The Minister's Tale

Marilynne Robinson's long-awaited second novel is an almost otherworldly book—and reveals Robinson as a somewhat otherworldly figure herself

Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping is one of the ten best novels of the past century. In its haunting voice and its inevitable movement, both fabular and precise, it is a nearly perfect work, still as singular and eerie today as when it was published, in 1980. Yet many serious readers have never heard of Housekeeping. Robinson is absent from lists of the living greats. A Nexis search for her name yields only fourteen hits from 2003. Her relative obscurity most likely results from the fact that Housekeeping was for a quarter of a century an only child. Now Robinson has written a second novel. But because it has been so long in coming, it is hard to treat Gilead as simply that.

I avoided Housekeeping for the first few years of its life because I was put off by the title, which to me suggested vacuuming and a middle-aged woman's discontents. (In l980 I was a year out of college. Vacuuming? I felt generations past those old complaints.) But in fact Housekeeping is a story of the end of housekeeping, in the most literal sense of that compound word.

The house in question stands in Fingerbone, a town in the remote Northwest. The novel tells a simple story. A woman borrows a car, drives her two small girls to her mother's house, and then drives herself into a lake. (Her husband appears only in flashback; the children once saw their mother tear an unopened letter from him into four pieces and drop them into the trash, saying, "It's best.") The orphans, Ruth and Lucille, are cared for first by their grandmother, in the house her late husband built, then by their maiden great-aunts from Spokane, who are frightened both of children and of the harsh weather in Fingerbone, and finally by another aunt, Sylvie, an itinerant who had been riding the rails. The right age, their mother's sister, Sylvie is the one the girls set their hearts on, even as they understand that she is, as people used to say, not all there.

When their mother drives the car into the lake, both Ruth and Lucille are under seven. Their kind, capable grandmother—a baker of pies, a braider of hair—is old. We know, as the girls do, that she will die before they're grown. The great-aunts are miserable from their first night in Fingerbone, and their dialogues, duets of perfect agreement, provide a comic interlude. We hear these ordinarily decent women talk themselves into leaving their nieces with a woman who would generally elicit their strongest disapproval.

So when Lily said, with a glance at Nona, "What a lovely dress," it was as if to say, "She seems rather sane! She seems rather normal!" And when Nona said, "You look very well," it was as if to say, "Perhaps she'll do! Perhaps she can stay and we can go!"

Once Sylvie arrives, though, the gentle comedy leaves the book forever. Slowly life unmolds from its usual forms, and the patterns of small-town propriety loosen. At the table where their grandmother once served fresh-baked bread and tart jelly, they now sit in the dark, Sylvie favoring canned sardines, which she eats with her fingers. The outside grows into the house. Nests and dry leaves round the corners of rooms. Eventually the girls stop going to school. The town deliberates about whether and when and how to take them away.

"Clearly our aunt was not a stable person," Ruth, the narrator, says, with characteristic understatement. Hers is a slim voice—sad, occasionally wondrous, and marked by a scrupulous determination to be fair. The elder of the two girls, she is inclined to forgiveness and praise. Ruth's voice is both plain and extraordinary. It is what one remembers years after reading her story.

Here is Ruth's description of her grandmother's belief:

She conceived of life as a road down which one traveled, an easy enough road through a broad country, and that one's destination was there from the very beginning, a measured distance away, standing in the ordinary light like some plain house where one went in and was greeted by respectable people and was shown to a room where everything one had ever lost or put aside was gathered together, waiting. She accepted the idea that at some time she and my grandfather would meet and take up their lives again, without the worry of money, in a milder climate. She hoped that he would somehow have acquired a little more stability and common sense.

This composition is a child's primitive miniature of predestination, containing not a single idea more than a young girl would have about theology.

Housekeeping's narrative unfolds chronologically. Its structure is elegantly classic, as the tension between the ragged family triumvirate and the conventional town shifts inward to a conflict between the two sisters, who have equal and opposing loyalties—one to their dead relatives and the other to the promise of life, with its gaudy hopes of dresses, dances, and romance.

Not long after it was published, Housekeeping was deemed a classic. One can imagine the small frenzy in the author's life: urgent calls from publishers, magazine editors, agents. In the terms of literary novels, Housekeeping has thrived—nearly 400,000 copies sold, even a movie. But no second novel followed, after five years, ten years, fifteen, and one imagines Robinson's telephone falling silent in Iowa City, where she teaches at the Writers' Workshop. The book, still read and respected, found its place in that category of cherished marvels that happen only once in a lifetime, like certain comets.

Now Robinson's second novel has appeared. I approached it with trepidation, remembering a review years ago that derided early critics of Gabriel García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch with the canny accusation that they wanted to be "back in Macondo," the fictional village of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I knew before opening Gilead that I longed to fall again under the sway of Housekeeping's narrator. But the two books are related only in the odd way of siblings born years apart.

Gilead is the account of John Ames, a third-generation minister in Iowa. (It is worth mentioning that Housekeeping is punctuated with religious references. The girls' grandfather was a "silent Methodist"; spring is described as "the resurrection of the ordinary." And Ruth's location at the close of the book is unclear: we don't know whether she is still speaking to us from this world.) Over the years Ames has written thousands of sermons for his parish. He's got a life's worth in the attic. Now, at seventy-six, he tries to calculate their value.

