Friday, November 20, 2009

Gilead, by Marilynn Robinson

It's one of the great ironies of contemporary American life that a learned, moderate, resolutely decent Christian voice—the voice of John Ames, the narrator of Gilead—sounds like the voice of a heretic.

Robinson means for it to. Ames's voice is the essence of Gilead—its purpose, its theme, the locus of beauty in its world. Addressing us with meek sensitivity, it's an indictment of the menacing anti-intellectualism of modern Christian fundamentalism and, as fiercely, of the anodyne feel-good Christianity of liberal America's middle and upper-middle class.

John Ames's voice dominates the narrative to such a degree that Gilead borders on monologue.

To a certain extent I mean that as a criticism. Reading it I sometimes yearned for another force to take over the story for a while. If one understands art as a site of conflict and novels as inherently heteroglossic, Gilead might feel less like a novel than a theological meditation.

But the narrator's voice is also Gilead's triumph. It embodies an attitude toward thinking and speaking, toward being, that has either been lost or has never existed, but which feels as it proceeds like humanity's only hope for survival.

Having read Robinson's collection of essays, The Death of Adam, which I sought out after reading Gilead, I'm convinced she in fact believes that John Ames's sensibility—or something close to it—is our only hope for survival.

That might be another criticism of the book, if one is inclined, as I am, to resist didacticism in fiction.

But by its conclusion the book had made me forget my biases. Gilead is an extraordinary achievement, not least because it succeeds in giving us the story of a genuinely good person, which is notoriously difficult to do in art. More importantly, I felt reading it that with great urgency it was opening up—this will sound very Californian—new ways of being, new possibilities for how I might construct my life, today.

What more can we ask of a novel?

A parting note: I am additionally grateful to Gilead for introducing me to The Essence of Christianity, by Ludwig Feuerbach, an astonishing book. Also, I was struck by Gilead's riveting depiction of the helplessness of decency vis-à-vis sexual charisma.

No comments:

Post a Comment