Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, Virago, 261 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-1844088812
One of the revelations of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels – Gilead (2004), Home (2008) and Lila (2014) – is the literary nature of a carefully considered and well-crafted sermon. The Reverend John Ames, who features in all three novels and is central to two of them, might as well be constructing essays to weekly deadlines as writing a sermon. Preoccupied with a theological or ethical question, he spends his time drafting lines of thought, considering potential images and references, teasing out examples – all the time wondering how close he will come to the mark he has set for himself, how his text will be received or where it will fit with the extensive tradition he is so well versed in. His practice feels as much a literary as a theological discipline and in Gilead he calculates that he has written the equivalent of 225 books, “which puts me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity”.
It would be meaningless, if not impossible, to discuss Robinson’s work without referring to its religious dimension, yet in a 2011 Paris Review interview with Sarah Fay, she says:
I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religion whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.
Later in the same interview she says:
Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. (…) There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions of its own existence.
All three (to date) Gilead novels are concerned with the lives of the families of two Christian ministers, Reverend Ames (Congregationalist) and his lifelong friend Reverend Robert Boughton (Presbyterian). The characters have a habit of mind consistent with living their entire lives in a context of religious doctrine and its interpretation, but their world is so deeply infused with theology, religion is so inherent to it, that even the most secular reader will adapt. And Robinson is not above having a little fun at the expense of her characters’ earnestness. In Gilead, for example, when Ames has a presentiment of death, he considers what book he should clutch in case his heart fails: “Donne and Herbert,” he tells his son. “And Barth’s Epistle to the Romans and Volume II of Calvin’s Institutes. Which is by no means to slight Volume I.”
The first two Gilead novels, Gilead and Home, cover similar ground where their stories converge but their narrative hinterland is different. Ames and Boughton are in their seventies. Ames’s heart is failing. In Gilead, he writes an extended letter to the small son he won’t live to see into adulthood, expressing things he would have said to him if they had had more time together. “I am writing your begats,” he tells the boy, but the novel is far more than mere information about the people and place they come from. Ames’s luminous attention to the life he is about to lose reveals Gilead and the people who live in it in an especially vivid light. The love he pours into his narrative makes it a difficult world to leave. Robinson thought so too. In the same Paris Review interview, she says that she felt so bereft when she finished writing it that she went straight on to write Home, where the focus shifts to the Boughtons. The perspective is that of Glory Boughton, one of the Reverend’s many adult children, who has come home to mind her father in his decline.
Gilead is a calm place whose inhabitants seem largely well-intentioned and generous, but there are traces of violence in its Civil War era past, as told by Ames in Gilead. There have been personal dramas too, largely as a result of the out of control behaviour of Boughton’s middle son, Jack, who left town as soon as he became an adult but continued to cause grief to his family through his silence and absence. Accounts of Jack’s life in both novels sketch the early days of the Civil Rights movement, but his is also a story of fecklessness, alcoholism, a child fathered and abandoned, petty crime, prison, and belated efforts to atone for his mistakes. Nevertheless, Glory loves her brother, whose return is central to both Gilead and Home. She worries about him, as much as she worries about their father and about her own future.
Each of these novels can be read independently, each has its own emphasis and extensive back story, but they share the same “present” time and relate many of the same events from different perspectives. (Robinson has said of them that they are symbiotic.) The same technique applies to Lila, but its present-time focus predates the earlier novels. Lila is Ames’s second wife. In this novel she is pregnant with the baby who will become the child in Gilead. Here’s her perspective on the town, as a newcomer:
Gilead was the kind of town where dogs slept in the road for the sun and the warmth that lingered after the sun was gone, and the few cars that there were had to stop and honk until the dogs decided to get up and let them pass by. They’d go limping off to the side, lamed by the comfort they’d had to give up, and then they’d settle down again right where they were before. It really wasn’t much of a town. You could hear the cornfields rustling almost anywhere in it, they were so close and it was so quiet. (Lila)
It’s hard to know whether we are intended to infer the town as idyll or as the sort of place that averts its eyes from uncomfortable truths, preferring to let sleeping dogs lie. Possibly, like fiction itself, this is a question of perspective. It is surely significant though that while the history of Gilead, as related by Ames in the eponymous novel, includes strong abolitionist roots, the single recent civil disturbance that is remembered and related in both Home and Gilead – the burning of a church with a black congregation and the subsequent departure of those families – is glossed over by both Ames and Boughton, who have never been challenged to think about race relations or earthly inequality in any serious way. The town’s name, echoing the African-American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead”, supports this reading. Robinson may be suggesting that the safety and security of a town like Gilead, while allowing its inhabitants the intellectual and social space to contemplate eternity, comes at a price and is not universally available.
