Lila: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
272 pp., $26.00
Linda McCullough Moore
Robinson writes with love of Doll, determined model of steadfast, sacrificial living; of Lila, battered and betrayed, but possessed of an honesty, an uncanny integrity we can only envy; and of John Ames, who as a young man loses wife and child and spends his life alone, but is the kind of person who gives virtue a good name. Yet, does she write of the God of this religion with love—in sermons no less framed and crafted than the preacher's? This God who, as far as I can tell, just wants us all to be happy, if not in this life, then certainly in the next. When Lila is troubled by teachings in the Bible she's begun to study, she is told, "If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine … then your Doll … is safe, and warm, and happy." "Maybe Doll's crime was just some desperate kindness, maybe it made no difference to the Lord one way or another." "Doll, with death behind her. A few blisters ain't going to kill you. A little dust ain't going to kill you. Nothing going to kill you ever again. Doll would laugh at the surprise of it all." This juxtaposed with the misguided notion of the final judgment, poor souls "having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place." The sovereignty of God does not serve him well when met with Lila's lament that those who saved her life are not God's elect. Surely "there are stragglers, people somebody couldn't bear to be without, no matter what they'd been up to in this life." So, off to heaven then. "It couldn't be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights." Not to put too fine a point upon it: Maybe heaven would be "fields and fields of nettles and chicory, things anybody could take because nobody wanted them. Then if the thief on the cross went to heaven he could just thieve forever to his heart's content, nobody the worse for it." Here is a heaven to die for. For to die is to attain salvation. In the end we all will be seen to have done the best we could and welcomed into Glory—presumably whether we like it or not. After all, we're all just good people, some dealt hands that make the living of a life a challenge, and if we sinned, well, death dispenses with all that. John Ames tells Lila, "Jesus doesn't talk a lot about hell." (Ref: expurgated gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John: Else His imagination also appall.)
Here, man goes God one better. John Ames, this tenderhearted, truly loving man, reimagines the sacramental. In baptism, he summarily dispenses with any need for doctrine, belief, repentance, form, witness, or any particular understanding. The holy ordinance is no match against his loving ministrations; any notions of atonement are extraneous and slight.
But—will it be said?—Robinson isn't preaching here. This is a novel. Of course, it is. And of course, it is a sermon. Every novel preaches, nowhere more than here with heart-tugging conviction, frank particularity, little left to the imagination. I venture to suggest that Lila is a polemic, and a brilliant one. If we engage the novel at this level, surely it is at Robinson's express instigation. No matter that the art is heavenly; no child could mistake the conclusions: The Conclusion, Eternal Glory for us all. No questions asked. But also, no questions answered. Are we to be faulted for scratching our heads about this sermon later on a Sunday afternoon? Puzzling out where any God of Holy Writ might recognize himself in the story that she is telling?
Lila's favorite book in the Bible is Ezekiel, written by the same prophet who says God will separate the sheep from the sheep, a far finer distinction even than the sheep from the goats. But Robinson is having none of it. We're all just doing the best we can with what we've got. Some readers ask what kind of preacher is John Ames. We can only surmise, but we do know what kind of preacher is Marilynne Robinson. Convincing, in a word. Her nonfiction makes a reader think. Her fiction converts the heart. In Robinson there is a balm in Gilead, and it is surely sweet. I'm just not sure where it comes from.
Robinson writes that much is mystery, even as she is spelling out without confusion the ways of eternity and holiness and judgment. She claims the unknowable, even as she specifies God's ways to man and womankind.
Granted, this may be foolishness, my flat-footed, literal extrapolations, my pinings that Robinson preach a different gospel, when the entire of the novel is so beautiful it makes you weep for the pure loveliness of the thing. But this religion that she writes of with such love, appealing though it be, is in the end, I am afraid, a gospel thin, exiguous, a story slight and wanting, and Flannery isn't here to say so.
Linda McCullough Moore's most recent book is The Book of Not So Common Prayer (Abingdon Press), a collection of essays on communion with the Triune God. Her latest fiction is a book of linked stories, This Road Will Take Us Closer to the Moon (Levellers Press).
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