Saturday, May 16, 2009

Gilead and Ms. Robinson

Some of you may have read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. It’s really a very nice read, often profound, and generally just well done. The technique of the narrative has been used quite a bit: a letter from someone to someone else, usually an elderly person writing for his or her own posterity. The narrator of the Pulitzer winning Gilead is an old preacher who married and fathered late in life. He writes a long letter to his rather young son telling him a story about the preacher's father, grandfather, atheistic sibling, wife, morose preacher friends, church flock, and ordinary things about life and their connections to religion, God, history, and imminence.

Now, there are risks in writing these kind of “letter-to-someone” narratives. Any flaws in the story-telling or writing itself become magnified when you choose a cliché form. You run the risk of sounding trite. Robinson has something important to say, pointed observations that we all probably have sensed or thought of, but were unsure of ourselves to think highly of them, so we let them go or belittle them because we haven’t learned how to receive “inspiration” that comes to ourselves in the real sense of the word.

Here's a passage that I’ve underlined in her book. I like it, but there are dozens of sidebars to the narrative that make the book layered and nuanced. The narrator, the old preacher, says out of the blue, a good color for writers:

This morning I have been trying to think about heaven, but without much success. I don’t know why I should expect to have any idea of heaven. I could never have imagined this world if I hadn’t spent almost eight decades walking around in it. People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives. That’s clearer to me every day. Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes—old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable. What of me will I still have? Well, this old body has been a pretty good companion. Like Balaam’s ass, it’s seen the angel I haven’t seen yet, and it’s lying down in the path.
Thanks for reading this. Enjoy your Saturday.


Anonymous Pete said...

Lovely passage. My wife read Gilead and liked it (even though she's an atheist, like me) and I'm sure I'll get around to reading it sometime soon.

5/16/2009 11:23 AM  
Blogger fromclay said...

It'd be interesting to know your take on a narrative with such an overt religious theme. Thanks, Pete.

5/18/2009 9:01 AM  

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