Robinson, Marilynne Entries

Housekeeping: A Novel


I know it's not fair, that it goes against every rule of responsible writing on books and literature, to evaluate a novel based on the author's other works. How much less fair to evaluate a first novel on the merits of an author's subsequent works, when one has chosen to read them out of order? Totally, completely unfair. Nevertheless, I can't honestly talk about my reaction to Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping without getting this out of my system: gorgeous, limpidly written it may be, but it's no Gilead.

Nor is it supposed to be, after all. Whereas Robinson's second novel, published twenty-four years after her first, is an intimate, perfectly-pitched character study of a man at the end of his life, looking back with mellow pain and pleasure at the family legacy he is leaving to his young son, her earlier work features a pair of sisters who were given no such guiding light by their parents. What touched me so deeply about Gilead, what puts it on my top-twenty list of all time, is the tangible, rooted reality of the Reverend John Ames. But Housekeeping is not about age, and it's not about the tangible. Instead it's about the transient, and loss, and the brittle no-man's-land of an adolescence saturated in death. Although both novels are written in the first person, the voice of Housekeeping's protagonist Ruthie is distant, almost cold, functioning always at a remove from the reader, which is a stark contrast from Ames's intimate warmth. Ruthie's distance makes sense within the novel: abandoned by their suicidal mother at a young age, she and her sister Lucille are raised by a series of relatives, ending up finally in an uneasy guardian/ward relationship with their formerly-transient aunt Sylvie, who they expect, both because of their own history and her character, to abandon them at any moment. As the three women drift forward in time, Lucille makes a conscious decision to leave Sylvie and rejoin "normal" society, whereas Ruthie is more torn.

If I were to pick one adjective to describe this book, it might be "haunted." All three main characters seem beset: sometimes by fading memories, sometimes by nagging desires, sometimes by a nameless lack they can't place. This doesn't come across as teenage ennui, but rather as the result of an early life divorced from security, with no fixed "place" any character can call her own and no fixed path to which Ruthie, at least, feels dedicated. One of the most poignant questions I heard the book asking was whether one ought to seek aggressively for that missing sense of rooted place, or whether, on the contrary, it is better to become comfortable with the essential rootlessness of life. A recurring image, of being on either side of a lighted window in the night-time, was both one of the most charged and one of the most beautiful metaphors in this gorgeously-written book.

Sometimes we used to watch trains passing in the dark afternoon, creeping through the blue snow with their windows all alight, and full of people eating and arguing and reading newspapers. [...] [B]y crawling up, and sliding down, and steadying ourselves against the roofs and sheds and rabbit hutches, we managed to stay just abreast of a young woman with a small head and a small hat and a brightly painted face. She wore pearl-gray gloves that reached almost to her elbows, and hooped bracelets that fell down her arms when she reached up to push a loose wisp of hair underneath her hat. The woman looked at the window very often, clearly absorbed by what she saw, which was not but merely seemed to be Lucille and me scrambling to stay beside her, too breathless to shout. When we came to the shore, where the land fell down and the bridge began to rise, we stopped and watched her shadow sail slowly away, along the abstract arc of the bridge.

Again and again, Robinson presents the interior lighted spaces as those of the "haves" and belonging, and the dark exterior spaces as those of the "have-nots," the transients on the periphery of so-called respectable life. Sylvie, who loves to sit in the dusky interior of her mother's house without turning on the lights, relishes the blurring of boundaries, the melding of dark interior with dark exterior, the "even-ing" time when possession status is unclear and a house's interior can be "sunk in the very element is was meant to exclude." Lucille, on the other hand, seeks to build up more and ever more clarity of boundaries, wanting the lights to blaze against the darkness so that she will be reassured about which side of the divide she occupies. Sylvie's drifting, unmoored character is unnerving, even offensive to her.

