The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985. These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of The New
Canon, Ted Gioia reviews
Gilead by Marilynne
by Marilynne Robinson
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Marilynne Robinson is a peculiar author. After
all, how many novelists contribute an article to
the progressive journal Salmagundi defending
the Puritans? (The bottom line: they weren't
just mindless prigs, despite what you may have
heard to the contrary.) And how many
contemporary authors, instead of sharing
their thoughts about Mailer or Bellow or
Updike and the like, write lucid literary
criticism about McGuffey Readers?
But Robinson’s fiction is as non-conformist
as her essays. In an age of prolixity, she made
us wait almost a quarter of century for her second novel, Gilead,
which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 2005. Like its predecessor
Housekeeping (1980), it was a thin volume – revealing an author
who reaped sparingly while other wordsmiths sowed widely their
Joyce Carol Oates. And when Gilead finally arrived, it proved to be
as transcendent and delicate as Housekeeping had been dark and
Even stranger, Gilead achieves its enchanting effects despite a story
line that would seem to be unremittingly gloomy. Here was the
advance warning I had been given by another reader: “It’s about
the thoughts of a dying man in a small town in Iowa.” Hmmm, the
Hollywood studios will fight over the movie rights to that story, huh?
Maybe they should. It’s 1956, and Reverend John Ames has a
serious heart condition, and fears each new day might be his last.
He worries about leaving behind a wife and young son without any
means of financial support. In this setting, he begins writing a
journal — primarily as a document for his son to read when he is
older. Ames looks back at his mostly uneventful life, and even
further back at the lives of his father and grandfather, both of them
also ministers, in a narrative that has its roots in the days before the
But what Robinson does with this unpromising situation is
remarkable. Almost every page of this novel is charged with a stark
beauty and a deep poetry. Dostoevsky, drawing on his own
experience of escaping a firing squad by a last minute stay of
execution, has noted how the imminence of death intensifies one’s
perceptions and attachments to the surrounding world. Ames’
worldview is permeated with this intensification of sensibility,
imparting a grandeur to almost every matter he discusses, whether
the simple details of day-to-day life or the moral dilemmas of the
past and present.
Yet history intrudes on private lives even in Gilead, Iowa.
Robinson weaves in elements of American socio-political life, from
John Brown and the abolitionists to the Civil Rights movement of
the 1950s. Sometimes these merely provide color and
verisimilitude to her tale, but often they create a backdrop for the
psychological drama of her narrative.
Ames has unsettled business that constantly disrupts his reveries.
Not just the future of his wife and son, or the tainted legacy of his
forefathers, but also the plight of the son of his closest friend, a
tormented soul who returns to Gilead, the scene of his youthful
indiscretions. Transgression and forgiveness are key themes in this
book, and they are given ample room to grapple with each other in
the course of Robinson's novel.
This is also a novel of ideas — a rarity in the pantheon of modern
novels. Creative writing teachers have worked hard to weed out the
taint of ‘ideas’ from their students’ work in recent decades. Try to
slip a philosophical musing into your assigned short story, and it will
come back marked in red. “Don’t tell us, show us” is the inviolable
rule. “Show us with the characters’ actions, or their emotions, or
even their dialogue.” But, heaven forbid, don’t quote the so-called
“great thinkers” in a story.
Although Robinson is a creative writing teacher herself — another
surprise! — she violates this rule repeatedly in Gilead. But when
Ludwig Feuerbach or Karl Barth show up in these pages, their cameo
appearances are handled deftly and quite effectively. It makes you
wonder why all that red ink got expended in the first place.
Nonetheless, the contemplative tone of this book may fool you.
Ames is severely tested in this novel, and in ways that even he barely
understands. To get the full measure of it, readers need to compare
this story with the alternative account of the same events provided
in Robinson’s follow-up novel House (2008). Yet even in the
context of Gilead, we can see that our saintly narrator has his own
blind spots, and “falls short of the glory of God,” as Paul says in
Romans (a work which figures in the shadows of Gilead).
We look for many things in fiction of the new millennium. But I am
rarely tempted to apply the word “wisdom” in the course of a book
review. Yet Marilynne Robinson has written a very wise book in
Gilead, and it is a hard-won wisdom her dying protagonist conveys.
Perhaps it was a hard book to write, too — judging by how long
Robinson took to complete it. But it is a joyous and sobering work to
read and savor.
|The Best in Fiction Since 1985