Get Lit! - Balm of Giliead

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & G & lt;/span & ilead is a long goodbye. Marilynne Robinson's novel is a theological meditation, too, in which Rev. John Ames writes long journal entries to his uncomprehending son. The boy is 7; Ames himself is 74, living out his days, fully aware that he will never know the adult his boy will become.

Fathers and sons, the meager pleasures of small-town life, faith, death, forgiveness -- the themes of Gilead, which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize last year, could seem off-putting without all practical jokes, tall tales and self-deprecations that Ames sprinkles through his narration.

Robinson, who appears at the Met on April 22, is capable of a little self-deprecation, too: After her first novel, Housekeeping (in which two orphaned sisters grow up with their unconventional aunt in a town based on Sandpoint, where Robinson was raised), it took her 23 years to produce Gilead, her second novel.

"Why and how people write is an extremely idiosyncratic thing," she writes. Then, with irony creeping into her e-mail persona, she notes that, "I would not have blamed myself at all for producing another three or four novels.... If every writer were like me, the publishing industry would be in serious trouble."

Because it's voiced by a dying man in our youth-obsessed culture, many might shy instinctively away from Robinson's book. But listen to her interesting take on those who live in denial: "Life has a shape, like a good piece of music," she says, "and shape implies limit and choice and therefore the meaningfulness of every element that composes it. To deny [death] is inevitably a temptation. But to do so is -- and perhaps this is the temptation -- to refuse to accept that what we do day by day is indeed significant."

Hence the celebration of little things in Gilead: the way lawn sprinklers make water dance in the sunlight; the "molded salad of orange gelatin with stuffed green olives and shredded cabbage and anchovies" that "looks distinctly Presbyterian"; the way fathers play catch with their sons. Don't put off the important stuff, she seems to say, because you'll never get around to all of it.

Not surprisingly, given the serious and well-informed approach to theological speculation in her novel, Robinson herself prefers a meditative approach to worship. "I have always found that church helped me think," she writes. "It drew -- and still draws -- my attention to things that matter to me. It seems to me that a lot of churches now try to entertain or to stir people up, but I have been fortunate to find churches that encourage thought, meditativeness. And over the years, going to a place where thought is encouraged becomes a very powerful stimulus and support. I cannot overstate the importance this has had for me."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & ovelist Greg Spatz, who teaches creative writing at EWU and who studied with Robinson in the mid-'90s at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, says that she was a voracious reader ("she was famous for walking her dog while reading a book") and that "she was very much preoccupied with the life of the mind." During class discussions, says Spatz, Robinson was always urging her students to examine the famous authors -- the kind that everyone has opinions on without actually having read: "She'd say, 'Go back to the primary texts. Go read them,'" Spatz recalls.

Robinson revisits the theology of Calvin (who styled himself Jean Cauvin) in Gilead, ruminating a great deal on the metaphor of humanity as God's children. The stereotype of Calvin is that he insists on how completely undeserving we are of God's love and forgiveness. But Robinson's fathers in Gilead don't feel that way toward their very human and fallible sons. If she's suggesting that we ought to feel a little less guilty, a little more forgiven by our parents (and, by extension, God), then isn't Robinson running counter to her beloved Calvin? What would he say to that?

"Jean Cauvin would say, 'D'accord!' He spends a lot of time marveling over the brilliance of human nature, and also lamenting its intractable meanness. I am persuaded of the simultaneous truth of both sides of this paradox, and persuaded again whenever I read a newspaper," she says. "Cauvin would say we are worthy of God's love in the way a child is worthy of a father's love, because the bond is more profound than any calculus of deserving."

In Gilead, fathers love the sons they never knew, the ones they barely comprehend now, even the ones who don't deserve it. "Use every man after his desert, and who shall shape whipping?" That's Hamlet. There is no "absolute disjunction between our Father's love and our deserving." That's Robinson.

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