Marilynne Robinson is a genius of exegesis. There’s a rare quality of contemplation in her writing, an intensity of speculation concerning both Biblical and secular phenomena that seems lacking in many contemporary novels and, I dare say, in much religious thinking as well. A gross generalization perhaps, but novels seem to have embraced the model of Flaubert to such an extent that we are comfortable with character and plot spinning their way toward conclusion with nary a backward glance nor pause for reflection. “Show, don’t tell” is the old maxim, and it’s well-suited to create the kind of vivid, immediate, lyrical and astonishing tales we have become accustomed to — the kind of tales we see also in the movies. So it feels like an old-fashioned revelation to find a writer so willing to sit and ponder. A devout Calvinist — of all things — Robinson treats every minor interaction with the world as containing the secrets of God’s design, and regardless of one’s spiritual beliefs, there is a rich pleasure in her odd ethos: Do less, consider it more.
One remarkable thing about Robinson’s previous novel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead, is that not much happens in it. An old preacher with an ailing heart, John Ames, son and grandson of preachers, writes a letter to his own young son. He tells a few stories about his grandfather, who has lived a much more eventful life than he. With the exception of one trip to his grandfather’s grave, in Kansas, Ames has scarcely left his small Iowa town. His great romance, so to speak, begins when he invites a younger woman to Bible study, and she becomes his wife. His great turmoil is the arrival of Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of his neighbor and a man Ames neither approves of nor forgives. High points in the resulting drama include a postdinner conversation on the topic of predestination, and a sermon Ames gives on Hagar and Ishmael, which offends Jack. What makes Gilead such a beautiful book — a masterpiece, I believe — is not the events it describes but the quality of Ames’ scrutiny of them. In his humble, reverent way, he takes the world he has been given and turns it over and over in his mind, like a hungry man savoring every aspect and flavor of his lone scrap of food. After a beautiful analysis of the nature and pleasures of water, Ames concludes: “I wish I had paid more attention to it.”
For Ames, and for Robinson, the most minuscule things — an ashy biscuit, a splash of water, a detail of scripture — become the subject of profound inspection and the source for ruminative flights of fancy as delicious as any narrative.
As if putting to a test this philosophy of emphasis over breadth, Robinson uses the exact same plot, characters and time frame in Home that she did in Gilead. The only substantial difference is that the action has been moved one house over, to the Boughtons’ residence, where Jack and his sister Glory, also returning from an unsuccessful stint in the wide world, minister to their dying father, an old Presbyterian preacher. The major events and revelations of the two books remain unchanged. The profound twist — not so much of plot as of the heart — at the end of the novels is similar. The argument about predestination is on the porch in Home, as it is in Gilead, and serves as significant a role. The most notable difference between the books is that Gilead is written from a luxuriant first-person perspective, while Home adopts a more constrained third person. One result is that the novel lacks the depth of Gilead’s introspection, which initially seems a shame, because in this art, Robinson is unequaled.
With its more traditional narrative style — chronological, with action and dialogue pushing the plot along — Home is a more cloistered and claustrophobic work than Gilead, and it acts as a kind of dark counterpart, lying in the shadow of Gilead’s delightful brightness. Gilead, though heartbreaking in parts — it is, after all, a novel about a man contemplating his own death — is imbued with a wealth of curiosity, astonishment, humor and grace. Ames, despite his doubts and worries, finds continual splendor in the construction of the world, and, indeed, his home is occupied by a beautiful child and a loving wife. Next door, the situation is less sanguine: Jack Boughton has been, at turns, a drunk and a derelict, forever guilty and incurably suspicious, and incapable of believing in his father’s faith, with the exception of hell: “Perdition is the one thing that always made sense to me.”
Glory has seen a long marriage engagement turn to nothing, and her life seems to have dead-ended back at her now-decrepit childhood home: “What an embarrassment that was,” she thinks, “being somewhere because there was nowhere else for you to be.”
Their father, though overjoyed at Jack’s return, seems incapable of understanding him, and for all his talk of grace and forgiveness clings stubbornly to notions of honor and decorum and cannot, finally, reconcile himself to his beloved but wayward son. The three loiter in each other’s presence, they share uncomfortable meals and play checkers, Monopoly and the piano, and there is much rueful, nearly bitter humor, but the overall atmosphere is brooding, affected, polite and frequently forlorn. The effect is similar to a three-person theater production performed on a single sparse set — with the exception of one short drive in the country, the action takes place exclusively in a few rooms and a porch, and a little ways out in the garden and garage. Indeed, Home makes the simplicity of Gilead seem expansive and eventful by comparison.
In its intentional stiffness and its deeply rueful sense of humor, Home is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful The Remains of the Day. Both books paint painfully tragicomic portraits of characters unable to live up to their lofty ideals, and both subtly touch on the sins of the culture — in the case of Home, the racism of the late 1950s. Both books are sentimental and nostalgic, and both seem to rescue these words from their pejorative connotations. (Indeed, how has “sentimental” come to have such a negative description? An excess of feeling? Surely one role of art is to allow us to reassociate ourselves with these deep, shameful excesses, to find the words to properly express sentiments that at a cursory glance are familiar and therefore somehow unseemly.)
In their delicate, uneasy attempts to comprehend familial love and to find comfort in the frequently brutal atmosphere of a childhood home, Jack and Glory tiptoe toward a sense of belonging, like trepidatious children drawn again to a flame that has already burned them. In this context, we come to see sentimentality not as a trivial thing but as a dangerous and wondrous prize, one only attained through the most careful and courageous of undertakings.
I would not immediately recommend Home to readers unfamiliar with Robinson’s work — Gilead and her darkly splendid Housekeeping are more generous in their strange, unfurling gifts. That said, it is impossible to evaluate Home in isolation; its connection with Gilead is as inextricable as the tale of Jonah and the great fish is with Lazarus and the grave. It is almost as if Robinson has taught us ways to oxygenate the world in her previous novel, and readers can bring these lessons to bear upon the sometimes airless scenes in her most recent. It would be easy to imagine the order of the books being reversed: Home providing a thorny parable and Gilead its glorious gloss.
Perhaps I am overemphasizing the austere nature of Home. Rereading it, I was struck anew by the effusion of laughter. Even after Glory confesses her most shameful secret — being taken in by a charming man, living in sin, losing her money and finally throwing hundreds of love letters down a storm drain — the siblings find themselves laughing in the night. “It was all horrible enough to be funny, I suppose.”
And as much as the characters fail to resolve their problems, they find delightful ways to laugh about them, dangerous laughter that creeps right up to the knife edge of despair. I myself have often found much pleasure in laughing at life’s bitter puzzles, at its infuriating irresolvability. I had always thought of this as a kind of cynical gesture, but through Home I began to understand the redemptive qualities of this act, the forgiveness inherent in it. The nature of Robinson’s work is to make her readers find wonderful new elaborations of what they thought they had already known, and Home is no exception. I had thought that of the two books, only Gilead would be the one I want to read over and over again, but upon reflection I find myself mistaken.
HOME | By MARILYNNE ROBINSON | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 336 pages | $25 hardcover