By David Nilsen
It is a strange thing, coming unmoored from the faith of your childhood. The stairs you’ve been climbing become a slide, and you can’t tell whether it’s better to keep trying to climb the smooth surface or just give up, slide down, and try a different door. There is fear and anger, hope and peace; there is fear again. It all walks around with you, a sort of non-linear spiritual grief cycle. Over time you see more color, feel less fear. You stop believing things you were once convinced you would never be able to lose if you tried.
Which makes it strange when your vocabulary for processing life and existence remains the vocabulary of the faith you thought you’d left behind. I grew up believing and kept doing it for a while and then maybe believed less and then finally did not believe much at all of what I once had. But my imagination and vocabulary remained Christian. Flannery O’Connor referred to her homeland as “the Christ-haunted South,” a place where the son of God lingered like a specter whether he was still followed or not. I hadn’t realized how saturated my language was by the Bible, the hymns, the theology I’d been immersed in for decades, till I stopped finding those words true. I didn’t realize how concrete was the religious framework of my imagination till I no longer believed in the planks of that architecture.
Marilynne Robinson, legendary teacher at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, still believes, though pinning down the specifics of that belief is as difficult as it should be. In her essays and interviews, she discusses her periodic involvement with the Congregationalists, her childhood steeped in Presbyterianism, and her ongoing intellectual fascination with classical Calvinism. It’s possible she is more Bible-haunted than -believing, but to the artist, the writer, the thinker, there is perhaps not so much of a difference between the two. The three books she has written set in the fictional 1950s Iowa small town of Gilead (2005’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead, 2008’s Orange Prize-winning Home, and 2014’s Lila) are more than anything about the Christian imagination; that is, the paths the mind walks when occupied by faith, and the questions that mind asks, which are really not so different from the questions everyone else asks, though it has better words for them. The characters of these books deal with an existential dread Psalms and Sundays cannot quiet, and questions of theodicy those very Psalms and Sundays exacerbate more than alleviate. That said, they still believe. Or want to. Or do whether they want to or not. That is perhaps the scariest place to be – to believe and wish you didn’t. To dream and wake and sleep under the inescapable assumption of some Other, who may or may not find wrath justifiable.
“How could it be that none of it mattered? It was most of what happened. But if it did matter, how could the world go on the way it did when there were so many people living the same and worse? Poor was nothing, tired and hungry were nothing. But people only trying to get by, and no respect for them at all, even the wind soiling them. No matter how proud and hard they were, the wind making their faces run with tears. That was existence, and why didn’t it roar and wrench itself apart like the storm it must be, if so much of existence is all that bitterness and fear? Even now, thinking of the man who called himself her husband, what if he turned away from her? It would be nothing. What if the child was no child? There would be an evening and a morning. The quiet of the world was terrible to her, like mockery. She had hoped to put an end to these thoughts, but they returned to her, and she returned to them.” – from Lila.
Gilead is written from the perspective of Reverend John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist pastor who married a young woman named Lila very late in his life and had an unexpected child from the union. The book is written as a series of journal entries to his young boy, and represents most of what is in his mind, the parts he would want remembered. Home deals with the Boughton household, the patriarch of which is Reverend Ames’s dearest friend and the retired pastor of the town’s Presbyterian church. Boughton has a large family of grown children, though the apple of his eye has always been the prodigal, Jack. Written in the third person but using Jack’s sister Glory as its point-of-view, the book looks at lives that did not turn out how their owners would have hoped, or how their owners’ parents might have. Jack makes a mess of his life, knows he’s making messes even as he makes them, maybe sometimes makes them on purpose. Still, he wrestles with the angel of belief, and with the creaky-from-use fulcrum of logical Calvinism – if God is sovereign, how can humanity be guilty? He knows guilt, however. He would accept his guilt so long as some explanation could be given for its source. Perdition would almost be a comfort so long as something existed and could be explained.
