This Almost Chosen People
Marilynne Robinson's novel of America's Protestant soul.
Jan 31, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 19 • By GREGORY FEELEY
"IS THERE NO BALM in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" the prophet Jeremiah once asked. "Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?"
With Gilead, Marilynne Robinson has written a profound study of the Protestant roots of the American soul, a moving story that begins in gentle retrospection and affirmations of family love but quickly turns to questions of moral responsibility and conscience, which frames it with Old Testament severity.
Gilead is only Robinson's second novel, and it has been a long wait since Housekeeping, her previous novel, appeared in 1981. Housekeeping, which won Robinson a celebrity that remains undiminished after a quarter century, is a mysterious, lyrical work that resists all but the most reductive summary. Walker Percy called it "a haunting dream of a story told in a language as sharp and clear as light and air and water," and his brief remark catches both the novel's odd way with narrative (it seems less a story than a dream of one) and the pervasive, shimmering water imagery that every reader has noticed. Water may be "sharp and clear" but it also refracts and distorts, and Housekeeping--a novel whose every beautiful paragraph seems as limpid and sharp as a glimpse of pebble on a lake bottom--ripples and wavers, a book one can love without claiming, even after multiple readings, to understand.
Like Housekeeping, Gilead is a first-person narrative, a voice speaking from a small-town America of some decades ago. Four of its characters are named John Ames, of successive generations, and it is the third who narrates it. Born in 1880, John Ames III is a resident of Gilead, Iowa, from which he now writes at the age of seventy-six a long letter to his young son (who is not the fourth John Ames; things are more complex than that), which his son is to read only as an adult, long after his father is dead. We are, perhaps, reading along with that son, a generation after 1956, the words of one long dead.
Son of a minister whose life was dominated by the legacy of his own father, a fiery abolitionist who came from Maine to Kansas in the 1830s, the narrator--himself a minister--spends many pages discussing the conflict and final estrangement between the first John Ames ("In course of time I learned that my grandfather was involved pretty deeply in the violence in Kansas before the war") and the second (who once cried to his father, "I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt. And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus"). The present John Ames claims to be writing to offer his son various insights he will not live to relate in person, but he ends up repeatedly returning to these nearly century-old matters. They prey on his mind, for reasons the reader must try to work out.
Robinson's anguished but perhaps unreliable narrator circles back and forth, worrying about current problems--including the return of the fourth John Ames, his godson and namesake, a prodigal son who now seems to be paying attention to his wife--while refusing to let go of his tormenting past. At one point (it is perhaps the emotional center of the novel, although Robinson characteristically gives us no warning), he recalls a story his father once told him, of hearing sounds one night as a boy and going outside to see John Brown's mule make its way down the steps of his father's church. Several horses, one ridden by a wounded man, followed and disappeared into the darkness, and the boy spent hours cleaning blood and manure off the church floor--only to discover that a soldier had already come by and guessed the elder Reverend Ames's involvement in Brown's activities. The events of that night created a rift between father and son that neither their later service in the Civil War, nor their shared ministry afterward, sufficed to bridge. It is this terrible divide, Biblical in resonance, that their son and grandson, come so late to fatherhood, must obsessively contemplate.
Gilead is a tale of sons as profoundly as Housekeeping is one of daughters, and in many ways it seems the mirror opposite of the earlier novel. Its imagery is overwhelmingly that of light: sunlight, lightning, fire, divine radiance, illumination and its lack.
While Housekeeping's eerie dreaminess precluded much of what must be called social consciousness, Gilead--anchored in a specific era, as the hovering, almost immaterial Housekeeping is not--is charged with it. "Remembering and forgiving can be contrary things," reflects Ames, the narrator, on his way to an unwelcome self-recognition.
His voice is the novel's texture: well-meaning, not entirely honest with himself, deeply troubled. The Reverend Ames begins a letter to his son, uncertain why he is doing so, and 245 pages later concludes it. This letter--bereft of chapter divisions, titled sections, or any other traditional literary appurtenance--is what we have: the entirety of a novel that discloses and withholds, dramatizing the swerves and evasions of an unquiet soul uneasy with his life even as it nears its end.
In the sere beauty of its prose and the fierceness of its passion, Gilead is a work of startling power: a seemingly simple artifice that reveals more complex and finer structures the closer we approach it. It is a subtle, gorgeously wrought, and immensely moving novel.
Gregory Feeley is a widely published author of stories and essays. His latest novel, Arabian Wine, will be published in March.