To the casual college-aged reader, Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” offers little appeal. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, recently issued in paperback, is anything but sexy. And yet, in a more perfect world, students would slide the novel into their messenger bags each morning. Wedged among pens, planners and iPods, “Gilead” would still shimmer with rare, essential knowledge: every page argues for a life lived modestly and honestly. Every sentence validates a life dedicated to people instead of possessions.
Knowledge, in the novel, is the gift of experience, delivered from a father to his son. As readers learn by the end of the first paragraph, the narrator, Reverand John Ames, is dying. This is no tragedy. Born in 1880, Ames has lived through a long, convulsive century. “History,” he observes, “could make a stone weep.” But, in old age, Ames discovers love and fathers a son. Unfortunately, he will die long before the boy grows into adulthood. “Gilead” is framed as the Reverend’s begets a series of letters, epigrams, stories and glosses on the spiritual life.
The fragmented narrative is constructed upon Ames’ sincere, sturdy voice, one that is old in the same way that Holden Caulfield’s is young. There is something eternal and entirely natural about it.
Unsurprisingly, preaching is in Ames’ blood. His father was a reverend, and so was his father’s father. In “Gilead”, the spiritual life, which our culture tends to treat skeptically and portray ironically, is an entirely heroic vocation. Described as a consummate preacher, Ames’ grandfather, at first, emerges as an enigma. “My grandfather never kept anything that was worth giving away or let us keep it, either, so my mother said.” Part legend and part eccentric, the grandfather would happily have donated the family’s dinner to a local drunk.
At the same time, Ames confesses, “I believe he was a saint of some kind. When someone remarked in his hearing that he had lost an eye in the Civil War, he said, ‘I prefer to remember that I have kept one.’ My mother said it was good to know that there was anything he could keep.”
In Ames’ life, the Civil War and its legacy casts an inescapable shadow. The war has ravaged Iowa, and it has ripped the Ames family apart. While the grandfather preaches men into the Union Army, his son becomes a pacifist and leaves his father’s flock to join the Quaker church. In retrospect, Ames chooses to side with his grandfather. In doing so, he forges an unusual bond between religious fanaticism and liberal activism.
Thus, despite her affinity for older writers (she is influenced primarily by the three Johns: the Baptist, Milton and Donne), Robinson remains a uniquely American author. By examining the country’s complicated past, she attempts to explain its ongoing infatuation with Christianity. Moreover, in “Gilead”, she attempts to locate the moment — sometime in the 20th century — when religion slid adrift and the Midwest followed suit.
“The President, General Grant, once called Iowa the shining star of radicalism,” the grandfather charges. “But what is left here in Iowa? What is left here in Gilead? Dust. Dust and ashes.” This may sound like Ecclesiastes, but it ought to push readers out of the novel and into the present. In language as clear and sparkling as a revelation, Robinson ardently argues that the Bible can be used as a progressive text. If they mine the book properly, its followers ought to preach tolerance, not aggressive exclusivity.
Now, for obvious reasons, Robinson’s message is particularly important. Ames is a dogmatic believer, but he also brims with love for the world, both immediate (his wife, his child, his friends, his enemies) and the general “miracle of creation.” Nevertheless, Ames truly regrets living a relatively sedate life. Having chosen a spiritual path, he will leave his family in poverty and possesses a parochial perspective. But, by the novel’s end, after blessing his best friend’s son, he realizes, “There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
Thus, “Gilead” is ultimately a theodicy. In the legacy of John Milton, Robinson intends to justify the ways of God to man. As the novel ends, Ames begins to fear his words will seem ephemeral and impotent. Instead, the opposite is true. His voice acquires urgency. Using spare sentences, the elliptical narrative condenses and crystallizes the world’s prosaic, yet poetic, beauty. In lean, pointed language, Ames conveys the wonder in his impossibly exclamatory heart.
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance — for a moment or a year or the span of a life,” he says. “This is what I said in the Pentecost sermon. I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it. But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
If “Gilead” is a serious book, it is only because these are serious times. More importantly, “Gilead” is an unrivaled literary achievement. Robinson’s first novel in 25 years, the book’s every word is chosen judiciously. In Ames, she has crafted a vivid, mythic voice that never sounds arch or unnatural. Indeed, this is superlative storytelling. If anything, it is the totality of Ames’ love for his son that could make a stone weep.
So read “Gilead”. Spread its gospel. This is a book that belongs in classrooms and in Church pews! It belongs in Upper West Side Brownstones and Iowa prairie houses! It belongs, above all, in the White House! Ultimately, it belongs at readers’ bedsides. Reading “Gilead” is a moving, personal experience — as necessary and sublime as sleep.