Gilead: A Novel, by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pp., $23)
Prose worth rereading does not merely communicate: Lucidity with “elegant variations,” as they used to be called, is not worth a second look, since you get the point. The best prose makes things happen. It uses pace, rhythm, length of phrase and sentence, pauses, vocabulary, imagery; it brings into being the experienced reality of a mental world. In his New York Times review of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, James Wood wrote that in her work, “silence is itself a quality, [and] the space around words may be full of noises.” That should catch anyone’s attention; it did mine. And Wood was right.
First of all, Robinson slows things down, as in an old epistolary novel. Gilead employs a diary form; what plot there is does not drive the reader ahead. Gradually, as the book slows down your ordinary pace, you begin to read patiently and with wonder.
Set in the small Iowa town of Gilead in 1956, the narrative consists entirely of a long letter written by local pastor John Ames, 76, to his seven-year-old son by his second and much younger wife. The Reverend Ames has angina pectoris and knows he will die, probably soon. He wants the boy to read this meditative autobiography much later, when perhaps he will understand it.
In Gilead, out on the bleak prairie, nothing much happens, except everything. We glimpse the history of the United States and of Protestantism, and the achievement by Ames of what can only be called a kind of holiness, for which the barrenness and the meditative slowness seem necessary conditions, as he achieves a concentration of mind that enables him to see, hear, reflect, his senses so alive to profound experience:
I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can astonish me.
In those days, as I have said, I might spend most of a night reading. Then, if I woke up still in my armchair, and if the clock said four or five, I’d still think how pleasant it was to walk through the streets in the dark and let myself into the church and watch the dawn come into the sanctuary. I loved the sound of the latch lifting. The building has settled into itself so that when you walk down the aisle, you can hear it yielding to the burden of your weight. It’s a pleasanter sound than an echo would be, an obliging accommodating sound . . . After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it.
I was struck by the way the light felt that afternoon. I have paid a good deal of attention to light, but no one could begin to do it justice. There is a feeling of the weight of light–a pressing the damp out of the grass and pressing the smell of sour old sap out of the boards on the porch floor and burdening the trees a little as a late snow would do.
There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It does not enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me. The sensation is really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.
John Ames is talking about the experience of Being, and so firm is his grasp on the world that every word touches that mystery and every word counts: the boards in the floor yielding, the sense of light having weight, the sound of the latch, which he loves. Ames meets Francis of Assisi, Anselm, even Heidegger: As existence becomes conscious of itself it reaches its own edges, sees the world with greater clarity, and wonders about its is-ness.
Ames, a third-generation preacher, embodies a stage in the development of American Calvinism. Though his father was a pacifist, his grandfather was a Cromwellian terror. “My grandfather seemed to me stricken . . . like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so there was an ashiness about his clothes . . . and his eye had a look of tragic alarm.” As a young man in Maine, the grandfather had a vision of Jesus, his wrist in manacles that cut to the bone. He rode west to “Bleeding” Kansas and joined Osawatomie John Brown, whose night-riders were using guns and broadswords to slaughter Southern sympathizers and their families: Ames’s father told him the story of “being awakened by sounds in the night and of walking outside and seeing old John Brown’s mule coming out through the doors of his father’s church . . . the church smelled like horses and gunpowder.” The grandfather rode away with Brown. In those days, he preached with a pistol in his belt, “preaching his people to war.” Ames remembers him as “a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer on it.” When his one eye looked at the boy it was like being poked with an accusatory stick. Once when Ames as a boy entered their house, his mother told him that “the Lord is in the parlor.” The boy looked in and saw the old man talking with God, “attentive and sociable . . . I would hear a remark from time to time, ‘I see your point,’ or ‘I have often felt that way myself.’”
Years ago I began reading Calvin’s Institutes, his comprehensive theology. Its logical machine hums along without a hitch. Suddenly, I realized, “This man thinks he knows the mind of God. It turns out He’s Euclid.” Of course Grandfather Ames knows the mind of God: He talks to him in the parlor.
That after this dangerous Old Testament warrior the father has become a pacifist can readily be understood. That our John Ames would have the special qualities we find here, however, is unexpected, singular. One thinks perhaps Calvin, filtered through Francis of Assisi and Wordsworth. He even understands that impatience and irritation, so familiar to almost all of us, are forms of anger, and as such impediments to seeing the astonishing thing that the world and Being really are, seeing that there is this–instead of nothing.
We may have come to that point ourselves, through intelligence. For example, Ludwig Wittgenstein was the ablest logician of his time. As Bertrand Russell’s apprentice in logic at Cambridge, he so far outdistanced Russell that the master abandoned logic altogether and turned instead to popular writing, for which he won a Nobel Prize in literature. In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Wittgenstein pushed the logical-empirical method as far as it could go, reached a wall, and, beyond empiricism, concluded that there is more, calling the more das Mystische. He had no language for it.
Astronomers have also reached the edge, measuring the radiation from the Big Bang and calculating the age of the universe: about 13.7 billion years. This has been confirmed by the Hubble telescope. Long ago, the ancient rabbis who wrote the theological poem beginning Genesis looked over the edge: “In the beginning . . .” Beyond time and space, science–that is, empiricism–cannot go, and must become speechless.
The Rev. John Ames here perceives the empirical world so sharply that around the edges of his words we hear the “noises,” as James Wood puts it. These do not resemble the terror we sense around Hemingway’s equally hard edges, our sense of terror in Hemingway the result of suggestions created by units larger than the sentence. In Robinson’s prose the presences are much more benign, because of the way Ames apprehends the world.
She has found the perfect way to end this extraordinary performance. Despite the unaccommodating phase of ordinary culture through which we live, her subject is holiness. John Ames writes to his son:
I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that word “good” so affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . . Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning. Nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.
I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I’ll pray that you find a way to be useful.
I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.
All I can say is, “Wow.” Marilynne Robinson’s prose makes things happen. She can handle the language, and more.