Lila (Oprah's Book Club): 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.
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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