My first pick is Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead. Published 24 years after Housekeeping, her widely acclaimed first novel, Gilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. This meditative novel is an examination of faith, humanity and the unbearable beauty of everyday life; it is impossible to overstate the spare, lyrical beauty of Robinson’s prose or the complexity and intellectual rigor she brings to her writing.
Gilead is set in 1956 in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and is narrated by a 76-year-old Congregationalist pastor named John Ames, who knows he is dying of a heart condition. Ames decides to write a letter to his 7-year-old son, the fruit of an unexpected late-life marriage to a woman half his age. The novel is that letter and interweaves accounts of his present life with moral advice, his thoughts on philosophy and theology, and memories, which largely center around his father and grandfather, also Congregationalist ministers.
It is a testament to Robinson’s considerable talent that the novel (which, admittedly, might sound boring from the description above) is so compelling. The plot, such as it is, arises entirely out of Ames’ characterization, but he is so fully realized that the novel never feels tedious. In an interview with the Paris Review, Robinson said, “The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.” That mystery permeates Gilead and gives it a singular resonance. Robinson requires that you engage her writing with patience and a serious mind, but if you give yourself over to the novel, it will transform you. New York Times critic James Wood wrote of Gilead, “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.”
Those fine details are particularly on display in her vivid descriptions of Ames’ grandfather, also named John Ames, a kind of warrior for God who preached in a bloodied shirt while wearing a pistol. The narrator says that Grandfather Ames came to Kansas from Maine in the 1830′s and ended up fighting on the Union side in the Civil War. He knew John Brown and lost an eye in that war.
He is described as ”a wild-haired, one-eyed, scrawny old fellow with a crooked beard, like a paintbrush left to dry with lacquer in it.” He seems to his grandson ”stricken and afflicted, and indeed he was, like a man everlastingly struck by lightning, so that there was an ashiness about his clothes and his hair never settled and his eye had a look of tragic alarm when he wasn’t actually sleeping. He was the most unreposeful human being I ever knew except for certain of his friends.” Ames recalls being told by his mother that ”the Lord is in the parlor.” Looking in, he sees his grandfather talking with God, ”looking attentive and sociable and gravely pleased. I would hear a remark from time to time, ‘I see your point,’ or ‘I have often felt that way myself.’ ”
The narrator’s father, also called John Ames, is a pacifist and quarrels with Grandfather Ames, so that the older man, who had been living with the family, leaves and goes to Kansas, where he dies. Despite the shared profession of the Ames men, Gilead approaches religion and faith with a full respect for their complexity and paradoxes. Faith is a force that brings both peace and destruction. It binds Ames to the earth and town and people that he loves, but it also causes separation, tearing the many fathers in the book from their sons; “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division … The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.” (Luke 12:51, 53).
Ames, who loses his first wife and infant daughter as a young man, lives a solitary contemplative life filled with books – he mentions, in particular, his fondness for the atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach – until he meets his wife and she proposes to him with “that look of hers – no twinkle in that eye.” The late life romance opens Ames to a love he has never known, “That was the first time in my life I ever knew what it was to love another human being. Not that I hadn’t loved people before. But I hadn’t realized what it meant to love them before.”
Love and awe for natural beauty ground and inform Ames’ religion. In the Paris Review interview, Robinson gave insight into Ames and his faith when she said, “I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not … Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions.”
Robinson understands that we live in a world that has hardened into rigid categories of religion, science and secular thought. Gilead is concerned with respecting the mystery and grace implicit in ordinary life. Ames writes to his son, “I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly. As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial – if you remember them – and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping acorns thick as hail almost. There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they’d fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.”
I came to Gilead during a Christmas holiday, after a long and very difficult year. My faith was at its lowest ebb and I felt devestated. The book did not solve any of my theological questions, instead it reminded me of the universality of my struggles, which come to thoughtful people of all religions. More significantly, the serene awe for ordinary life that fills the novel deeply touched me and opened my heart again to the mystery at the center of existence.