Sunday, February 15, 2015

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Shortly after I'd started reading "Gilead", Robinson's prizewinning novel from 2004 it was listed as being one of the best novels of the 21st century by American critics. Highly acclaimed for her first novel "Housekeeping", "Gilead" was published nearly a quarter of a century after her debut - though she's since written two more novels.

"In 1956, towards the end of Reverend John Ames's life, he begins a letter to his young son," summarises the back cover, and that's the form of this insular novel. Ames is a third generation "preacher", his grandfather was an evangelical preacher of legend - some of them unsavoury - whilst he has settled down into an urbane life in a dirty poor Iowan town "Gilead" that exists merely as a staging place on the road to Kansas or St. Louis. Ames' life took an unusual turn late on when he married - for a second time - and he has a small boy. The elderly religious pastor, renowned only for his kindness and dedication, with little of the fire of his notorious grandfather, has been at home with his books for many years, a dedicated community figure, even as the congregation reduces and the span of history avoids this dusty outpost.

The setting of the novel seems important - for it places Ames as born around 1880, another world entirely, and his grandfather's main claim for fame was being an abolitionist who ran away with the Yankees during the civil war. Race is an underlying theme of the novel, though in mostly white Iowa, it is hardly present, until the last quarter of the novel, when a revelation brings home the still burning issues of segregation in America three generations on from that nation-defining war. Yet it would be wrong to say that "Gilead" is a novel that aims to take in the whole of America, for its scope and ambitions are far more closely defined than that.

In choosing the epistolary form we only have Ames as company, and though he is "open" with us the reader as he is addressing his young son, it is an "openness" that conceals. His own status as a "good man" is one that he struggles to reconcile with a sense of underlying failure. Yet so strong is his belief in God and the scriptures that he turns to the written word as being the best place where he might find the answer, even as life offers up both wonder (in his late marriage) and torment (in the return of his namesake John Ames Boughton to stay with Rev. Boughton, his ailing oldest friend.) Beginning almost as a sermon, Ames tells his histories - primarily focussing on his grandfather - less so on his own father - but interjects a present story, as his health fails, as the people around him interrupt his life, as he struggles through another Sunday. "When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time," he observes, sardonically. It is this tone of voice which is one of the books sustained pleasures. We are in the company of a good, learned, honest man, but he is no paragon, he is not a pious man. When parishioners go all "hell and brimstone" on him, having heard some preacher on the radio, he reminds them that the loneliest place, is that part of yourself where God has not reached.

Its a highly religiously-charged book, but never offputting as Ames spouts scripture, or scriptural commentary, or talks through his own sermons. In this, Robinson successfully manages to give us a philosophy wrapped tightly within the insides of a quiet novel. There's something very homespun about Ames, even though he's studied widely, and is something of a theologian; just as he's had to tone down his more bookish tendencies for his congregation, he carefully explains his reasoning - leavened with much doubt about meaning, albeit with no doubt about God - to the audience.

Gilead is hardly a place at all - yet it stands as some kind of monument to certain passings of American history. That man stopped off here to do various bits of work, and that manifested itself early on in the building of several ramshackle churches. It seems an America yet to be touched by, or even close to being bypassed by the twentieth century. Here in 1956, neither great war deserves more than a passing mention,the much more recent Korean war may not have happened at all, and Elvis Presley and rock and roll are yet to make it to this outpost of American conservatism. That placing seems somewhat deliberate, yet its also a little odd, for the young Ames as he remembers it are not about leaving (though his brother would, and eventually his father), but about an earlier past that was already fading when he was a young boy. He remembers vividly going with his father to search out the last resting place of his itinerant preacher grandfather - and tries, in the early parts of the book, to piece together the family secrets that drew a line between his grandfather and father. This idea of a struggle of what is good or right seems to be at the philosophical heart of the book. His grandfather may well have killed a man, and hidden fugitives from justice, yet in that man's philosophy it was his the right thing to do. Far worse is the betrayal of family, or the failure to stand up for your own kind.
John Ames has struggled all his life with these questions.

Knowing he is dying, knowing as well that at seventy seven, his free spirited young son, aged seven, will hardly remember him once he's gone, he worries about having not left enough of his legacy for his son and wife, having married so late, he never thought to put a little aside for himself. His long term friend Rev. Boughton is iller than he is, has a vast family, but is made unhappy that the favoured son, the one he named John Ames after his friend, has been away for so long. When the news comes that the son has returned, the older Ames is worried about what it meanss, for John Ames Boughton has never had faith, always got in trouble, and yet remains much-loved by his sister and father. That Ames is suspicious of his namesake manifests itself in awkward conversations, and even more awkward occasions where he suspects an interest in his young wife, and that the younger man might be a threat to the future happiness of his family.

Such are the small plot points and tensions of "Gilead." Its a languid read, but beautifully written, and Ames' tone is pitch perfect throughout. His own character remains a little opaque. Here is the sense of a life lived well, yet nonetheless wasted. Yet Ames' own redemption - for no sins as such - will come towards the very end, as he finally comes to love John Ames Boughton. This idea of delayed destiny - of God's purpose - seems to be one of Robinson's more subtle aims. The other, somewhat contradictory, is that for all the "goodness" of this small religious community, the wider tides of social change mean that the task undertaken by his grandfather to free the slaves, still remain in segregated America a major sore and rift. Yet these moral ambiguities, large in themselves, but filtered through small, if not insignificant moments in Ames's life, and through the voice of Ames himself, are filtered down to such a degree that I think it would be wrong to call "Gilead" out either as a moral fable or as philosophising text. More, it seems, that her fascination is in finding a way of documenting one particular smalltown life, where American history collides only tangentionally with, and that as this is that of a religious man, that much greater themes, of moral authority, of man's relationship with God, are interweaved carefully with it.

I read the book in several chunks, as the slow languid pace and the elegant prose are richly rewarding, yet aren't necessarily compelling you to turn the page. Its a book of details, many of which are only hinted at, because of Ames being such a careful storyteller. It is neither self-justification or explicit memoir - rather a careful sermonising of a family history by a man who has spent his life reading nuance into the words that he carefully puts together every Sunday for his congregation. Not for the first time, an American fiction that is so based in a devout religious community seems alien to a secular English reader. The fascination in some American - and Irish - fiction with a slightly pre-modern world where the church and its morality are all encompassing has its interest, always, but can also be somewhat inert at times. The book is immaculately put together, never that easy in the epistolery form, yet there are still some problems with it. When John Ames Boughton finally reveals his story, the retelling verbatim by Ames doesn't fit with the roundabout tone of the rest of the novel, and the revelation itself, a somewhat sleight of hand, seems leaden, almost unbelievable in this book's context - its clearly a deux ex machina to bring together an understanding between the two men. That said, its a quiet, powerful novel that I'm sure I'll be thinking about for quite some time.

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