Lila opens with a child cast out of a crowded cabin into a stormy night by the careless, abusive people she lives with, who may or may not be her own people. A drifter called Doll, knowing the child and her situation, picks her up and carries her away to join a band of migrant workers who lead rough but honest lives – “Don’t tell lies … don’t steal more than you have to.” Reading Lila’s past – as times get harder and the dust comes, and one by one, little by little, the migrant group slips into criminality – brings John Steinbeck to mind, along with Harriet Arnow, John Fante and Martha Gellhorn. This is territory that Sylvie and Ruthie (from Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping) would recognise, worlds apart from Gilead.
Lila spends the days of her pregnancy tending her husband’s garden and the grave of his first wife and infant daughter, walking the roads – alone or with Ames – talking to him, loving him. Theirs is an unusual love story but no less passionate for that. She practices her letters, expands her vocabulary, corrects her faulty syntax. As she does so, she sifts and turns particles of memory in a near archaeological process, excavating her truths and turning them in the fresh light of her new life.
Ames remembers the moment when Lila came in to his life like this:
… when I saw her I thought, Where have you come from, my dear child? She came in during the first prayer and sat in the last pew and looked up at me, and from that moment hers was the only face I saw. … There is something in her face I have always felt I must be sufficient to, as if there is a truth in it that tests the meaning of what I say.” (Gilead)
Here is her version:
Doane always said churches just want your money, so they all stayed away from churches, walked right past them as if they were smarter than the other people. As if they had any money for the churches to want. But the rain was bad and that day was a Sunday, so there was no other doorway for her to step into. The candles surprised her. It might all have seemed so beautiful because she’d been missing a few meals. That can make things brighter somehow. Brighter and farther away. As if when you put your hand out you would touch glass. She watched him and forgot she was in the room with him and he would see her watching. (Lila)
Summarising Lila’s trajectory runs the risk of suggesting that the material of this novel is familiar. It’s not the first time in fiction that an older man has married a much younger woman from a different background, but here the differences are about as extreme as differences can be: the fallen woman and the arbiter of morals; the woman from the outer edges of human society, in many ways a world of outlaws, and the man at the centre of a religious congregation in small town America; sinner and confessor; the rootless and the deeply rooted. He educates her and gives her a comfortable home, she is a companion for him and has a child with him. None of these statements comes anywhere close to what actually happens in this dynamic relationship or does justice to their mutual curiosity and the frank physical, emotional, and intellectual needs they satisfy for each other – each acutely lonely when they meet. They don’t allow for Lila’s defensive pride, her dread of being confined, or for Ames’s fascination with the blunt acuity of her mind, which cuts straight to the point of any question. As we learn more about Lila’s past we become more aware of the pitfalls. She is constantly ready to bolt and Ames knows it – but his attitude to Lila is so far from condescending, he is so wide open and receptive to her that even the most sceptical reader is likely to fall a little bit in love with him too.
Lila yields her secrets to Ames scrap by painful scrap. He baptises her in one of the most memorable scenes in the novel. Before and afterwards, they talk about whether they should marry or not – they’re not fools, they know it won’t be easy. Her past is a constant threat to her present, and while Ames is more than able to accept it, the future is a problem for both of them. At this point, newly baptised, she tells him that she can’t marry him and blurts out that she once worked in a whorehouse.
She stepped away from him, and he gathered her back and pressed her head against his shoulder.
He said ‘Lila Dahl, I just washed you in the waters of regeneration. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a newborn babe. And yes, I do know what a whorehouse is. Though not from personal experience. You’re making sure you can trust me, which is wise. Much better for both of us.’
‘I done other things.’
‘I get the idea.’ He stroked her hair, and her cheek.’ (Lila)
This encounter settles the question. Lila will marry Ames because she can see his need for her and because “She couldn’t see any way around it that would not shock all the sweetness right out of him.”
One evening when they are out walking like any ordinary couple, she tells Ames that Doll, the woman who raised her, once tried to marry her off to an old man so that she could have a better life but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Such a silence descends on them then that “she felt the old loneliness seize on her from one heartbeat to the next, the old, hard awkwardness of her body. How could a child stay alive in a body that felt so dead?”