I knew what the silence meant, and so did Lucille. It meant that on an evening so calm, so iridescently blue, so full of the chink and chafe of insects and fat old dogs dragging their chains and belling in the neighbors' dooryards—in such a boundless and luminous evening, we would feel our proximity with our finer senses. As, for example, one of two, lying still in a dark room, knows when the other is awake.
       We sat listening to the rasp of the knife as Sylvie buttered and stacked the toast, bumping our heels with a soft, slow rhythm against the legs of our chairs, staring through the warped and bubbled window at the brighter darkness. Then Lucille began to scratch fiercely at her arms and her knees. "I must have got into something," she said, and she stood up and pulled the chain of the overhead light. The window went black and the cluttered kitchen leaped, so it seemed, into being, as remote from what had gone before as this world from the primal darkness.

All of this is what is compelling about Housekeeping: its gorgeously-formed prose, its thoughtful metaphors, its tone which fits so well to the otherworldly characters of Sylvie and Ruthie. So why doesn't it live up to my expectations, brilliant as it often is?

For me, although Robinson had obviously already honed her writing chops on the level of the sentence and the paragraph, the larger narrative in Housekeeping seems a bit loose, a bit wandering. All that skilled craft seems like liquid without a container, running this way and that over any surface it encounters, in need of some kind of funnel or chute to concentrate it into a sustained narrative. Had it been more concentrated, more directed, the characters and town might have sprung more to life, and I would have believed more fully in their existence. It occurs to me that this could have been intentional: theoretically, a thinner, more wandering narrative style is a great fit for Robinson's themes of vagrancy, liminal spaces, and existential uncertainty. The book itself is waif-like, haunted, hard to pin down, like Sylvie in her rootless wanderings, like Ruthie in her attempts to see without being seen. It's a dweller in the dark exterior, not in the blazing interior. In practice, though, I didn't think the treatment lived up to its potential, and my whole time reading this I was torn between marveling at the beautiful prose and asking myself why I wasn't more caught up, more involved.

I know I've done a poor job at evaluating Housekeeping on its own merits, and I feel vaguely guilty about that. There were flashes of the grounded, wry, tightly yet seemingly effortlessly-controlled brilliance of Gilead: I caught a whiff, for example, of Ames's quiet, biblically-inflected sense of humor when Ruthie imagines her grandmother returning from the dead to "scan the shores to see how nearly the state of grace resembled the state of Idaho." Overall I was, perhaps unreasonably, disappointed, and now feel a little bit sad that I've read all three of Robinson's novels to date. To assuage those feelings of sadness, here is one last paragraph to speed me on my way.

Of course I knew that [the sheriff's] function was more than ceremonial. The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.



Full disclosure: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is one of my favorite novels of all time, so I'm hardly coming to its companion, Home, with fresh eyes. I was nervous about starting Home, as a matter of fact: nervous it wouldn't live up to Gilead's precedent, and that I would inevitably be disappointed, even with a very good book. In fact, that wasn't what happened at all. For one thing, despite its relative lack of action, I absolutely could not put down Home and read it in just a few days. For another, I found that the two novels speak to each other in unique and thought-provoking ways. They are very different, and much of what I found magical about Gilead is absent from Home. Yet Home gave me a new perspective on the story I first heard in Gilead; and on finishing it, I'm almost convinced to privilege the second telling despite being seduced by the style of its brother. The first book, interestingly, is a closing, a coming-to-terms with a full life about to end, in which old demons are acknowledged and absorbed in the overflowing of new love. The second is a continuous and desperate struggle, very much engaged, still, in the business of living in the flawed and often cruel world.

Both novels are set in the same place, over the same stretch of time. In a small Iowa town in the mid-1950's, two minister friends are growing old: John Ames, the Congregationalist minister, and Robert Boughton, the former leader of the Presbyterian flock.

There were so many jokes between them. Once when they were boys in seminary they were walking across a bridge, arguing about some point of doctrine. A wind had blown her father's hat into the water, and he had rolled up his pant legs and walked in the river after it, not gaining on it at all, still disputing, as it sailed along in the current. "I was winning that argument!" her father said.

"Well, I was laughing too hard to keep up my side of it." The hat finally caught on a snag, and that was the whole story, but it always made them laugh. The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.

