Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Gilead Trilogy: The Same Yesterday, Today and Forever

In the third book of Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead” trilogy, “Lila,” John Ames realizes that, to his wife, his Christian observations on existence are stories:

“It is a story, isn’t it? I’ve never really thought of it that way. And I suppose the next time I tell it, it will be a better story. Maybe a little less true. I might not tell it again.”

Robinson’s three novels – “Gilead,” “Home” and “Lila” – run the same risks of retelling, but are full of rewards. In them, she gives us the same characters from different points of view, with shifting perspectives and their own perceptions of what truth is. Which is key, since at the core for some of these characters is the proclamation, or rejection, of ultimate truth in the person of Jesus Christ, and what effect that has had on these few fictional residents of a small town in the United States of America.

There are times in these books that can tax an unsuspecting reader. In “Gilead,” the free-form ruminations of John Ames, aging Congregationalist minister, sometimes cry out for a narrative band to emerge within the book’s first 75 or so pages. Ames is writing in the first person to his young son, who will presumably read them at some future date after he is long dead. We are treated to what seem like repetitious epiphanies about warm summer afternoons, the glories of neighborhood baseball, the wonder he finds in that same son. The only temptation at this point is to put the book aside.

In “Home,” the narrative is more conventional – third person, showing what is going on at virtually the same time in the home of Ames’ best and oldest friend, the Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton. He is entering his final days, cared for by his daughter Glory and his ne’er-do-well son Jack. Here, the repetitions are the mundane affairs of caregiving, the preparation of meals and the renovation of the Boughton flower beds. Coffee is endlessly prepared and consumed. Because of Jack’s two decades of absence due to his alcoholism (among other things), there is polite distance and awkwardness among them all. “I’m sorry,” is repeated countless times. Jack perpetually puts his hand to his face, shielding himself from scrutiny. Jack is not a believer, but the most frustrating kind of would-be believer; a sly, secretive dissembler who has taxed his father’s patience and faith his whole life.

In “Lila,” we are treated to Gilead, Iowa through the life of Ames’ second wife, Lila. She walked into Ames’ church one day out of the rain, the latest steps in a vagabond life as the stolen child of a defiant, proud, relentlessly private woman named Doll. Lila sees disease, privation, murder, prostitution and a lifetime’s regrets before she becomes a preacher’s wife and a mother long after she had given up any idea of roots or a shared life. The narrative style is closer to “Gilead" - meandering to reflect how quickly Lila’s consciousness flits between the past and the present, ambling toward eternity.

Robinson’s style reminds me of Updike, without the old lecher’s insistent need to go tiptoeing into some elaborate and vividly described adulterous episode. No, the Christianity of Gilead, Iowa is the kind that understands the temptations of the flesh come in less vivid colors than those worn on a passing female form, but on often mundane, familiar objects much closer at hand, on our insistent wants disguised as needs, on the politics we would risk every relationship on.

Robinson’s strategy establishes itself in “Gilead” – the reader is introduced to the characters, the contours of interaction and observation are established, and the reader slowly begins to realize that hidden within these seemingly drab surroundings and mundane movements are old, desiccated resentments, bleeding regrets, impossible hopes, and stark, insurmountable obstacles. But there is one secret that must force itself to the surface and be confronted, and the escalating tension toward that climax is meant to hook the reader, and instruct.

In “Lila,” Ames writes a letter to his would-be bride, hoping to explain himself romantically and theologically:

“I realize I have always believed there is a great Providence that, so to speak, waits ahead of us. A father holds out his hands to a child who is learning to walk, and he comforts the child with words and draws it toward him, but he lets the child feel the risk it is taking, and lets it choose its own courage and the certainty of love and comfort when he reaches his father over – I was going to say choose it over safety, but there is no safety. And there is no choice, either, because it is in the nature of the child to walk.”

 Much of these three books has to do with history – family history – and the passage of time as measured against the demands of Providence. God means for us to move forward, but each of our characters are consumed with the past and its demands. Lila later thinks that she has to “get through her life one way or another.” So the image of a child learning to walk is instructive, because a child only learns to walk forward. The first steps forward burn off the baby fat and begin to nurture the idea of eventual independence. And a child must grow. John Ames, and his father, grew away from the shadow of the abolitionist preacher who was their forebear. Jack Broughton has been dogged his entire life by the example of his father, which his siblings embraced. “Lila” begins with a child stolen from the cold, or was she rescued? And how many times does she fight the notion of rescue?

For me, the moment that will live in my memory forever is Ames’ memory of his father and the men of the community pulling down the ruins of a burned church, destroyed by fire, during a rainstorm. His father, black with soot, hands him an ashy, soggy biscuit, which reminds him of communion. The scene is rendered in three unforgettable pages filled with priceless English sentences. One is reminded of the comforting cadences of old hymns and the fussy devotion baked into church pies by women of deep, abiding faith. That is history – American history; history written by millions of men and women in small towns and obscure counties unbuilding and building.  

 And there is Christ. Ames tells his son that we come closest to Jesus when we sit next to Him in our own Gethsemanes, taking the cup life hands us even as we beg it off. The dying Robert Boughton in his dementia tells his friend Ames, “Jesus never had to get old,” as though rickety limbs would have taxed His infinite grace. Each time we encounter these people, we are allowed to see the terror that hope inspires. If I love a person, and love them totally, they will disappoint me, and I will disappoint them, and then where will I be? It is better to be alone, but it is impossible. Ames and his preaching ancestors, Boughton and his children, Lila and her ominous past, all have risked and lost and understand that is the nature of human life. Yet they remain willing to risk again and again.

These characters have walked the streets of Gilead so many times, wearing holes in the pavement and passing by homes that a visitor might find distinctive, but which long ago lost their allure. And still Robinson has managed to take this parochial patch of what is now known as “flyover country” and invest it, like Faulkner, with all the importance in the world. Or rather, with the importance that God presumably brings to every human life.

Joan Acocella, in The New Yorker, writes that Ames “is a kind of character that people say novelists can’t create, an exceptionally virtuous person who is nevertheless interesting.” Though the stories occasionally risk crossing the line into the precious, they never quite succeed in doing so. “Gilead” and “Home” concern themselves with aging ministers of the Gospel, while “Lila” from the unchurched world teaches Ames a few things at the end of his life even as she is introduced to the dogged permanence of baptisms. Christianity dogs us with the idea that, in the end, God will not accept partial surrenders. He wants everything, and He is ruthless, because sin and death have no remorse. That dogged, brutal, consuming love makes as many run away from it as run to it, as judged by the receding shadow of Jack Boughton. But Ames finds comfort in knowing that even his words, like himself, will pass away.   

“We fly forgotten as a dream, certainly, leaving the forgetful world behind us to trample and mar and misplace everything we have ever cared for. That is just the way of it, and it is remarkable.”

And there are the words of Lila, intoned toward the end of “Gilead” and repeated – “A person can change. Everything can change.” The reality of grace means that being born again is terrifying, and exhilarating, as long as we keep walking forward. 

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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