They walk home, Lila planning to leave first thing next morning. She doesn’t have to say it; Ames knows what she’s thinking. He asks her to stay until the baby is born. She tells him that when she was still living rough on the edge of town, she stole his sweater because it had his smell; that she used it for a pillow; that she’d pretend he was there so she could talk to him; that she thought about him all the time.
‘So maybe I’m not just any old man?’
She said, ‘You surely ain’t.’
‘Well. That’s a relief.’ Then he said, ‘Do you still pretend you talk to me? Now that I’m here and all? Do you ever think of telling me the things you used to imagine you were telling me?’
‘Asking, more like. And you just seen what happens. Whenever I talk.’
He said, ‘I liked the part about the sweater. That was worth all the rest of it.’
So she put her arms around him. So she put her head on his chest. ‘You’re a good-hearted man,’ she said, enjoying the feel of his shirt. Of him stroking her hair.’ (Lila)
Lila – who was lost – is found, but the emotion that governs her early life with Ames is shame – the shame of the unwanted, unloved and rejected child, with a deeply defensive fear of abandonment. She pushes Ames, tests him. Why? “So that she could say when it ended she always knew it would.” She has the habit and expectation of loneliness and the defensive pride of such a person: better to leave before rejection strikes again. She has “shame like a habit”. It might be better to “go back to the ache she came from”.
Lila thinks about her past life, the people she knew, things that happened. There are many forms of saving. The rough and ready people who rescued Lila the child from abuse and neglect are not churchgoers, not religious in any sense: “People with courage and nothing to do with it but just get by.” Ames “saves” Lila through baptism and in more practical, material ways before he marries her, securing her position for the time being. But if Lila is “saved” and destined for heaven, how can she be happy there, knowing that people she loves are excluded from it? When she challenges Ames about the selective nature of his Heaven, he admits that he can’t reconcile the concept of hell with his other beliefs, but he’s not able to answer her question.
There are narrative theories that suggest redemption as a key element of most stories. Lila’s is not just a story with redemption in it, it is about redemption: redemption and forgiveness. In this way the novel’s ethical concern follows logically from Home, which was concerned with sin, free will, predestination and Jack’s quest for atonement with his father.
In Gilead, Ames prepares a sermon about Hagar and Ishmael being sent out into the desert when Abraham’s first wife, Sara, gives birth to Isaac. The delivery of this sermon is an opportunity for Ames to reflect on Lila’s and Robby’s situation, but in both Gilead and Home it is a pivotal scene for Jack Boughton too. Jack interprets the sermon as parable and public chastisement aimed directly at him, but Ames’s motivation is far more personal. Not having expected to have a family or dependents at the end of his life, he has made no provision for wife or child. He worries about what will happen to them when he dies. He reflects that all fathers must eventually surrender their children to the wilderness, this is “the narrative of all generations”.
It is certainly a strong feature of these three narratives. In Gilead, Ames dreads the inevitability of Lila and Robby having to leave the relative safety and security he offers them. Jack enters Home from his own personal wilderness, looking for reconciliation and security, not only for himself but for people he loves. But Jack is the kind of prodigal for whom there’s no happy ending; there is no solution for him in Gilead; he must leave. In Lila, the woman who is a child of the wilderness finds refuge from a lot more than rain in Ames’s church. Nevertheless, the threat of return looms over her. (Ames worries about this, by the way, far more than Lila does.)
There is something to be teased out here, about the newness and provisional nature of an America in the process of becoming, with hazardous emigrant trails and frontier settlements still in living memory. During her one almost-a-year of schooling, Lila learns that the place she lives in has a name and what that name is: the United States of America. She didn’t know there was a word for it before. She didn’t know enough to realise it needed to be named. Several allusions to the United States of America later show that Robinson intended to emphasise this naming, this constructed concept of America, along with Lila’s strangeness to it and to the concept of its definition. Her thinking is handicapped by this poverty of language, the lack of a conceptual vocabulary to form thoughts, let alone express them.
There was a long time when Lila didn’t know that words had letters, or that there were other names for seasons than planting and haying. (Lila)
Robinson describes religion as a structural framework for thought (see above), but the ability to think also depends, absolutely, on language. While the comfortable, secure Boughtons and John Ames are accustomed to intellectual exercise and will happily (or unhappily) spend hours teasing out semantics, Lila is barely literate when she arrives in their world. Her diction betrays her as an outsider, uneducated. No matter how naturally intelligent she is, this puts her at a disadvantage and she knows it. She embarks on a campaign of self improvement – not to make herself acceptable to Gilead society, to whose opinions she is utterly indifferent, but because Ames awakens her curiosity, a hunger for understanding of questions she didn’t previously have the tools to formulate: nothing less than the nature of existence, the meaning of life.
She told the old man she’d been thinking about existence, that time they were out walking, and he didn’t laugh. Could she have these thoughts if she had never learned the word?’ (Lila)
Ames is the person who gave her that word – existence – along with many others. Far from mocking her tentative explorations, he tells her that he and Boughton have been teasing that same question out their whole lives and are no closer to solving it. He’s genuinely interested in her perspective – one of her gifts to him is the fresh eye she brings to the stale familiars of his world.
The longer she stays in Gilead, the more she reads and talks to Ames, the more fluent and grammatically assured Lila becomes. If religion is the conceptual framework of these novels, language is its heart, blood and nervous system and Robinson puts it to excellent use. Her language and imagery are recognisably hers. For all their preoccupation with abstract ontological or theological questions, part of the delight of reading her novels comes from their vivid expression of the material world. Lila and Ames have a strong physical and sexual bond. They enjoy each other on every level and are attentive to beauty in the world around them. “This is an interesting planet,” Ames writes to his son in Gilead. “It deserves all the attention you can give it.”
The three Gilead novels could be read independently or in any order but there’s no denying that each is enriched by a knowledge of the others. Cumulatively, all three amount to a masterclass in perspective and in the use of telling detail in constructing both character and story. Part of their extraordinary power is their ability to return to the same ground, retell events from a fresh point of view, without once feeling repetitive. Instead, the effect of Robinson’s return to themes and certain highly-charged scenes has the effect of an accumulation, or layering, of thought. There is no hectic rush from cataclysmic event to cataclysmic event, rather a deepening, a settling into moments, returning to mine their potential. Incidents range in scale from the death of a child through the capture of a killer and the search for a dying friend to the turn of a phrase, the exchange of a glance. The most ordinary of conversations can turn explosive in the space of a held breath.
Each time we revisit a scene the light is different, we see more. Sometimes the characters’ remembered versions of events differ, but they are all the more credible and human for that. Our interest deepens with each fresh layer of understanding, while our expanding knowledge of each character’s background and inner life enriches our sense of Robinson’s world of Gilead as a multi-dimensional, textured and credible place. The town stands as much in contrast to the confusions, dangers and chaos of an America it stands slightly apart from as to the eternal life that the characters aspire to. Even Ames, whose family have been preachers here for three generations, must leave: life must end. For Lila, there is a balm in Gilead, but it is temporary, provisional.
The Gilead novels defy chronology. They each have a present and an immediate past, an implied future and a more distant history. The narrative perspective oscillates between these timeframes, gathering an observation here, a memory there, a detail, phrase or image from somewhere else, and knits them all up into an intricate, layered and substantial story. Initial glimpses or hints of trouble, or moments of high emotion, are revealed little by little in an utterly credible process of re-membering, as in restoring parts to a fractured whole. The novels have an eye to the future too: while Ames’s awareness of mortality intensifies his pleasure in and attention to the world around him he also worries about what will happen to his wife and son. Their future, which he can’t share, is the motivating force behind his narration in Gilead. In Home, both Glory and Jack are concerned with where they will live and how, and with whom they might share their respective future lives, as much as they need to reconcile themselves to their past lives away from Gilead. Lila, returning the focus to Ames and his wife as their unusual relationship develops, also considers what might lie ahead, but here both future and past impinge so heavily on the present that they destabilise it. Lila is permanently on a knife-edge between staying and leaving.
I was wary, approaching this third novel. I love and admire both Gilead and Home, but I wasn’t at all sure that my appreciation would stand up to a third reading of the Ames and Boughton households. How wrong I was. I need at least one more. I badly want to know how Ames dies and what will happen to Lila and Robby. Despite Lila’s strength and resourcefulness, I worry about them. This may be what Robinson wanted. Despite her concern with religious thought, the question of who is saved and who is condemned to struggle and flounder are as urgent in this life as in eternity; and the matter of how a person might survive and emerge from the loss and deprivations of Dust Bowl days to start again is as relevant today as it has ever been. Not everyone can be lucky enough to find the shelter and forgiveness of a John Ames.
© Lia Mills 2015
Lia Mills writes novels, short stories, essays and the occasional blog (at http://libranwriter.wordpress.com ). Her latest novel, Fallen, is published by Penguin. She teaches aspects of writing, most recently at the Irish Writers’ Centre and at UCD –