f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 of <i>Gilead</i> - All Things Bow Down to…?

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Day 4 of Gilead - All Things Bow Down to…?

Yesterday I intimated that portions of Gilead’s narrative struck me, in a way, like a sermon. And that sounds bad for a novel. It sounds boring. It sounds, well, preachy.

But Gilead is not either of these. Or was not to me.

The reason is that I never felt this was an “authorial” presence slipping in to deliver the message that we readers needed to hear. Instead, you look at the book and you look at the main character, John Ames, third-generation pastor, and you understand that this IS his voice.

Ames is a pastor. Facing death because of some health issues, he is writing his begats (memoir/confessional) for a very young son who will never know his father. But in the course of his writings, he can’t quite help himself. Every Sunday for decades he has written a sermon (in fact they loom over his head, literally, in the attic, collected en masse) and so when he sits down to write these thoughts it’s natural as rain for him to slip into “pastor” mode.

This is a chicken-egg scenario. Did Marilynne Robinson create the character of John Ames and then allow his voice to develop as he meditated on a few themes in his life? Or did she think of the themes she wanted to tackle and then fashion a character best suited to think through such things? It can happen both ways. My guess—and I’ve been wrong before—is that John Ames emerged first, his voice (digressive, authoritative, ecclesiastical) second, and the “themes” shortly after.

The point is that all things need to bow down to voice and character. Who John Ames is allows for this book to emerge. That’s why an epistolary novel works. This is a man who writes all week long—only speaking his words on Sunday. The pen and the blank page is natural for him to explore thoughts and feelings. You couldn’t have a coal miner “write” this book. You couldn’t, unless you explained why the coal miner had such a voice to write it. Because an eloquent coal miner isn’t an impossibility—just an improbability.

Breaking Gilead apart into pieces is really fascinating to see how who John Ames is influences/interacts with the rest of the book. What does it mean for him to be a widower, for instance? Or an older father? With great books, all these pieces build and heighten each other to a cohesive whole. In mediocre books, often there’s no rationale for choices or certain character traits are ignored or imposed upon a character.
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Go to Day 5 of our discussion of Gilead.