f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of <i>Gilead</i>

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Day 2 of Gilead

There are few actually useful deliniations between "literature" and plain "novels". Most of the definitions we try break down at some point, or are merely arbitrary. One that I'll throw out as being more useful than others is that literature is a book you can read multiple times and always take away something different.

See, I'll reread Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy ten times (Is the movie any good?) but mostly I'm repeating myself for the pleasure of the experience. For the jokes I liked so much the first time. I have no doubt that I could reread Gilead in five months and discover much that I missed the first time, or new ways of looking at what I thought the first time through.

Right now we're stuck with just my first impressions though so the first thing I want to point out is that the ground Marilynne Robinson treads in her novel is the rich soil of paradox. Grace and predestination. Love of this life and the desire for heaven. Causing pain to fight injustice. Beauty that brings pain. And some others.

These things work well for the soil of novels, I guess, because exploring them is like walking on a knife's blade. How two simultaneously contradictory things can exist in the same moment...that's one of the great mysteries of our life and one of the things I think writers and artists and philosophers have been struggling with for decades.

So it isn't suprising that she's taken on these themes. Or that she's taken on the theme of "mortality" either. It's the particular voice and circumstances that she brings to these things that make her exploration work so well.

A. These grand themes are played out against the smallest backdrop. A single, fairly unimportant man's life.

B. His is not the voice of the expert. Though a pastor, the "letters" that old John Ames writes during the course of the book are filled with conjecture and questioning and wrong ideas. This is not the hagiography of a man we're supposed to esteem, but the example of a man we'd be wise to follow.

C. She does not make her paradoxical themes theoretical. Instead, she simply allows characters to embody both sides of the debate. Characters who, then, aren't allowed to even be defined by those "sides."

I think all of these things add to the fact that this is a book that you can--nay, should--return to again. And probably at different stages in your life. My life right now is forcing one particular reading that may not be quite as important down the line five years. And should I pick it up then, the words will be the same, but the "words" will be something new and, probably, quite unexpected.
Go to Day 3 of our discussion of Gilead.