Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

People - that means my American friends - kept telling me about Gilead and that I absolutely had to read it. And then when I saw on Facebook that it is one of Mr Obama's favorite books, I was sold. By the time I put it down, I knew full well why those who either took it on themselves, or were indeed entrusted to express Mr. O's views on everything from literature through movies and music, all the way to politics (?) had nominated Gilead as a favorite novel. 
The most morally dubious character in the book - a white son of an Iowa Presbyterian minister in "Gilead" - a town that burnt the "negros" out of town before he was born - turns out to be hiding a black wife and child in the ever-racially segregated 1950s South. And so this prodigal son is redeemed, but not before his story is used as a foil to that of the dying  narrator's 7 year old son. Mr. O may not have campaigned on the basis of race, but let's be honest, race is everywhere in the anticipation of the next administration. 

Gilead is, to be sure, a very American novel. It is American in its sensibility, American in its story - spanning the country from Kansas to Tennessee, from the Civil War to the late 1950s - and its literary allusions, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson. What remains so powerful about the book, and indeed so universal, is its spiritual dimension. Not only because it takes the form of a letter from the dying father to his 7 year old son, and because the father/protagonist is a Minister, but it is spiritual because even in its literariness, the language  is seemingly powered by a spiritual wisdom and Romanticism. The protagonist, John Ames with his religious vocation, living  in his biblically-named Iowan town, sees the world as a poet - this, despite the essayistic style of the narrative. He looks at the moon and captures its light as a "metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence." Ames sees what we already know but have never had the words to express. He writes, for example, of the miracle of water as he watches his son and friend Tobias hopping in and out of the sprinkler. The joy and the freedom of the two boys is captured so perfectly on the page without having to use words as pedestrian as joy and freedom: "you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whopping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water." 

As well as the wonderful language, I was moved by the feelings the father writes about his son, feelings, one imagines Ames has never expressed elsewhere. I identified the old man with my own father - a man who was never able or allowed by cultural mores to express emotion. But more realistically, Robinson's ability to go deep inside the human soul, make sense of everything otherwise unavailable to touch, to smell, and to sight, and then to translate it for us into the calm, yet vivid words of John Ames, makes me realize something else. To be able to find a harmony between words and what doesn't live in language - the spirit - is a gift given only once in a lifetime. Robinson finds transcendentalism in the material and empirical reality of an ordinary life in Iowa.  

No comments: