30 December 2004

Marilynne Robinson

As an amateur novelist, I am increasingly stunned—knocked down, squashed flat—by good novels, and I no longer fantasize that a writer like Marilynne Robinson sits down and pumps out a brilliant novel. Instead, I assume years of labor to produce masterpieces: Housekeeping in 1980, Gilead in 2004. From Gilead, page 197:

"In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable—which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us."

I’ve spent this week with Gilead in one hand and Robinson’s collection of essays titled The Death of Adam in the other. I found this a wonderful way to read both. I particularly liked her essay “Puritans and Prigs”—she is so tuned to reality with remarks like this:

"where did the idea come from that society should be without strain and conflict, that it could be satisfying, stable, and harmonious? . . . morality is a covenant with oneself, which can only be imposed and enforced by oneself . . . social conditioning is more likely to discourage than to enhance it."

In both books, Robinson addresses the topics of religion, war, morality as if readers were still willing to consider both sides of those questions. She poses challenges. Of those who dismiss Calvin, who has read him? How have we come to equate Darwinism to economic survival of the fittest?

Three reviews of Gilead are worth reading for their contrasts. James Wood honors Robinson for her intent and her accomplishment. Lee Siegel honestly admits that Robinson’s novel is not likely to appeal to a secular reading audience. Mona Simpson talks about Robinson’s earlier novel instead, because she liked that one, and she offers insulting MFA-workshop advice that might have led to a more saleable novel without acknowledging Robinson has a greater goal.

Tomorrow I'm going to read Housekeeping for at least the third time.


  1. These books sound fascinating. Both are instantly on my to-read list. Great reviews, Carol.

    Here's a question: the Republic in Margaret Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale" is also named Gilead. Is this an intentional comparison?

  2. read the O'Rourke interview for MR's comment on the name Gilead.