Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I Have Wandered to the Limits of my Understanding

"I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I've scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. Night and light, silence and difficulty, it seemed to me always rigorous and good."

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

This paragraph pretty neatly outlines an essential aspect of my personality so I thought I'd lead with it, by way of illustrating Marylinne Robinson's considerable chops. The woman was undoubtedly called "good with words" by her high school classmates. Gilead is eminently quotable. Yet this kind of pronouncement is also thoroughly in character for the hero of the book, who lives and breathes theology and philosophy, and is, after all, a preacher.

I have to hand it to Robinson on the subject of voice. I have had to remind myself numerous times that Gilead was not written by an elderly gentleman. There have been a few times when her own world-view seems to peek through, but mostly, she nails the word-choice, thought processes, emotional responses, and personal interests with uncanny precision. I have the strong feeling that I know John Ames.

Of course, that kind of insight is at the heart of the book. It's a fairly psychological story. There are no chapters; as mentioned in a previous post, it's written as one long letter. And Robinson mostly makes that work very smoothly. Though she weaves in a pretty good plot element that definitely keeps me reading, Robinson seems most interested in slowly unveiling, in loving yet unflinching detail, the inner life of this thoughtful, ethically meticulous man as he prepares to die.

While Ames' letter ranges from earthy sadness to elegiac celebration, it never becomes hopeless or depressive. He leans toward stoic Midwestern understatement, which in itself comes under Robinson's finely-ground lens -- but never explicitly. Reading carefully, I am rewarded with layered insights into the man's strengths and challenges.

This is not to say it is a perfect book. But more on that anon. I should finish it before critiquing further.

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