Saturday, July 12, 2008

Marilynne Robinson's "Jack"

Back when Pavement was my favorite band, around 1993, I eagerly awaited their third album, which was said to be in the making. I had listened to the first two almost exclusive of much else for years, and this new record would be the first one to come out since they'd become my favorite band. The anticipation was killing me.

When the album finally came out, though, I didn't buy it right away. In fact, I didn't buy it at all, until long after I'd bought and come to like the fourth album. By this time, I still loved the band, but my admiration had become less maniacal. The fourth album I bought the day it came out.

It should be obvious why I held off on that record ("Wowee Zowee"): I didn't want to be disappointed. I didn't want my perfect love affair with the band to change. As it happens, when I finally did get it, I was kind of disappointed (though I like it fine now), and perhaps that experience served as the template for my non-reading of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Her first novel in more than 20 years, Gilead followed one of my favorite books ever, the pretty much perfect Housekeeping, and because it could not possibly be as good as that book, I didn't read it. Simple.

Now, however, I'm going to go blow the dust off it and get to work. I just read "Jack," an excerpt from Robinson's forthcoming third novel, in the new Harper's, and it is excellent. It takes place in the same town as the last book (the town is called Gilead) and its characters appear to be tangential to the Gilead ones. A woman, Glory, is the youngest of seven siblings, and comes home to care for her ailing father, a gentle widower. She is leaving behind a relationship that has not quite managed to become a marriage. After a few weeks back home, a letter arrives from her ne'er-do-well brother, Jack; he's coming to visit for the first time in 20 years. Then he shows up. End of story.

Sound exciting? No, it doesn't. It is exciting to read, though. "Jack" does what Robinson is so good at--it describes, in lavish detail, incredibly subtle emotions. Here, Glory has been considering her youthful innocence, and then turns her attention to her parents:

Her parents were, in their way, fully as innocent as she was, having put aside their innocence on practical grounds, not in the belief that it had been discredited but because they accepted the terms of life in this world as a treaty to be preferred to conflict, though by no means ideal in itself. Experience had taught them that truth had sharp edges and hard corners, and could be seriously at odds with kindness.

It's all very old-fashioned and quite gripping at the same time.

If I'm going to be totally honest, there was another reason I skipped Gilead, and that's that it was a book about, in part, religion. I am not antireligious, but I am certainly irreligious, and, like a lot of even the most devout people, I had, by the time Gilead came out in 2004, gotten very weary of the sanctimonious triteness that had come to characterize popular religious expression; and frankly the last thing I wanted to do was read about anybody's "faith."

But I ought to have had a bit of faith in Robinson. She obviously has still got it going on, and presumably she did back in 2004, when my disappointment in my fellow man had reached its nadir. This week I'll try to make up for lost time.


Anonymous said...

JRL, I know exactly what you are talking about. Sometimes you don't want to read a book or participate in a particular experience because there's such a buildup in your mind that it can't possibly live up to your expectations.

'Housekeeping' was such a stellar work that I immediately read 'Gilead' once it was available. Though it didn't affect me in the same way 'Housekeeping' did (I am in the same non-religious boat) it definitely added to the Robinson oeuvre. I think there are two kinds of people in the world. 'Housekeeping' people and 'Gilead' people. Once you read the book you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

rmellis said...

I read just the first few page of Gilead, enough to confirm my suspicions: very beautiful, extremely intelligent, and not what I wanted to read.

But if JRL bullies me into it, I'll give it a shot.

Anonymous said...

Gilead is a remarkably good book, but for very different reasons than Housekeeping. It is, perhaps, more about the underpinnings of religion, or the inspiration for it, than about religion itself.

I am thoroughly anti-religious, yet I still found a lot of humanity in Gilead, underneath and in spite of the god stuff. Its prayers are about observation and its faith is more meditative than demonstrative. I don't mind that.

AC said...

I like the idea of there being 'Housekeeping' people and 'Gilead' people. I'm a huge fan of Gilead and, while there's nothing wrong with 'Housekeeping' either, I just don't like it as much. To me, the difference is that 'Housekeeping' is a book about throwing over the traces and escaping responsibility, while 'Gilead' is a book about staying put and dealing with all the past and present reverberations that accumulate in a place. The fact that the main character in 'Gilead' is a minister was, to me, of less importance than the echoes of the Civil War coming down through his family. And the generations of experience built up in one town. On my bookshelf, I would file 'Gilead' next to William Least Heat Moon's 'PrairyErth', as kind of a fictional equivalent.

That said, I liked the religious aspects of 'Gilead' as character development. Having a lot of background in Protestant theology, I recognized most of the ideas the minister character expresses. His particular kind of faith tells me that he's a thoughtful, generous, complicated man who has stayed with his orthodox beliefs after much testing and consideration. He knows what he's talking about theologically, and that made him a reliable narrator for me.

Anonymous said...

Curiously enough, I picked up a copy of Housekeeping at the used book store on Saturday afternoon, despite having not yet read JR's post and previously having no definite interest in reading the book. Maybe I was channeling JR during my book store visit.

Shakespere said...

Hi. I enjoyed your blog. Your posts are very interesting.

estelle said...

well, i can't wait to read 'housekeeping' and find out which kind of person i am. i loved gilead, though. as myles said, above, religion manifests as contemplation and heart. really a wondeful book.

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