Ames is the narrator of Gilead, and one of the most stunning things about that book is his wise, lyrical narrative voice. He's wrapping up loose ends the best he can, and preparing for death: he finds himself, at the end of his life, unexpectedly married, with a young son, and the purpose of his narrative is to relay the story of the Ames family to his child, so young Robby will know his roots. It's an extremely intimate narration, infused with love and quietness. Even as it tells of the past theological struggles in the Ames family, between John's father and grandfather during the time of the Civil War, the current John Ames speaks out of calm, in the last stages of making peace with his life.

Home, on the other hand, while also quiet by most standards, is told in a third-person narration that centers on a trio, not a single person. Just down the street from Ames and his young wife and son, his old friend Reverend Boughton welcomes his middle-aged daughter Glory, who is leaving her own disappointed hopes in order to care for her father in his old age. Shortly thereafter, the Reverend's best-loved and prodigal son Jack also returns, "to stay awhile." Both brother and sister have secrets, wounds from their former lives which they hold close to themselves and only gradually reveal to one another. And even though the Reverend is nearing the end of his life, just like his old friend, he doesn't seem to have Ames' peace. He is tortured with guilt and worry over the unresolved grief in his life, and his inability to come to terms with Jack's mistakes - either to forgive his son, or to stop loving him. Neither is he able to engage with the struggles in Jack's own life that are tormenting him, and thereby achieve the connection with his son that he so craves. For those who come to Home from Gilead, and therefore know what Jack is keeping from his family, there are many heartbreaking moments between father and son, in which the reader knows that the stakes are much higher - or, at least different, more complicated - than Reverend Boughton realizes:

     Jack watched him for a moment. Then he said, "I heard you all laughing about that magazine. It's pretty foolish, all in all. Could I see it for a second? Thanks. I thought he made one interesting point in here somewhere, though. He said the seriousness of American Christianity was called into question by our treatment of the Negro. It seems to me that there is something to be said for that idea."
     Boughton said, "Jack's been looking at television."
     "Yes, I have. And I have lived in places where there are Negro people. They are very fine Christians, many of them."
     Boughton said, "Then we can't have done so badly by them, can we? That is the essential thing."
     Jack looked at him, then he laughed. "I'd say we've done pretty badly. Especially by Christian standards. As I understand them." Jack sank back into his chair as if he were the most casual man on earth and said, "What do you think, Reverend Ames."
     Ames looked at him. "I have to agree with you. I'm not really familiar with the issue. I haven't been following the news as closely as I once did. But I agree."
     "It isn't exactly news--" Jack smiled and shook his head. "Sorry, Reverend," he said. Robby brought the tractor to show him, let him work the steering wheel, ran the tractor along the arm and over the back of the chair.
     Boughton said, "I don't believe in calling anyone's religion into question because he has certain failings. A blind spot or two. There are better ways to talk about these things."

One of the things I love about both versions of the Gilead/Home story is the complex way it's engaged with issues of race: even in this rural, middle-American town (so homogeneous that Glory says "There aren't any colored people in Gilead"), the scars of American racial cruelty reach deep into both the Ames and Boughton stories, estranging fathers and sons throughout the generations. This seems to me a profound truth about oppression: Martin Luther King said, famously, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and Robinson makes the point that injustice anywhere is also a threat to human connection, to communion among family members, even those living sheltered lives hundreds of miles away from the apparent sites of conflict.

But she also portrays how complicated it is even to address, let alone resolve, these issues, because they involve different versions of "right" colliding. Reverend Boughton, Jack and Glory are all sympathetic characters who love each other - and that can only get them so far. Not to go on a name-dropping extravaganza, but I think it was Hegel who pointed out that tragic conflict is often not the collision of Right and Wrong, but of Right and Right: two different sets of priorities and principles, two parties acting according to their consciences, are unable to budge from the collision course they've set. By these standards Home isn't an unmitigated tragedy: the characters, through their quiet struggles, are able to approach one another more closely and come to some degree of peace before the story ends. But there is a tragic underpinning, a gulf between these people that cannot be wholly traversed. Throughout it all, though, Robinson is so perceptive and subtle in her depictions, and so lyrical in her prose, that the elements of tragedy and quiet triumph come together in a work of great beauty.

(Home was my ninth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing the United States. Specifically, Iowa.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography