Seldom is a novel so powerful that it stops you in your tracks. A novel by design typically moves the reader along, building a tension that culminates at the three–quarter mark and finds closure on the final pages. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is not such novel.
Set in 1950s Iowa, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead is the diary-like account of third-generation Congregationalist pastor John Ames. Ames is nearing the end of his days, and writes for the benefit of his young son, the product of a late marriage to a woman half his age. Widowed for the bulk of his long life, Ames finds it necessary to put his thoughts to paper. The result is a work so rich that the reader will have a difficult time believing that is the real Marilynne Robinson and not the fictional John Ames who actually sent the draft of the novel to the publisher.
Slow on action and deep in thought, Gilead meanders a path through Ames’ inner life — a landscape which Robinson paints in prose so perfect that it borders on poetry. With a territory so vivid, an adequate survey would take pages, but I will limit my evaluation to two motifs found in the novel: awkwardness and rootedness.
Gilead oozes with awkwardness. One needs to look no further than the fact that a septuagenarian has a thirtysomething wife to begin to find the feeling of misplacement that pervades the novel. The fact of Ames’ looming death gives him a feeling of doubt with how to deal with his young family. Is he failing them by leaving them only the meager life savings of a widow who never expected a family so late in life? What does he do about his best friend’s estranged son, Ames’ own namesake — John Ames (“Jack “) Boughton, who has begun to take a seemingly excessive interest in Ames’ wife and son?
Awkwardness exists on the metaphysical level as well. During a discussion with Ames, Jack Boughton questions the old pastor on the nature of faith:
“Does it seem right to you,” he said, “that there should be no common language between us? That there should be no way to bring a drop of water to those of us who languish in the flames, or who will? Granting your terms? That between us and you there is a great gulf fixed? How can capital-T Truth not be communicable? That makes no sense to me.”
“I am not sure those are my terms. I would speak of grace in that context,” I said.
“And never of the absence of grace, which would in fact seem to be the issue here. If your terms are granted. I don’t mean to be disrespectful.”
While Ames’ answers fail to satisfy the unbelieving Boughton, Robinson shows us with this exchange (as with many others in the book) that people are at their most awkward when alienated from Truth. Even grace itself is an awkward concept, yet it is its beauty which makes our awkwardness fall away.
In our age of mass culture, the idea of a person having roots is quickly fading. Postmodernism is highly suspect of tradition, and looking back often puts one in danger of not being progressive. The locales where people once let their roots dig deep have suffered as well, with access to global travel and communication only a click of the mouse away. We citizens of the twenty-first century find ourselves in a place and time where sports stadiums reach obsolescence after twenty years and the elderly are counted as mere denizens of the society that got us all into the mess from which the rest of us are trying to emerge.
Ames finds his rootedness in the town of Gilead, Iowa, where his father likewise was a pastor. He has lived seventy-four of his seventy-six years in the town, and connects with the land around him as if it were integral to his being:
I love the prairie! So often I have seen the dawn come and the light flood over the land and everything turn radiant at once, that the word “good” so profoundly affirmed in my soul that I am amazed I should be allowed to witness such a thing. . . Here on the prairie there is nothing to distract attention from the evening and the morning, nothing on the horizon to abbreviate or to delay. Mountains would seem an impertinence from that point of view.
Ames’ familial roots also affect him deeply. His grandfather was a wild-eyed prophetic-type preacher who fought in the Civil War and shed blood for the cause of abolition. His father, in reaction to that fiery paradox of a man, became a preacher for whom pacifism was a defining mark.
The potential up-rooting of Ames’ immediate family looms large throughout the novel. A wife and a son whom he never expected so late in life are a source of both joy and unrest for the ailing Ames.
However, it is Ames’ theological rootedness which gives him an unearthly sense of calm as he confronts his life at the end. An admirer of Calvin and Barth, with a strange respect for Feuerbach, the Congregationalist Ames is a man who has deeply studied but not perfected his faith. Doubts and questions do appear, yet never for too long. Amidst Ames’ insecurities and inconsistencies, the Christ of his faith sustains him and gives him joy.
Gilead is an uncommon novel. To read it is to be haunted by its prose and harassed by its profundity. The Pulitzer Prize has never been more deserving.
There are certain characters in the canon of Western literature that are instantly recognizable by mention of their surname. The names of Crusoe, Nemo, Copperfield, Ahab, Sawyer—all evoke the setting and aura that their respective authors intended for them. But if Ahab evokes a whale, and Sawyer a picket fence, what in the world does the name Raskolnikov bring to mind?
The protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov conjures up a cacophony of paranoia, guilt conceit, and—to some extent—redemption. Rodion Raskolnikov is a student, who in an act of sheer will-to-power, murders an elderly moneylender (sorry for the mild spoiler, but it doesn’t take long to get to the murder). Raskolnikov rationalizes his action as moral because he considers himself of greater worth than the old woman he killed.
It is from this point that an investigation ensues—but rather than a mere detective story, Dostoevsky in his psychological brilliance gives us an investigation into the mind of the criminal. Only Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” comes close to portraying the pangs of conscience as well as is done with Raskolnikov.
On many levels Raskolnikov is in denial. He is poor–just as poor as the poor people he encounters on the streets of St. Petersburg. However, in Raskolnikov’s mind he is better than them because he is a “student”—a sentiment not lost on many a college student today. As his walls of self-denial crumble, so too do the walls of association with others much different from himself.
Dissertation upon dissertation (in the areas of psychology, philosophy, and literature) could be written of Crime and Punishment, yet it remains as Dostoevsky’s most readable works. There’s scarcely a dull section—which is a lot to say for a nineteenth century Russian novel.
The haunting of Crime and Punishment comes when one juxtaposes oneself with murderous Raskolnikov. The way Dostoevsky writes him makes readers wonder just how far removed they are from becoming Raskolnikovs themselves. In a culture where conscience has all but been eradicated, we need to read Crime and Punishment now more than ever.
If, in some parallel universe, I were held down kicking and screaming and demanded to sum up the work of Flannery O’Connor in a single word, the word which I would choose (kicking and screaming, mind you…) would be disturbing. As I’ve noted before, O’Connor’s works—both her short stories and her novels—have penchant for taking the reader on a slow walk through the “innocent South” only to shock the reader with such a jolt that he or she is knocked from the blissful stroll into a reality that must be grappled with.
O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, is about a young grandson-of-a-preacher named Hazel Motes. Having decided to live a debauched life upon returning from military service, Motes encounters a self-blinded street preacher who irritates Motes to the point that he decides to become a preacher himself. Hazel Motes, however, does not wish to have anything to do with the Jesus his grandfather preached. The Jesus he encountered through his grandfather’s preaching unsettled him:
The boy didn’t need to hear it. There was already a deep, black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew that by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown. (p.22)
Motes founds and preaches the Church Without Christ, a church that doesn’t have to bother with Jesus because it summarily ignores him. Motes meets primarily with rejection, having only one follower, Enoch Emery, who, led by his “wise blood,” finds an entirely new Jesus which he presents to Motes. Throughout the novel Motes flees from this Christ who pursues him in the recesses of his mind.
The unflinching honesty set forth in the pages of Wise Blood earned O’Connor acclaim from wide audiences, both Christian and secular. In the preface to the second edition, she addressed the tension that the novel created:
It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death…That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.
Wise Blood’s characters are anything but squeaky-clean. Perhaps it’s this very stumbling block that makes the greater Stumbling Block that haunts the back-story all the more present…
If Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings really was, as Tolkein himself held, devoid of any hint of allegory; and if Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress displayed allegory to the extreme; then Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory strikes the perfect balance.
Set in a Mexican province bent on ridding itself of Catholicism and its clergy, Greene’s novel is ripe with the Passion imagery. The protagonist is a “whisky priest,” a cleric who is, to say the least, a little rough around the edges. He is an alcoholic, which is just one of many failings that make him a striking contrast to the ideal of what a priest should be.
Despite his numerous shortcomings, the priest is compelled to perform his priestly duties. In an ironic turn for a Catholic, Greene depicts an almost Calvinistic predestination that transforms the weak priest and moves him to act. His selfish motivations are supplanted by the larger need to do the work of God.
The illegal whisky priest is pursued by a likewise nameless police lieutenant. The lieutenant—an intriguing figure on his own—is relentless, methodical, and assured that he will hunt down the priest. Much like reading the gospels, there is a sense of impending doom for the preist. We know that he will be caught, and we know that the novel’s Judas figure will betray him. In keeping with the “no spoiler” spirit of these posts, I’ll leave the rest of the plot to the reader.
I first encountered the novel during my senior year of college. In order to fill up some credit hours in humanities, I took an intro to religious studies class. The class was pretty much what I expected it to be—broad surveys of the major world religions, each taught as if they were equally valid. One of the surprising things about the class was that we had to read several works of fiction that came out of each religion (so much for primary sources!). The professor chose The Power and the Glory as our text for interacting with Christianity.
After reading the book, we were assigned an essay answering the question, “Is the whisky priest a good example of a Christian?” My response was that, all Roman Catholic errors aside, in one sense the whisky priest was a good example of a Christian (stress is on example, not good). His own sins are never enough to overwhelm the power of God working in him and through him. Granted, a Christian should not strive to be a whisky priest, but at the same time every believer should remember the depths from which they were saved.
The Power and The Glory reminds the reader that God can use the most sinful and profane for his purposes. It’s a novel that will haunt the reader’s thoughts with notions of redemption, sacrifice, and betrayal for many a sleepless night.
Walker Percy’s writing is ready-made to get under one’s skin, and Lancelot is no exception. Far removed from the Knights of the Round Table, Percy’s 1977 novel is a look at the madness that results when a person’s own revulsion of darkness overwhelms him.
We first meet Lancelot Andrewes Lamar in mental health facility. The reader assumes the ear of an old friend coming to visit, which gives the narration and style of the novel a sense of involvement that would otherwise be lacking. As the storyline progesses, Lamar tells the reader of what landed him in the asylum.
Once a carefree liberal, Lamar accidentaly discoveres that his youngest daughter was not his own. He investigates, and finds that his screenwriter wife has been less-than-faithful, occasionally indulging herself with her director. Lamar plots his revenge—an effort to cleanse the world of the decadence that is Hollywood. He finds his opportunity when the film crew shoots a set at his Louisiana estate.
Central to the plot is the idea of a quest—a motif that runs just as strongly through Lancelot as in Percy’s acclaimed 1961 novel, The Moviegoer. In The Moviegoer, the quest dealt with the existential search for meaning; in Lancelot, the quest is portrayed as an engine for destruction itself.
As Lamar is increasingly consumed by his desire to set right the wrong actions of his wife and her Hollywood enclave, he succumbs to the very self-reverence that he is trying to topple:
“Evil” is surely the clue to this age, the only quest appropriate to the age. For everything and everyone’s either wonderful or sick and nothing is evil.
God may be absent, but what if one should find the devil? Do you think I wouldn’t be pleased to meet the devil? Ha ha, I’d shake his hand like a long-lost friend.
While he rightly identifies a lack of the recognition of evil in our age, Lamar unwittingly (or not?) begins to fill that void himself. Lancelot is a haunting novel because it reminds us that as we stand at the crossroads of history and culture, we must take heed that our zeal to protect what is right is only a handsbreadth away from the evil we stand against.
Each Tuesday, TruePravda has featured a different book in the Books That Haunt series. This series will be on an indefinite hiatus for a while, but it is sure to surface again.
When writing about one’s favorite novel, the temptation is write too much. With that in mind, I’ll try to keep this mini-review brief. Of all novels I’ve read, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has haunted me the most. It took me six months to read it—partly because I’m a slow reader, and partly because there is so much to digest in the novel.
The novel focuses on the murder of Fyodor Karamazov, and the intrigue surrounding the case involving his sons, each of whom represent different worldviews; Alyosha—a theistic worldview, Dmitry—a romantic worldview, Ivan—an existentialist worldview, and the illegitimate Smerdyakov, who appears as the evil outcast.
The most famous chapter of the book, “The Grand Inquisitor,” has been hailed by one critic as one of the most compelling arguments for Christianity and at the same time one of the most damning arguments against it. In my view it’s a stunning look from a Russian Orthodox writer about the need for reformation. It is here that the existentialist Ivan makes the pronouncement, “If God is dead, then all things are permissible.” I’ve alway thought it odd that Dostoevsky is so casually labeled as an existentialist, seeing how the character Ivan ends up.
Do not, however, let the philosophical nature of the book intimidate you. TBK is more than just a philosophical tome. One think I appreciate is how accurately Dostoevsky portrays the relationships between brothers.
The themes of TBK are guaranteed to stay with the reader a long time. The motif of patricide is heavily theological, and God is ever present in the book, always looming over everything that happens, always forcing man to come to terms with him.
I’d better stop here. I could truly go on for days. This is my favorite novel, bar none, and it is one that is well worth the effort of reading it.
Each Tuesday, until I decide otherwise, TruePravda will feature a different book in the Books That Haunt series.
“All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With probably one of the most loaded first lines of any novel ever written, Leo Tolstoy begins his epic Anna Karenina. This beginning sets the stage for the underlying current of the novel: relationships. Anna Karenina is book about relationships. I would even go so far as to say that it is a more comprehensive “relationship book” than most of the books in the relationship section of your bookstore. Tolstoy deals with relationships good and bad; mediocre and impossible; familial, romantic, social, and spiritual.
Tolstoy explores the horizontal connections we have, and the effects that those relationships have on us, both good and bad. The development of the plot is slow and intricate, much like real life relationships. This formula has the potential for some severe boredom, but Tolstoy saves the novel from that end by making us feel the anger, suspicion, wrath, or confusion that each character faces.
The story centers around two characters that are vaguely connected: Anna Karenina, who begins an extra-marital affair, and Constantin Levin, who is trying to find his way in life. One story shows us the dramatic effects that sin has upon our relationships, and the other shows us the costs and benefits that love has upon our lives.
What is most brilliant about the novel is the method in which Tolstoy portrays landmark occurrences in the relationship spectrum. Deaths, births, weddings, proposals, hunting trips with the boys and social engagements with the ladies are all depicted with a real sense of real clarity. Tolstoy really knows what is going on behind the scenes in the hearts of each of his characters. It is in this way that Leo Tolstoy burns the characters into the reader’s mind, and drives his lesson into our consciousness.
Each Tuesday, until I decide otherwise, TruePravda will feature a different book in the Books That Haunt series.
Five friends I had, and two of them were snakes. So begins Frederick Buechner’s (pronounced “Beekner”) Pulitzer Prize runner-up novel Godric. The novel is loosely based on Godric of Finchale, a 12th century holy man known for, among other things, the self-mortification of his flesh which he carried our by bathing in the cold waters of the river Wear.
The story is told the reader by Godric the old man, as he recounts his life to his biographer. As much as Godric tries to portray his true nature (which is not so holy) to the biographer, the biographer sees only a holy man. Godric is a saint whether he likes it or not—and it’s certainly not his own deeds that make him holy.
The eloquent prose in this novel is beyond comparison. Buechner is tremendously gifted with the pen. A Presbyterian minister, Buechner has a way of framing the divine ways that might surprise you. While I’m not in agreement with many of Buechner’s theological beliefs (he all but endorses the heterodox Marcus Borg in his latest memoir), he has a way of bringing out Christ in literature that makes Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins look like mere pulp writers. Oh wait, they are mere pulp writers. Anyway, you get the picture.
Godric is not for the faint of heart. Every time you begin to like Godric, he gives you another reason to hate him. This is the beauty of the story because it shows us in the example of a medieval saint how while were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:6-8). While we hated God, he loved us—and if that thought doesn’t “haunt” you, what else is left?
Each Tuesday, until I decide otherwise, TruePravda will feature a different book in the Books That Haunt series.
Human reactions to adverse situations are varied. There are some who whine and pitch frenzied fits for as long as they can; some who become enshrouded in bitterness and allow that to motivate them; there are others who simply give up. There are others, however, who learn to survive the best way they can, reorganizing their priorities and putting the great efforts and energies that would ordinarily go into the large-scale things in life into the small and mundane.
It is in this latter category that we find Shukov, the protagonist in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Ivan Denisovich Shukov is a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag, and this short novel, as it implies, is about one day in his life. In terms of plot twists, landmark events, or action, the book is lacking. In Shukov’s world, the mundane becomes the significant. When a spoon is your most valuable posession, keeping a piece of bread hidden is a big deal.
Though the overall setting is bleak, there are many characters who exhibit much color and depth. One of my favorites (for obvious reasons) is the Baptist, Alyosha, who exhibits a surreal happiness amidst the toils of the camp.
As I said, the book is short, so I won’t make this mini-review too lengthy. I will note that Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this book in 1970 after its publication in the West. His research for the book? He spent years in labor camps, prisons and exile for criticizing Stalin in a letter.
Flannery O’Connor has always been an author whose writings have intrigued me. I first learned of her in an American Literature class in college. One of the volumes of the colossal Norton Anthology of American Literature had one or two of her stories anthologized. O’Connor, the introductions stated, was a gifted female Southern Catholic writer who died at a young age. I tried to stifle myself from yawning—not exactly the type of write that piqued my interest. I was assigned the short story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” I thought it would be the usual run-of-the-mill short-story—you know, the kind that ambles off into nothingness while at the same time trying to make a “statement.” I was wrong.
Flannery O’Connor has the unique ability to take you through what seems to be an innocent enough story, and then proceed to violently pull the rug out from under the reader to reveal the sometimes hard-to-face things that lie beneath the surface. For those who thought that Southerners lacked the ability to stimulate thought, read Flannery O’Connor. Her stories can leave the reader reeling and shocked at the end. So it was with this week’s Book That Haunts: The Violent Bear It Away.
The Violent Bear It Away is one of O’Connor’s few novels’the title a reference to Matthew 11:12. The story involves a boy, the orphan Francis Marion Tarwater, who leaves his backwoods home after his uncle, a bizarre self-proclaimed prophet, dies. Tarwater’s uncle has prophesied that the boy too will become a prophet.
Tarwater flees the swampy backwoods, attempting also to flee the effect of his uncle’s prophecy. He goes to the city where his cousin Rayber, a modern-minded schoolteacher, attempts to de-program the religious worldview that Tarwater has grown up learning.
O’Connor presents us with a clash of worldviews that ultimately leads to climax that will leave the reader with at least one sleepless night trying to put the pieces back together. I finished this novel about two months ago and the shock still hasn’t departed. I’d love to discuss it with somebody. So read it.