames shares a rare friendship with another preacher, Robert Boughton, whose wayward son Jack has returned to Gilead after twenty years absence, disturbing Ames’s existence. Gilead was followed in 2008 by Home, which told the same events through the point of view of Jack Boughton’s sister, Glory. Robinson can’t quite discard her characters, and Lila is the third novel to be set in Gilead, this time focusing on Ames’s wife who had been a relatively marginal presence in the previous two novels. In her interview with The Paris Review, Robinson confessed to going through a period of mourning for her creations after finishing a novel. “I miss the characters,” she tells us, “I feel sort of bereaved”.

For Robinson’s faithful readers, returning to Gilead once again is a comforting experience: it is as if, after a six-year absence, we are coming home, back to old friends. But Lila is an independent novel in its own right, and Robinson has crafted a rich new voice and way of viewing—and above all feeling—the world. In Lila, a woman who has been living as a drifter wanders into Gilead. After arriving at the chapel one evening in the pouring rain, she sparks an unlikely romance with the town’s reverend. The novel moves between Lila’s new life in Gilead—documenting her relationship with Ames, her reading of the Bible, her pregnancy—and her wild, impoverished former existence as a drifter. Lila opens with a neglected, under-nourished child being taken by an itinerant woman, Doll, and brought into the drifter lifestyle: a life of hard work in the fields marked by the caprices of the natural world and occasional eruptions of violence. They have no money, no home, no capital; they can survive only by continually selling their labour-power, a struggle during hard times.

Lila Ames is not one of history’s victors. Like so many of Robinson’s characters, Lila has been failed by her country and its economic system. Through the circumstances of her birth and due to more abstract factors like economics and gender, Lila’s life has been one of poverty and oppression. America’s dispossessed is not a new theme for Robinson. Housekeeping traced the experiences of two young girls, Ruth and Lucille, who are left to the care of their drifter aunt, Sylvie, after their mother’s suicide. By the end of the novel, one sister has left the family and entered into a comfortable middle class existence, while the other has become a drifter, lost to the social and economic system. Dispossession appears in Gilead and Home in the form of Jack Boughton, who has lived a life of poverty and experienced some prison time. These are not, however, the obscure and negligible margins of American society. Last year, the poverty rate in the United States sat at 14.5 per cent of the population: that translates to just over 45 million Americans, a fact of which that Robinson is keenly aware.

To be on the periphery of capitalism in America, in Robinson’s novels, is to be on the edges of life itself. In Housekeeping, whose language is infused equally with the narrative techniques of the Old Testament and of fairytales, Ruth understands herself as a spectral, invisible observer of reality. When she finally leaves the town of Fingerbone to join her Aunt Sylvie as a drifter, they burn down their house and are presumed dead. Gone from the system, they simply no longer exist. In Home and Gilead, Jack Boughton’s return to the town of his birth amounts to the resurrection of a spirit. So too is Lila sometimes figured as spectral, existing somewhere on the outskirts of life. Lila “had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all”, and she has only “the likeness of a life”. While working a menial job in St. Louis, Lila’s only encounter with some sort of living community is mediated through another art form, the cinema. At first, Lila describes the experience of watching a film as “dreaming some stranger’s dream,” but soon thinks about her own role as that of a ghost: “they were all ghosts gathered in the dark, seeing all the scheming and the murder and having no word to say about it, weeping with the orphans and having nothing to do for them.” Lila, spending her negligible income on tickets to Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks films, becomes a spectral observer of society, as cinema opens the door to a community of helpless ghosts, all observers but not participants.

In the same way, Lila has been cut off from other means of representation, especially written language. Her vocabulary is limited to what she learned in a single year of schooling: her reading and writing are imperfect, she feels things before being able to name her feelings, and, though capable of immense affective intensities, is unable to describe them. But certain words reach even the most disenfranchised and certain ideas still hold power. In the itinerant life, which Lila and her companions pass through, “a whole world of seedy, sunny, raggedy fields with no names to them,” there is “[o]nly that one name, the United States of America.”

