Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, published in 1980, was a very big hit. It was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize; it won the PEN/ Faulkner Award. The reviewers loved it and, seemingly, were also grateful to it, for while Housekeeping had all of modernism’s painful knowledge, it showed none of the renunciations of clarity and unity that the modernists—not to speak of the postmodern types, who were already around—felt that such knowledge required. In Housekeeping life was dark, life was crazy. Yet these facts were rendered in a prose that, even at its most subjective, was clean and plain and beautiful.
Many readers were glad of that, and waited to see what Robinson would do next. Then they waited some more. After nine years, she published a nonfiction book, Mother Country (1989), on environmental pollution. After another nine years she brought out a collection of her magazine essays, under the title The Death of Adam (1998). But for twenty-four years this acclaimed novelist produced no fiction. Many people must have forgotten about her. I did. Then, one day last year, according to an article by Meghan O’Rourke in The New York Times Magazine, Jonathan Galassi, the president of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, appeared in the office of Roger Straus, the firm’s chairman, and said, “Do you know what I have in my hands? A new novel by Marilynne Robinson.” I don’t entirely believe this story—FSG must have had some warning—but I want to believe it, because it has a note of the miraculous, as does that new novel, Gilead.
Housekeeping was a frightening book, and its beauty only made it more so. It is the story of a young girl, Ruth, living in a little town beside a vast, cold lake in Idaho (Robinson’s home state). At the bottom of the lake lie her grandfather, the victim of a train wreck, and her mother, who one day dropped Ruth and her sister off on their grandmother’s screen porch with a box of Graham crackers and then drove off a cliff into the water. Those deaths are reported right at the start. The rest of the novel describes the dissolution of the family. In Housekeeping, nature abides—the lake is always, loomingly, there—but people pass on, and then they haunt the others until they too pass on. Ruth, in a way, passes before she dies. At the end she becomes a drifter, a freight car rider. The book is thus about transience, and though it is full of rapturous, neo-Transcendentalist passages—Idaho never got better press—its message is cruel. Ruth values remembrance, but the traces of the dead torture her. She longs for darkness, obliteration.
Gilead is the same coin, flipped. The period, as in Housekeeping, is the 1950s. The place, once again, is a no-account little town in the West. This time, however, we are not in the dire landscape of Idaho but on the kinder, flatter …