Lila: A Novel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
272 pp., $26.00
Linda McCullough Moore
One almost requires a handwritten invitation to take issue with the work of Marilynne Robinson. Her latest novel, Lila, revisiting the story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead and the Orange Prize-winning novel Home, is stunning, plain and simple, with a beauty born of magic—how else explain this mastery? Here is the story of Lila—life does not even afford her a last name—from her impossible childhood through the years of her unlikely marriage to the aged minister John Ames. The book begins on a night the young child Lila, cast from her home, thrown to the porch, the door locking behind her, is rescued by a woman named Doll, the two taking to the road to join up with other migrant workers; Lila, an outcast among outcasts, attached—often physically—to Doll alone. And so, across the years, are poverty and vagrancy confounded only by the constancy of Doll, who in the end, still faithful, is lost. Lila, now a woman alone and destitute, takes refuge from the rain inside a church, and there meets the man she marries and whose child she bears. Here is alchemy of tragedy and sacrifice and grace; the product: gold, malleable and pure. Here is fiction, one must think, as God intended.
And God's intentions figure largely here. Go back to the written invitation: in this case nothing less explicit than Robinson's comment in an interview with Wyatt Mason in the October 1, 2014 issue of the New York Times Magazine, in which she says of Flannery O'Connor: "Her prose is beautiful, her imagination appalls me." "There's a lot of writing about religion with a cold eye, but virtually none with a loving heart." And so, in reading this extraordinary work, are we invited to know what a thing it is, to write about religion with a loving heart.
Religion must begin with the very creation, and surely love imbues each word Robinson writes of the natural world. "There was night everywhere and snow, under a big moon. Beyond the few lights of Gilead the great white nowhere that the wind had all to itself, the frozen ponds and stricken cornfields and the ragtag sheds and shacks. The wind would be clapping shut and prying open everything that was meant to keep it out, bothering where it could, tired of its huge loneliness. Had she ever seen a windmill that hadn't lost half itself to the wind, like a blown milkweed?" It is not all beautiful sunsets, but it is all beautiful; nature that "great, sweet nowhere," even in the darkness and the rain. Every hour knows a blessing. There is "just enough light to make it seem like evening all day long," and "… quiet enough to make it seem as though sound had passed out of the world altogether … leaving the wind behind to sweep up after it." And of the creature, man, Lila says of her son, "I see your eyes behind your eyelids, and veins through the skin of your belly, and they were that blue that was never meant to be seen. It is so strange that it belongs in the Bible, with the seraphim and the dry bones."
Then there is in religion the devotion, one to another. Of Lila's love for her new son, she says, "I'll make up all the difference between what you are and what you could have been by loving you so much," just as surely Doll made up the difference for her. Of her husband's love, Lila thinks that if she had a scar, he would "have taken some of the shame away just by the way he touched her sleeve," saying, " 'Lila, if I may.' " "If she'd known then what comfort was coming, she'd have spared herself a little," knowing she would marry this man who "speaks with a tenderness he wasn't even aware of anymore." "When she did something wrong, something that made him unhappy, he was embarrassed by it." "Thinking of the sound Ames' sadness would emit were she to leave him, she feels that she would understand something if she could hear that familiar sadness sound again. That was what she almost wanted." And yet she stays.
Without question, Robinson writes with love of a religion honoring creation, of a faith extolling caring humankind: that religion costing sacrifice—sometimes to the fullest measure—that faith never taken lightly. But it is, I think, at the point of writing with love about the God of this religion where Robinson's imagination may risk a danger of appalling certain Flannery O'Connors. Here we have a writer who could make of holiness and righteousness a matter for a second think; an artist capable of provoking serious consideration of a God who gave himself in sacrifice. But Robinson has smaller fish to fry. All her characters converge on one motif, dispensing with any doctrine which might hallow not just the justice and the holiness of God but also the awesome grandeur of humankind's free will. Here is God reduced to size, as people wiser than any God in any Bible set the reader straight with one very common-sense soteriology. Here, Jesus is the prop for satire in tent meetings tropes. In one (rare) reference to the Christ, a hapless woman driving Lila through the night confides that her religion says she's supposed to bring people to Jesus, but it's just simply too irritating. Robinson forbears to offer her readers any such irritation.