Robinson, who lives a mostly solitary life herself, once said that when the character of Ames first came to her—writing Gilead while alone during the holidays in a hotel room—she felt glad for the company. It is no surprise that much of Lila focuses on the experience of loneliness and isolation. Lila and John Ames, Jack and Glory Boughton—the citizens of Gilead—have endured periods of immense loneliness, in a variety of forms. Loneliness is brought about by loss, but it persists when loss is overcome. It lingers even in the early stages of Lila’s marriage, when she feels “just as lonely as she ever had been.” Reading a Robinson novel feels like an encounter with loneliness. An encounter with, but not exactly a negation of: for loneliness is affirmed as an essential part of human experience, “it was just how [Lila’s] body felt.” Space must be made for isolation. “I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone,” Robinson admitted to the Paris Review. But Robinson’s books are also social experiences, and offer encounters with alarmingly individual characters. Literature, Robinson reminds us, is a way of coming into contact with the human. While Lila can observe the faces on a movie screen but, ghost-like, she is still be unable to access the characters in any meaningful way, literature makes possible a much closer encounter with other humans.

A large part of this is due to Robinson’s prose style. In the twenty-four years between Housekeeping and Gilead, Robinson’s prose has matured a great deal. Gone are the long, glittering tropes of Housekeeping (the novel reportedly began as a series of metaphors), with its Old Testament majesty and its dazzling, well-wrought sentences. Instead, Robinson’s mature prose is marked by a more restrained style, by careful, thoughtful expression, and reading her recent fiction is often a meditative experience. Some readers might mourn the shift away from the sublime to the simple, but there are many pay-offs. One result is that the characters are unique, their voices ring out clearly, and, even when Robinson discards her strong first-person voices in favour of the third person, as she does in Home and Lila, we get the sense of proper individuals documenting their experience and thinking straight onto the page; we feel Lila’s voice and her thoughts ripen as she accumulates knowledge and experience.

Lila is at once a new beginning, a homecoming, and a retelling. If Robinson’s fiction has a broader project, it is to articulate the unnamable, to give voice to the complexity and the mystery of consciousness in a way that pure science is largely unable, or unwilling, to do. Robinson guides us through the ways in which her characters attempt to come to terms with the mystery of their being—through Lila’s encounters with the Bible or Ames’s long reflections—and this is part of what gives her novels their contemplative, prayer-like quality. Part of the mystery of the universe, Robinson seems to say, is its inability to be pinned down, or to be felt in the same way by everyone. Consciousness may be shared by all, but it is an irreducibly individual thing. This shifting narrative lens is one way of coming to terms with the novels’s differences in perception. Ames’s recollection of Lila’s proposal to him in Gilead takes place in the splendid rose garden that Lila had been tending, whereas Lila recounts the experience with a great deal more anxiety, and in her version it happens on the road into Gilead, in the shade of the cottonwoods. No two experiences are the same in Robinson’s world; people are, above all, particular.

Robinson’s project is deeply, unashamedly invested in the value of human life. There are few traces of irony in her books and no embarrassment about their own sincerity and emotional ambition. Robinson is unafraid to ask big questions, to think, as Lila does, “about existence, about the great storms that rise in it.” Reading Lila feels like a return to origins, to the great roots of modern American literature, to a Whitmanian tradition that marries social responsibility with cosmic ambition and spiritual wonder. But Robinson discarded her dazzling rhetoric long ago, and Lila’s great achievement is its meditative introspection, its gentle elegance, its maturity. Throughout Lila, John Ames takes great comfort in the daily experience of quiet prayer. Prayer, he reminds Lila, can assume a variety of forms: family, wife, marriage, are all types of prayer. Lila feels like yet another form of prayer: for America and its dispossessed, for literature, for the lonely. Let it comfort us sometimes, too.

Kristin Grogan is a first year DPhil candidate in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. Her dissertation, on the relationship of labor and poetry in modernist poetry and poetics, is supported by the Clarendon Fund.