Solo Book Club: Lila by Marilynne Robinson


Reading Marilynne Robinson is like going to a good church. I'm admittedly not much of a religionist, but I've visited enough services to know what I like. The church of Robinson is not one of the places where the pastor chants through the liturgy in latin, and the choir obligingly resurrects old hymns. Instead, her writing captures the part of religion that thoughtful people mull over after the service. Her books are books about big questions. They feel like the sermons of someone who cares about community—someone who understands why his parishioners might have to make a difficult choice that seems like evil on its face, but who also gently coaxes them to think about the parts of themselves that will regret it.

In Lila, the third of her novels that I’ve read, one of the chief characters is, indeed, a pastor: a man named John Ames. Ames is the protagonist and narrator in another of her novels, Gilead, and the writing of that book is referenced by narrator in this one. Ames is an old man, and a profoundly gentle spirit. He serves as a reminder of what pastors should be: humble, thoughtful, and deeply concerned about how life ought to be lived. Robinson is herself a devout Christian and Ames feels like a character created as a defense of Christianity. He shows what religion can bring to a person’s life, as well as what the application of a pastor’s duties can do for a community. The church ought to be a place of humility, of sanity, and of generosity. (Robinson more or less explicitly argues this in an interview, so I don’t think it’s an overreach to attribute it to her.) 

Lila, like Gilead before it, sets Ames’ gentleness against the world’s confusion and cruelty. Neither novel has an antagonist. Instead, their plots develop around one character’s struggle to allow herself or himself comfort. In Gilead, the central question is whether Ames can forgive himself for dying before his son will be old enough to really know him. In Lila, the titular character is Ames’ young wife and the mother of his child. She started life as an orphan and migrant worker during the dust bowl, and she did a turn as a prostitute at a brothel in St. Louis. The plot of Lila centers on whether she can learn to trust Ames and forgive herself. 

One of the things I adore about Robinson’s books are the way that they almost read like parables; they take struggles we will all face and dramatize them. Gilead is about searching for meaning in life as death nears. Lila is about learning to trust. 

Another thing I adore about them are the sentences. Here, for example, is Lila after years wandering through the midwest, looking for work: “It just went on and on, The United States of America. It was so easy to forget that most of the world was cornfields.”

Or, how about this passage when Lila thinks about movies and thinks about the woman who raised her, a former prostitute named Doll, and how she misses her: “[Lila] went to the movies…And when she was sitting there in the dark…she was dreaming some stranger’s dream, everybody in there dreaming one dream together. Or they were ghosts, all gathered in the dark, watching the world, seeing all the scheming and the murder and having no word to say about it, weeping with the orphans and having nothing to do with them…the best part was always to be there sitting in the dark, seeing what she had never seen anywhere before and mostly believing it…what to imagine for Doll… she couldn’t wish that scar away or how Doll never forgot to hide her face for anyone but Lila. The ghost couldn’t really be part of the dream. Lila would just be there, so close, seeing that tender, ugly face. Just her. Nobody else would want a dream like that.”

The passage is substantially longer and more meaningful without the parts I’ve expurgated, but I adore the idea that movies are the visions of ghosts who invisibly watch people. Maybe the ghosts are are curious or maybe they love the people they watch even though they cannot touch them or say anything to them. It’s a wonderfully imaginative way for Lila to think about an afterlife she isn’t sure that she believes in. It’s also a vision that is both loving and lonely. In fact, the passage does what the book does, in microcosm: it seeks to explore the split between a need for love and a terror of other people.

Solo Book Club: Rabbit Redux

My copy... A first edition from a bookstore in Georgia!

My copy... A first edition from a bookstore in Georgia!

Rabbit Redux by John Updike

Updike never met a metaphor he didn’t like. Or at least Rabbit, his long-running protagonist in a series of social novels, never did. 

Anyway, that’s what I thought after I read the first book of Updike's Rabbit anthology, Rabbit, Run. But Updike took eleven years between the first and second novels of the series and his writing changed. He aged into a love of nouns and happenings: “It takes Rabbit back to when he used to sit in the radio-listening armchair back on Jackson Road, its arms darkened with grease spots from the peanut butter cracker sandwiches he used to stack there to listen with.” The first Rabbit novel is all descriptions of scenery and place, insights into the connections between movement and color and time that are the basic stuff of metaphors. This later book, in contrast, is made of the specificity of memory. 

Updike’s writing feels like some sort of exhalation. As if the writer himself is just letting breath flow from his fingertips. There’s a plot, to be sure, but Updike lets characters remember and think their way through his scenes. Its refreshing to read and kind of a liberating way to think about writing: who cares if you don’t know what happens next? Just revert to memory and maybe something will come. It’s a lot like thought itself works.