Lila lets us look into the life of Reverend Ames’s wife, Lila Dahl, though Dahl is not her real last name. She doesn’t know her last name, or her birthdate, or her place of birth or her parents’ names. Her early years were spent dirt poor and neglected until she was carried away in the night by a woman named Doll, from whom she later adapted her surname. Doll probably saved her life, but in so doing kidnapped a child, an action that will follow them over the next ambling decades of vagrant life. Lila wanders into Gilead as an adult who has lived more life than her years should have required, as skittish as a feral animal and as dangerous if cornered. From a literary standpoint, Lila works as the steelier sister to Sylvie from Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, a vagrant who similarly could not make herself fit into the shapes requested by society. Lila holes up in an unwanted shack outside of town, and the strange courtship that develops between her and the Reverend and their unexpected marriage carry something of the inevitability of the Calvinism that haunts these three books. If Home ponders Total Depravity, Lila takes as its muse Irresistible Grace. She is not even sure why she married him, though he is kind, gentle, adoring, and good. He is not sure either. There seems a lot of God in it to both of them, though they certainly process this differently. The same goes for the child she discovers she is carrying.
“She kept thinking, Wait. Don’t hope, just wait. She couldn’t help thinking how hard it would be for him to do these same things ever again if there happened to be no child. She had washed baptism off herself as well as she could. She had walked in the cold through those raggedy old cornfields that looked as though they had heard the first word of Judgment and couldn’t believe what they heard and couldn’t doubt it, either. She had thought a thousand times about the ferociousness of things so that it might not surprise her entirely when it showed itself again. She wished she could warn him, even though he knew about it, too, and dreamed about it. This child must know about it, because it lived there under her scared, wild heart. It might not want the world at all. She could show it things that might seem wonderful to her because it meant you could live so the world wouldn’t find you. Maybe heaven would be like that, with fields and fields of nettles and chicory, things anybody could take because nobody else would want them. Then if the thief on the cross went to heaven he could just thieve forever to his heart’s content, nobody the worse for it. She pictured him as the boy at the shack, nails through those big, dirty hands. Her heart felt like a weight that would burden the child. She thought to him, It won’t be that way for you. I promised your papa you’d know all the hymns.” – from Lila.
What Robinson does with the language and voice of Lila is really quite remarkable. In Gilead, she had the privilege of writing in the first person from the hand of a man who had studied and read and spoken and written his entire life. The full wonder of her gorgeous prose was unleashed and her sentences were stunning. Home, though more constrained and without a first-person narrator, had an educated woman for its point-of-view, so Robinson could still give a long leash to her words. Lila, however, while written in the third-person, gives us the world through the eyes of a homeless woman with one year of schooling to her name as a child. She can read and write, mostly. The book is not in Lila’s voice exclusively, but Robinson’s prose does hook its anchor to Lila’s mind and can venture only so far from it. Books written in the vernacular and dialect of last century’s white American poor can grate on me quickly, not because their subjects are less worthy of attention than any other but because my mind trips on the language and gets distracted. It’s extremely difficult to write well in this style, and often just comes across precious or condescending. Lila is neither. Robinson’s beauty and brilliance are here, even in the limited vocabulary and improper grammar of an uneducated Dustbowl vagrant.
The language and geography of Robinson’s imagination are unavoidably Christian, though that means something different from what the average person of faith might expect. To have a world of rational learning at one’s fingertips does not quiet the questions and fears of existence, and neither does a world of spiritual belief. Both are lenses, but parts of the frame are obscured and leave areas we cannot see. I lived years of fervent belief, followed by years of an inescapable belief in a God who did not seem good, followed by years of letting everything go and seeing what remained when the wind had blown most of it away. What remains isn’t much, but it’s honest. What I find in Marilynne Robinson is a brilliant artist and academic who does not find it intellectual betrayal to say there might be a realm beyond our own, and does not find it religious betrayal to say we can’t possibly understand it very well. She believes more than I do, but her vocabulary and imagination are familiar to me.
Lila is a beautiful and devastating novel, one that gives yet another voice in which to explore the questions Robinson’s characters asked in Gilead and Home. If Gilead explored God from the perspective of a lifelong saint, and Home from a lifelong sinner, Lila does so from the perspective of a woman who’s been too busy looking for food to have much time to be either one, though the questions are there nonetheless. There is an inevitability to both the depravity and grace in her life that one could call sovereignty or one could simply call life. Whatever it is, it is true.
“That day might come in a thousand years. But soon, before he was half-grown, the boy would be standing beside her and he would ask where their places were, his and hers, because the plots were all taken up, and she would say, It don’t matter. We’ll just wander a while. We’ll be nowhere, and it will be all right. I have friends there.” – from Lila.
Lila is available now at Greenville Public Library.