I love a quiet book.
Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is one of my favorites. I haven’t read it in years and actually don’t know that I remember the plot very well. But what I do know for sure is what it felt like to be inside the world of the book, Ruth and Lucy’s world. It was blue and cold, flat and covered in untouched snow. A few images stand out—the train high up on a bridge—and the characters, of course, do, too. But overall, what made the book so memorable for me was that it was experiential—slow and subtle, mimicking the frozen Idaho landscape, the girls’ aloneness. It’s what I think of when I think of quiet.
Hearing Ms. Robinson read from Gilead a few years ago, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. It was not Housekeeping Part II. The narrator wasn’t a tragic, strong little girl but an old Midwestern preacher. Rather than get lost in the story, I got lost in thought…thinking about pizza, new shoes, a haircut… I figured I’d skip Gilead and wait however long it took for Ms. Robinson to write her next book before I tried her out again.
Alas, the next book, Home, proves to be not Housekeeping Part II, but Gilead Part II. Or, from what I’ve read, not really a sequel but a concurrent, parallel story. Finding this out, I realized I had better get over my one bad experience and read the book. Perhaps I was bored because it was quiet, and read aloud, didn’t match up to the atmosphere–Central Park–that I heard it in.
But, you may have noticed, I haven’t posted anything on here in a while. I wanted my next post to be about Gilead, so I had to wait to finish it. And, I’m sorry to say, it was pretty hard to do that. I read every magazine I could get my hands on, refreshed NYTimes.com every two seconds, scanned every post on Jezebel, watched reruns of Law and Order I could practically recite verbatim, just to postpone getting back to the book.
Is it terrible? No, of course not. But it is slow and there’s a big difference between quiet and slow. It is narrated by an old, old man with a failing heart and as his body slows down, so does the narrative. There are interesting elements buried in there, but they are few and far between. The majority of the space of the book is filled with abstract musings on this life, religion, the past. Even the interesting parts, which another writer would have delved into and made the full action of a book, are told from such a distance that they fail to register as anything close to drama. If I were to draw a picture of the movement of the book, it would look like this:
Totally even. No real surprises or high points of emotion or low points of distress. To his credit as a person, our John Ames does his best to be a good husband, father, friend, keeper of history and preacher. He’s undeniably good. He doesn’t wrestle with keeping secrets. There’s one he decides to keep and he just keeps it, and it turns out he’s right for having done so. A character who’s right all the time, I hate to say it, is pretty dull.
The book is written as a record of the elderly man’s life for his young son who will likely not remember much of him as he grows. This is sweet, in theory. But, as John Ames recounts events in the lives of himself as a child, himself as an adult, his father as a child, his father as an adult and his grandfather, it is very easy to lose sight of perspective. Which war are we talking about? Who let who down? When he refers to his boy’s grandfather and his grandfather and his father it is very hard to keep track of who is who. The four-deep generational lineage is a little much to be dropped into sporadically and not in-scene.
The biggest let down for me wasn’t the dullness of plot or character, but the absense of place. In a book called after the town it is set in, I was expecting to at least feel as if I were transported every time I stepped into its pages. After all, I can still step into Housekeeping whenever I want to and feel it from head to toe, inside and out. Gilead, to me, is nothing more than a hazy dusty place I was shocked to find out had something so specific and modern as a television in it.
I acknowledge that this critique is in many ways unfair. Someone as unversed and disinterested in Christianity as myself is not the best audience for this book. I had to fight the urge to skim every time John Ames talked about religion and, unfortunately, that had me fighting the whole way through the book.
I would love to hear what other people’s experiences with this work were.