The plot here, as in the first novel, centers around an affair. Where the younger Rabbit was running away from his wife, Janice, after a miscarriage, the older Rabbit watches this same wife leave him for a second-generation Greek immigrant. And where the young Rabbit was largely indifferent to the politics of his moment—except insofar as they were concerned with his own behavior and sexual appetites—the older Rabbit is fully engrossed in America’s place in the world. This is 1969. A man is landing on the moon. Vietnam is in full sway. The Moratorium touches at the edges of the plot. And Rabbit has decided to take sides with the forces of the silent majority. Vietnam is a just war because calling it unjust somehow questions Rabbit’s very idea of himself, of where he is in the world, of what America is. To him, calling Vietnam a mistake is like calling Pittsburgh 'Lake Ontario.' It throws off the whole idea of what the world is and should be. There’s no argument about it. America is right because if it isn’t then nothing else in the world works either.

It's a vision of personal politics that feels relevant right now, when support for the president has far less to do with policy than it does with self identity. I can't speak for the totality of Trump's base of support, but interviews like this one suggest that this presidency, like Vietnam, has little or nothing to do with the facts. It's about deciding what team you are on and then defending that team no matter what.

But Rabbit does something that most of us never will: he lives with the enemy. Janice leaves Rabbit and in the emptiness where she has gone, he allows a young black vet named Skeeter to come in, trailing a Connecticut rich girl who is addicted to the dope he is feeding her. The book takes an odd turn: racial politics and Vietnam and culture and drugs are suddenly in Rabbit’s living room, the political turns personal. Updike makes Rabbit confront the consequences of his beliefs and his place in the world. It’s a weird trope and it works pretty well. Why slip into vast social commentary when you can just make cultural antagonists live with one another? Would that we could make our country do the same. 


Next week: Lila, by Marilynne Robinson


Something to Read: The Nun by Denis Diderot

A beneath-the-wimple exposé

A beneath-the-wimple exposé

I don’t always make a practice of grabbing books from an exchange shelf since, as a rule, they are pretty dreadful. Discarded textbooks, romance novels, memoirs of an accountant, etc. So it’s always fun to run across something worthwhile and surprising. 

And what a surprise! The jacket copy on the Penguin Classics version of Diderot’s The Nun describes the book as a long practical joke: Diderot was seeking to swindle the Marquis de Croismare into believing his fictional account of an illegitimate child pressed into a nunnery against her will. The Marquis was apparently appalled by the petty cruelty of France’s religious institutions and Diderot sought to capture that cruelty in fiction. The book was considered too scandalous in its time—it was written in 1758—and so was published posthumously, in 1796, after the French revolution.

What the jacket fails to describe is that the book is also a piece of mid-18th century lesbian French erotica: a genre that I heretofore did know existed. Here, for example, is a representative passage from the latter half of the book:


She whispered: ‘Suzanne, my dear, come a bit nearer.’ She held out her arms, but I had my back to her; she took me gently and pulled me towards her, passed her right arm under my body and the other above and said: ‘I am frozen, and so cold that I am afraid to touch you for fear of hurting you.’

‘Dear Mother, you need not be afraid of that.’

“Immediately she put one hand on my breast and the other round my waist, her feet were under mine, and I pressed them so as to warm them, and she said: ‘Oh my dear, see how my feet have warmed up at once because there is nothing between them and yours.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘what is there to prevent you from warming yourself everywhere in the same way?’

‘Nothing if you are willing.’

I had turned round, and she had opened her nightdress, and I was on the point of doing the same when suddenly there were two violent blows on the door…


Who knew that the origins of bodice-heaver were so old? 

Even without its prurient appeal, the book has its charms. It’s yet another great example of what seems to me to be the absolute essence of storytelling: give your audience sympathy for a character and then make dreadful things happen to her. That is, more or less, the pattern this book (novel? False memoir?) follows from the beginning to the end. Our heroine, Suzanne Simonin, is dainty, charming, and innocent. And then she is abused left, right, and center. 

Suzanne’s very existence reminds her mother of the carnal sin that brought her into existence, and so the mother refuses Suzanne her dowry and banishes her into the religious life. Knowing she is not cut out for Christian duty, Suzanne seeks to escape her vows and thus incurs the wrath of her mother superior and sister nuns. She is beaten, kept awake, forced to eat ash-laden food, given a hair shirt, abused with ropes, kept in solitary confinement, starved, mocked, and lashed.

Diderot keeps alive some faint hope of Suzanne’s escape and so we read on. Suzanne moves to a new monastery, where her soul is exposed to the mortal threat of the aforementioned lesbian eroticism. She resists (mostly), and is shunned by her sisters. Then she escapes, is subjected to the amorous advances of men in the outside world, and suffers terribly. It’s all very compelling, very juicy, and oh so French. It is, in short, the perfect read for an evening in a country house, whether you are a 21st-century literary voyeur or a gullible 18th-century Marquis.


Something to Read: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

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So I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Toni Morrison is a pretty good writer.

I actually remember when I first read Beloved in English class in eleventh grade. The book, in my mind, couldn’t be literature because it was too easy and enjoyable to read. We had just finished Crime and Punishment and I was convinced—like many who read Dostoyevski too young… or ever—that ‘brilliance’ must be attached to inaccessibility. And then I read Morrison, and she wrote books that breezed past your eyeballs, as if you were watching a movie.

