Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
There’s a terrible complacency about the voice of the narrator. And you forgive him this, because he’s an old man, a little sentimental, coming to the end of his life, preparing himself for death. His main concern is to stress the importance and wonder of this world, and he never misses an opportunity to tell us about it. The repetition is wearing, something like listening to Louis Armstrong singing Wonderful World over and over again. Satchmo was good, no doubt about it, but there are limits.
Also, behind the voice of Reverend John Ames, there is the huge presence of the author, Marilynne Robinson. She cannot disguise herself and I found it impossible to forget that she was there with her earnest conjectures on the Christian life and experience and her theological speculations.
Robinson writes like this:
This morning I did a foolish thing. I woke up in the dark, and that put me in mind to walk over to the church the way I used to. I did leave a note, and your mother found it, so it wasn’t as bad as it might have been, I suppose. (The note was an after-thought, I admit.) She seemed to think I’d gone off by myself to breathe my last – which would not be a bad idea, to my way of thinking. I have worried some about those last hours. This is another thing you know and I don’t – how this ends. That is to say, how my life will seem to you to have ended. That’s a matter of great concern to your mother, as it is to me, of course. But I have trouble remembering that I can’t trust my body not to fail me suddenly. I don’t feel bad most of the time. The pains are infrequent enough that I forget now and then.
The doctor told I had to be careful getting up from the chair. He also told me not to climb stairs, which would mean giving up my study, a thing I can’t yet bring myself to do. He also told me to take a shot of brandy every day, which I do, in the morning, standing in the pantry with the curtain drawn for your sake. Your mother thinks that’s very funny. She says, ‘It’d do you a lot more good if you enjoyed it a little,’ but that’s how my mother did her drinking and I’m a traditionalist. The last time she took you to the doctor, he said you might be more robust if you had your tonsils out. She came home so sick at the thought he could find any fault with you that I gave her a dose of medicinal brandy.
She wants to move my books down to the parlor and set me up there, and I may agree to that, just to spare her worry. I told her I could not add a moment to my span of life, and she said, ‘Well, I don’t want you to go subtracting one from it, either.’ A year ago she would have said ‘neither.’ I’ve always loved the way she talks, but she thinks she has to improve for your sake.
There is, no doubt, some brilliant writing in there. But to my mind Gilead was a great disappointment, coming several years after the almost perfect Housekeeping.
Reverend Ames is writing a memorandum to his young son, a record of his thoughts and whatever he thinks might be of use to the young man when the Reverend has died. To begin with the book has around two-hundred pages of tedium, and had it been penned by anyone else I would have left it well before the half-way mark. Only in the last fifty or so pages does it become meaningful and moving, and for this reader that was too little and far too late.
Disappointing. Could do better.