(Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead)
There is, by now, a fairly well established tradition of one-hit wonders in American literature. These are authors whose entire ouvre consists of no more than one or two books, but books of such searing power, such unforgottable brilliance, that even though their authors write nothing else, their reputations are established forever (and rightfully so).
Understand that this is not a question of their other works being mediocre – on the contrary, practically everything they write meets the highest of standards – but rather of there being few or no other works, so that it almost seems as if they had chosen to lavish all their care and painstaking precision on creating that one perfect novel and then chosen to write no more. Included in this list are such greats as Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Carson McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of Sad Cafe), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and even, perhaps, J D Salinger (Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey)*.
And Marilynne Robinson. When Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping was published in 1981, it showed a writer of great promise. Deceptively quiet and simple for its first half (and vaguely reminiscent of Atwood at her best) , Housekeeping develops into a novel of incredible vision and sublime poetry. As the protagonist of the novel withdraws deeper and deeper into her own silent world of fantasy and impression, Robinson makes that personal universe come alive with a precision of writing and image unmatched since Faulkner. It’s the incredible brilliance of Housekeeping that makes the publication of Gilead, Robinson’s second novel (23 years in coming) an event attended by such great expectation.
And Robinson does not disappoint us. Gilead is not quite Housekeeping – the intensely poetic feel of those last chapters is missing here. But it is a more balanced book, one where every line glows with a sort of quiet perfection, so that to read the words aloud is to experience a sense of almost magical calm. The story of an aged preacher with a young wife and son who the book is meant as an epistle to, Gilead is a deeply religious book – not only because many of the discussions and themes of the book revolve around theological belief, but also because the overwhelming feel of the book is a sense of a blessedness, a state of Grace. Robinson’s skilful, tender prose has the same effect as Chekhov’s – she creates a world where the simplest and most mundane of life’s events (a line of soap bubbles floating in the wind, the expression on a cat’s face) can be seen for the miracles they truly are. This is a novel meant not so much to be read as to be savoured – weighing every word, every phrase in the balance and finding it true. The plot of the novel itself is largely irrelevant here (if anything, I feel the latter half of the novel loses some of its power because it focuses too much on the story) – what matters is only the incredible skill with which Robinson makes the reality of everyday emotion come timidly, delicately alive.
A word of warning is required here – if you’re the kind of reader who thinks good writing is about big ideas or ingenous plot twists or flamboyant imagination or even bold, breathtaking metaphor and wordplay (think Rushdie, think Murakami) then Gilead is not for you. The real value of Gilead, its great gift, lies precisely in it being the finest example I have read in a long time** of a genre of writing that is characterised by its quiet power, it delicate nuances. As Keats says in his Ode on Melancholy (I quote from memory) “She dwells with Beauty; beauty that must die / And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu, and aching pleasure nigh / Turning to poison as the bee-mouth sips / Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veiled Melancholy hath her sovereign shrine / Though seen of none, save him whose strenous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape upon his palate fine / His tongue shall know the sadness of her might / And be among her cloudy trophies hung.”
* Not that I question Salinger’s claim to greatness, of course, quite the contrary. I’m just not sure he qualifies as a one-hit wonder. After all, there’s Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, Seymour, Raise high the roof-beam carpenters and the short stories. That’s a fairly decent amount of writing.
** The only other modern writer I can think of who does this exceptionally well is Graham Swift. But more on him later.