Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Lord is Wonderful: A Review of Marilynne Robinson’s Home

“The Lord is Wonderful”, is the closing line of Home. Robinson’s third novel continues to unwrap the depth and complexity of human life in Gilead, Iowa. Home is a followup to Gilead, but not a sequel, prequel, but the same stories told from a different house. Their relationship is not unlike that of the four Gospels in the Bible. Giving unity in setting and characters, diversity in form and content and both creating an overwhelming artistic complexity and beauty.

and Home have much in common, namely, the Boughton’s and the Ames’s and the shining star of radicalism: Gilead, Iowa. In Gilead readers were invited to read the memoirs and letters of 76 year old Rev. John Ames as he dies of angina pectoris, a failing heart, writing to his 6 year old son Robby (whose name we learn in Home). The reader becomes fully acquainted with the Boughtons in Gilead, particularly John Ames’s fabled namesake, John Ames “Jack” Boughton and his sister Glory. Home puts Jack and Glory to the foreground and leaves John Ames a shadowy figure. Robinson’s characters evoke a kind of gestural stroke like the paintings of Rembrandt, the interaction of the characters is greater than the sum of its parts. When it comes to the psychology of human interaction something very different from Gilead is given in Home, Robinson weds form and content in electing a unique third person POV. However, the POV in Home is not omniscient, but rather is cinematic. By not giving the us the privilege of knowing the intentions and thoughts of her characters, Robinson leaves us to grapple with the complexity of humanity found in the relationships of Jack and Glory. Following Jack or Glory around could have been interesting, but in Home Robinson gives reflections on the mystery of the family, and God’s providence in it. Where Gilead gave pastoral and theological reflection, Home explores familial and relational bonds.

Thematically there is perhaps one dominant motif, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jack certainly is the Prodigal who returns and Glory the elder brother, yet Robinson shows something much more profound and real than how that story is typically treated. There is much Scripture in Home, though not to the same degree as Gilead, however, what Robinson does in the final pages of Home is nothing less than a reflection on how wonderful the Lord is. Throughout the entire novel we follow Jack and Glory as they eke out their time in Gilead waiting and watching for some glimpse of grace. Reflection is too narrow, what Robinson gives us is a dramatization of wonderfulness of the Lord. If this sounds too pious and mawkish for a Pulitzer prize winner, one must read it for themself to test her maxim “if you can pull it off, you can do it”. This kind of description admittedly makes the book sound trite and pious. Perhaps, that it is why Robinson did not just tell us the Lord is wonderful, but showed us.

In the publisher’s write up of Home, they call it Robinson’s “best work”. I agree. I think that Robinson has demonstrated her prowess as an author in Home that her other work (Housekeeping and Gilead) affirms but in Home her writing is rich with complexity, artistry, and most of all grace.


John Paulling said...

Good review. I agree with you that the POV is essentially cinematic, I think that's an apt description. Man, I still gotta disagree with you on your last sentence. I think Housekeeping reigns in the areas of complexity, and artistry, and Gilead certainly reigns in the area of grace. Maybe this is a ridiculous abstract question, but you gotta ask yourself which offended party has a tougher time being gracious to someone... a family member, or a family friend? I gotta go with the friend. So, when the friend achieves what Ames achieves in the last few pages of Gilead it is extraordinary (cf. Matt. 5:47).

Paul-David Young said...

I thought that Home was a better showing of grace for a couple of reasons, first of all I thought that it did a better job of sustaining and leading to the ending. Also, I think that the actual "moment of grace" might have been more dramatic due to the nature of it. It was a kind of grace that acknowledged that there are true consequences for sin but that the wonderfulness of the Lord was demonstrated through that child. Which I think Gilead sets up. It is as if all of the content of Gilead is be to given to that child. There is something retroactive about that exchange at the bus station, once you have read Home. A certain kind of illumination and fullness is added. However, I think that that interchange might be shortsighted or somewhat isolated. With this child, the whole thing ends in hope and anticipation of how this child will grow up and that perhaps the grace and wonderfulness of the Lord will be shown to him.

John Paulling said...

I understand more what you mean, now. You, correct me if I'm wrong, see Home leading to the moment when Glory lays eyes on Jack's child, and that would be the penultimate moment of grace. If Glory had a John the Baptist inside her he would have given her a jolt, maybe. Which gives a kind of tangible response to Jack's ponderings about the sins of the father's. I guess, I was thinking the grace you were speaking of was Glory's coming of age, so to speak. In response, I would say, anyone would be remiss to downplay the way Home finally unfolds, but I wonder what part the rest of the book plays. See, if all we're elevating is the way it ends, then, in my estimate, the ending of Home could have been tacked onto Gilead as a kind of epilogue.

Paul-David Young said...

I guess I think that ending of Home does trump Gilead in that it ends with a baby. Perhaps this is the presbyterian in me, let us not forget that Robinson is one as well, of how vital and central children are to how God works. How many biblical stories center upon a child? How many eucatostrophic moments occur in the form a baby? How many times does the eternal enter into the temporal through a baby? In that way I think that Home trumps Gilead.

I realised I never answered your first question, which is more powerful family of friend? I don't know if there's any way to answer that... I do think that the familial reflections and interactions in Home are in some ways more accessible than the pastoral reflections of Gilead. Thoughts?

John Paulling said...

Well, I agree that new life is (for lack of a better phrase) just about everything in an already-not yet world, because of the way sin, and death as the adversaries of God, and creation interrelate (I know that sentence is cumbersome). What I am trying to emphasize is the new life that happens to John Ames himself. A man oppressed by as much resentment as the day is long being moved to give the one whom he'd been embattled with, a blessing. That kind of behavior is certainly central to the gospel. This dovetails with my first question, although, I realize now that I misunderstood what event you were pointing to as the moment of grace. What I am getting at is Jesus' words in the sermon on the mount, "And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same" (Matt. 5:47)? Now, in one sense this is an unfair use of this text. But, I think Jesus is touching on something applicable here. There is something obligatory about forgiveness towards family, and that obligation is written indelibly on the hearts of the most debased. It is not so with enemies. Those that love there enemies do so in order that they may be, "sons of their Father who is in heaven" (Matt 5:45), which is better than being in the Boughton family.

Now, there is a sense in which all of this is ridiculous, pointless casuistry. I wouldn't say any of it except that I am convinced that the lions share of the TR folks in this part of the country have no vision for this type of new life. Oh, how they love visible new life when it takes the form of a baptized child, but avoid it like the plague when it comes in the form of sack cloth and ashes! I don't disagree with what you have said, we shouldn't argue about what gospel is the best representation of Jesus' mighty acts, and the same goes for Robinsonian polyphony. I do want to be clear, though, that what touches a nerve in me in Gilead is not the pastoral element (though that is there) as much as seeing Ames get baptized with fire at the end of his life. Good job, I appreciate your insight.

monster paperbag said...

I really enjoyed reading Gilead. Can't wait to read Home :).

Jon Furst said...

I know this has been up for awhile, but nice review, PD. I can't wait to read it.