Say, fifty sermons a year for forty-five years, not counting funerals and so on, of which there have been a great many … Say three hundred pages make a volume. Then I've written two hundred twenty-five books, which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity … I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction … Trying to say what was true … It's humiliating to have written as much as Augustine, and then to have to find a way to dispose of it.

Ames's end-of-life insecurities about his work are chilling, especially to a writer. Much fiction chronicling stringent self-sacrifice for an artistic ideal has judged that sacrifice a tragic mistake—think of Casaubon's "Key to All Mythologies," in Middlemarch, or John Marcher's wasted life in Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle."

Like Casaubon and Marcher, Ames for a long time lives alone, despite his community's best efforts. He works on his sermons, sends for books in the mail, and consoles himself with baseball. Then one day a woman walks into his parish, and he finds himself, he tells us, "thinking day and night about a complete stranger, a woman much too young, probably a married woman—that was the first time in my life I ever felt I could be snatched out of my character, my calling, my reputation, as if they could just fall away like a dry husk."

Robinson deftly characterizes this young stranger with just a few snippets of dialogue. The woman asks the besotted Ames to baptize her. "No one seen to it for me when I was a child," she says. "I been feeling the lack of it."

Ames's love story is a happy one, but because it is told in flashback, it never becomes a source of suspense in the novel. By the time we learn that the old minister once experimented with hair tonic, to impress the stranger, we already know the outcome of this small vanity: the marriage is long settled and has produced a son.

Gilead takes the form of Ames's journal entries, written for his child to read when he is grown. The narrative roams and circles, as diaries do, and is largely cerebral, with little forward imperative. In this sort of book all depends on the quality of the contemplation and the charm of the voice. Fortunately, Ames's is original and strong.

A fragile plot lands delicately on the characters midway through the book, when the ne'er-do-well son of Ames's best friend returns to town. The black sheep is the same age as Ames's wife, and the two strike up a friendship. Our minister, entirely admirable thus far, becomes less the goody-goody as his jealousy grows. (This turn of events echoes Middlemarch, when Casaubon—another old husband—becomes jealous of his young cousin.) As he eavesdrops on the pair, we, too, begin to wonder if his wife is falling in love with the reprobate.

Although the pulse of the novel quickens briefly, in the end Robinson remains faithful to her true interest: her protagonist's moral development, even at seventy-six. She is less concerned with whether—in the real world of Gilead, Iowa—Ames did in fact have any budding adultery to worry about. Ames comes to see his wife's life from a distance and to understand what he was able to give her and what he wasn't.Finally, he almost wishes for another kind of love to be waiting for her after his death. For readers especially interested in moral ideas, this resolution will be satisfying. But for those who read to find out what happens, or to have something actually happen, this purely internal expansion may not be enough.

As in most stories of holy men, it's the less-than-holy that tends to grab the reader's attention. A scrappy and perhaps shrewd editor might have told Robinson to move her narrator's building hatred up a hundred pages, to provide an Iago, to trust her plot and make more of it, perhaps to use Ames's suspicions to frame the narrative. In fact, Gilead contains a gaggle of broken rules familiar to any MFA student: too many flashbacks, not enough momentum, insufficient escape from a single sensibility. Whereas a dire suspense—the fate of orphans—forms a strong spine inside Housekeeping, the story here seems overlaid, a thin vein on top of the book, not even covering its full span. It is as if Robinson has lost the taste for plot.

Gilead is an almost otherworldly book. Its characters are, to a one, good people trying to do right. Obviously a work of enormous integrity, it feels different in kind from the work of writers who produce a book every couple of years, rushing to meet alimony payments, one imagines, or wanting to renovate kitchens. One senses none of the rub of greed informing the writing of the book—but because it lacks the mess of life poking up from the bottom, one is also left without the urgency of fiction.

Still, there is much to admire in Gilead. It contains precise evocations of a minister's daily life. The religious elements in Housekeeping were somehow more ethereal for coming from a child's perspective. Ames's existence is quite earthy, providing a sense of the frequent banality of holy life. He complains about a "molded salad of orange gelatin with stuffed green olives and shredded cabbage and anchovies that has dogged my ministerial life," and finds that a certain bean dish looks "distinctly Presbyterian." He is frustrated when two people laughing together stop as he approaches.

Gilead contains a lot of abstract theological rumination. The minister's obsessions are Robinson's own, a sense we have less from Housekeeping's elegant and elliptical religious references than from her book of essays, The Death of Adam (1998). Ames takes a commonsense but fresh approach to the varieties of religious experience. He begins one idea with the suggestion "If you think how a thing we call a stone differs from a thing we call a dream … ," offered to support the plausibility of the existence of God. The line could easily have come from one of Robinson's essays.

Marilynne Robinson obviously can write an extraordinary novel. Gilead raises the question of whether she really still wishes to. One hesitates to define Gilead exactly as a novel. It is a beautiful book of ideas.

By Marilynne Robinson

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