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Monday, November 09, 2009

Gilead: Introduction

The next novel in my Human Narrative Project is Gilead by Marilynn Robinson. Gilead is a significant novel. After writing her first novel in 1980, the very successful Housekeeping, Marilynn Robinson did not publish her second novel until 2004. It was met with resounding critical success, winning the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Twenty-four years after her first novel,Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson's beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows "even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order" (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life. From the Publisher's website

The novel is a deeply spiritual work, written from the perspective of a minister, John Ames, who has descended from a family of clergyman. It is Ames's letter to his young son, written in from the fullness of his heart and mind; Ames is suffering from a terminal disease. He reflects on the depth of his spirituality and theology, interacting with scriptures and theologians. Yet despite the overt religious musings, Gilead has won the respect of the critical world, both secular and sacred. Somehow, the honest and personal way in which John Ames reflects on his life and occupation is disarming to both the skeptic and to the religious fundamentalist. The novel is also of historical and sociological interest, examining the ways in which religion and faith have effected the formation of American society and the individuals who have historically shared very deep spiritual convictions and dogmas.

"At a moment in cultural history dominated by the shallow, the superficial, the quick fix, Marilynne Robinson is a miraculous anomaly: a writer who thoughtfully, carefully, and tenaciously explores some of the deepest questions confronting the human species. . . . Poignant, absorbing, lyrical...Robinson manages to convey the miracle of existence itself."--Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

''Gilead'' is much concerned with fathers and sons, and with God the father and his son. The book's narrator returns again and again to the parable of the prodigal son -- the son who returned to his father and was forgiven, but did not deserve forgiveness. Ames's life has lately been irradiated by his unexpected marriage and by the gift of his little son, and he consoles himself that although he won't see him grow up, he will be reunited with him in heaven: ''I imagine your child self finding me in heaven and jumping into my arms, and there is a great joy in the thought.''

Gradually, Robinson's novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details. Nowadays, when so many writers are acclaimed as great stylists, it's hard to make anyone notice when you praise a writer's prose. There is, however, something remarkable about the writing in ''Gilead.'' It's not just a matter of writing well, although Robinson demonstrates that talent on every page: the description of the one-eyed grandfather, who ''could make me feel as though he had poked me with a stick, just by looking at me,'' or one of a cat held by Ames's little son, eager to escape, its ears flattened back and its tail twitching and its eyes ''patiently furious.'' It isn't just the care with which Robinson can relax the style to a Midwestern colloquialism: ''But one afternoon a storm came up and a gust of wind hit the henhouse and lifted the roof right off, and hens came flying out, sucked after it, I suppose, and also just acting like hens.'' (How deceptively easy that little coda is -- ''and also just acting like hens'' -- but how much it conveys.)

Robinson's words have a spiritual force that's very rare in contemporary fiction -- what Ames means when he refers to ''grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.''
From the excellent review in the New York Times, Acts of Devotion, by James Woods

I plan on having my review posted on December 1.

Enjoy the read!

[The review is now posted: Gilead]


Daily Panic said...

I'm going to read this book. I just found you and I'll be back. :)
I am on a journey of faith myself.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I am really enjoying the read so far. I am about a hundred pages in.

Jonathan Erdman said...

So far it has been really cool to see how the faith of our fathers and mothers really reaches down to a deep level of who we are. It is at such a deep level, in fact, that we often do not realize just how profoundly significant it is. Hearing John Ames just take his time in working out how faith has impacted he and his family through the generations is really something special.