In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine that Toni Morrison would even be possible in a pre-cinema world. The way that Beloved uses flashback, voice, and the actual shape of the text (italics) to jump between narrators seems somehow tied to words like ‘cut,’ ‘fade in,’ and, well, ‘flashback.’ She was one of those early authors, along with Kurt Vonnegut, who made me realize it is possible to actually like literary fiction rather than merely admiring it. 

But I’m theoretically talking about Song of Solomon here. To wit: it’s a pretty good book. I googled the title when I started reading and discovered that the Song of Solomon is the Song of Songs, which is a quasi-pagan-seeming piece of biblical incantation that celebrates young lovers. (And was immediately coopted by the Church, as are all things sexual, and turned into something try as toast: a metaphorical celebration of the marriage between divinity and the church itself.) The title may well reference some of the sex in the book—there’s lots of sex in the book—but it also refers to a much more literal children’s song that various characters sing in snippets throughout. The cooption of biblical naming is twice appropriate since Morrison takes an almost Faulknerian delight in repurposed names. Our protagonist is Macon Dead, a man so named because when his grandfather registered at the Freedman’s Bureau at the end of the Civil War, a clerk asked him where he was from, if his father was alive, and what was his family name and then the clerk put the names in the wrong columns. So ‘Jake’ became ‘Macon Dead,’ a man who picks his children’s names by pointing a finger at the bible. Hence his daughter, Pilate, and various other family including Ruth, Reba, First Corinthians, and Magdalene. 

I remember reading about how, near his death, Hemingway started to find words increasingly insubstantial. Here’s him in Farewell to Arms “I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain… There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. (I’m cribbing from Joan Didion’s incredible essay on his life to quote the text.) Morrison seems to feel a similar power to proper nouns, particularly names in Solomon. There’s a paragraph, near the end of the novel, that is just a list of names, which it would be a shame to abbreviate… so I won’t:

"He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Blood Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness. Macon Dead, Sing Byrd, Crowell Byrd, Pilate, Reba, Hagar, Magdalene, First Corinthians, Milkman, Guitar, Railroad Tommy, Hospital Tommy, Empire State (he just stood around and swayed), Small Boy, Sweet, Circe, Moon, Nero, Humpty-Dumpty, Blue Boy, Scandinavia, Quack-Quack, Jericho, Spoonbread, Ice Man, Dough Belly, Rocky River, Gray Eye, Cock-a-Doodle-Doo, Cool Breeze, Muddy Waters, Pinetop, Jelly Roll, Fats, Leadbelly, Bo Diddley, Cat-Iron, Peg-Leg, Son, Shortstuff, Smoky Babe, Funny Papa, Bukka, Pink, Bull Moose, B.B. T-Bone, Black Acr, Lemon, Washboard, Gatemouth, Cleanhead, Tampa Red, Juke Boy, Shine, Staggerlee, Jim the Devil, Fuck-Up, and Dat Nigger."

It’s a whole history, written only in the names of the people who lived it.

Solomon, unlike Beloved or Bluest Eye, also feels like it’s pulled from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It has the same sense of scope: whole generations of people exist in the pages. And the magic of their universe, like that of the Buendias in A Hundred Years of Solitude is only just below the surface. The ghosts of the dead aren’t even particularly unusual here: a minor aberration from daily norms, no more alarming than a thunderstorm. 

All in all, it’s a book that is really asking for a book club. But since I don’t have one, I’ll settle with this post.

Something to read: A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck

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You know that genre of book that you read because you found it on your parents' book shelf? This is one of those.

Peck’s novella is part of that genre of short fiction that is long on detail and character but short on story. Robert – our narrator – is a twelve year old boy at the beginning of the book and a thirteen year old ‘man’ at the end. He lives in Vermont on a farm in a Shaker community sometime in Coolidge’s administration – he mentions the possibility of voting for Coolidge, which puts the time between 1925 and 1929. The plot, such as it is, is that he nearly kills himself helping a neighbor’s cow give birth to two colts and gets a pig in return. He names it Pinky, raises it with the intention of making her a breeding sow, and takes her to a fair. She wins a blue ribbon, but turns out to be barren and thus must be slaughtered by Haven – Robert’s father. So: the pig dies. The title is bullshit. After the pig dies, so does Robert’s father. Robert organizes the funeral. The book ends.

The narrative structure is really simple: it’s a story of transitioning to adulthood through the acceptance of things that are miserable. We must be cruel to grow up is essentially the message. 

What makes the book worthwhile is the precise dillineation of the world in which Robert lives. I had to look things up: what the hell is a cotter pin? A corn cratch? A windrow? Each chore and task describes simple hard work. The boy is sent to shoot a grey squirrel so that he can cut out the stomach, dry the semi-digested nut means in it, and use them to sprinkle on a chocolate cake. He struggles to yoke an ox because the yoke itself is nearly as large as he. The brown worn spots on his father’s tools speak to a lifetime of use. Every step of moving the corn cratch (it’s like a small wallless house for corn!) is described. The creation of the winch; the chain attached to it, the ox’s slow circling movements.

The good-writing lesson: a world is evoked by the precise naming of the tasks within it.