In her new novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson has written a deeply romantic love story embodied in the language and ideas of Calvinist doctrine. She really is not like any other writer. She really isn’t.
Her literary career certainly does not resemble anyone else’s. Over the last thirty-four years, she has published four novels as graceful as deer, and four brilliant, scholarly works of stompingly polemical nonfiction. Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping (1980), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She did eventually win the Pulitzer for her second novel, Gilead, which appeared an astonishing twenty-four years later. With Home and now Lila, Robinson has created a small, rich, and fearless body of work in which religion exists unashamedly, as does doubt, unashamedly.
Narrated by John Ames, a seventy-six-year-old Congregational minister who is dying, as a letter to his seven-year-old son, Gilead is suffused with Ames’s love of a world he knows is ephemeral; the novel’s drama, and it is dramatic, is in his speculation on what lies ahead, but even more in his diffident yearning for what he leaves behind. It is refined, flawless, achingly emotional.
Gilead was followed four years later by Home, a novel that takes place in the same small town, Gilead, Iowa. Home is the story of a ne’er-do-well, a prodigal son, returning to his father, the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, John Ames’s best friend. An astute observation of the complications of family feelings, the novel is in some ways a more conventional narrative than Robinson’s earlier work. But running through the story of brothers, sisters, and paternal expectations are Robinson’s urgent questions about religious redemption, so unconventional in contemporary fiction as to be radical. In Lila, too, Robinson poses doctrinal questions about predestination and grace, about the afterlife and who will be there and who will not, serious questions only for the sincerest of believers, yet they become serious in Robinson’s telling for the rest of us as well.
Perhaps Robinson is able to write so powerfully and engagingly about religion, even for the nonreligious, even now when the discussion of religion has become so debased by fiery fundamentalism on the one hand and fiery atheism on the other, because she writes about questions rather than answers. Even her preachers do not preach so much as wonder. Morality and judgment are present only obliquely, part of a distant landscape. “Fingerbone was never an impressive town,” she writes in Housekeeping. “It was chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole human history had occurred elsewhere.” Her spirituality is indistinguishable from her lyricism, which is indistinguishable from the quotidian concerns of mortals, and she can write about a daily chore with passionate beauty. But if the quotidian can be wondrous, she seems to say, then the wondrous must be with us everyday, as ubiquitous,…
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