Thursday, January 20, 2011

Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home provides an alternative point of view to much of the action in Marilynne Robinson’s previous novel, Gilead. It is told largely from the point of view of Glory, a woman approaching disappointed middle-age, a former teacher cheated by her lover who has returned to the stultifying family home in Gilead, Iowa, in 1956. It is a story of death and dying, actions and consequences, guilt and forgiveness, communication and silence, redemption and doubt. It is an intensely serious, deeply thoughtful book and, on the level of writing craft, an astonishing example of the power of restraint in story-telling. It operates simultaneously as an analysis of spirituality, of modern American society and, most brilliantly of all, of the melancholy relationships of flawed families.

Home is told loosely from Glory’s point of view of, although it is not her story and we are not taken inside her mind. The use of third person in this novel – both Robinson’s previous novels are first person narratives – is perfect. It allows Robinson the distance that is required to explicate what the characters themselves can barely understand, and it allows that explication to be only partial but, ironically, through that partialness, it still permits us to see more than the poor characters ever could. This novel simply could not have been written in the first person; it wouldn’t work.

Glory is the daughter of the dying Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, and the sister of John Ames Boughton, known as Jack. The novel begins with Glory returning to the family home after being abandoned by her fiance. There are intimations that Jack, too, after years of silence, now wishes to make a difficult return. Jack is a man with a past (fully explained in Gilead, but only partially revealed here), the family black sheep who disappeared twenty years before, after a childhood of dissipation ended in fathering a child to a local girl. All connection was subsequently lost – he even missed his mother’s funeral – although his father never ceased praying for his wellbeing and return. After some false starts, Jack finally arrives home hung-over, apparently an alcoholic, seemingly desperate but uncommunicative, and the novel revolves around the subsequent interplay between father, daughter and son.

The secrets within families, the stories that dare not be told, the emotions that must remain checked, the opinions unaired, these are the remarkable moments which inform Home. This is a small-scale drama which reveals large-scale truths. Its damaged protagonists, each silenced by memories of their own and each other’s scarred pasts, circle around one another, seeing in each other a desperate need. But they are barely able to help themselves, far less offer anything concrete, any genuine support to their family. Time and again, they rebuff one another; given the options of release or pain, forgiveness or judgement, they choose to extend their private pain even although that pain must, inevitably, spill over and harm those they love and care about but cannot find a way to care for. At the heart of it is misunderstanding, and an inability – or refusal? – to attempt to understand from another’s perspective. For anyone brought up within such a stark Calvinist milieu it is excruciatingly difficult to read. For anyone else it must be completely alien. Near the end, the dying father says to his son, apologising for his behaviour towards him, ‘I promised myself a thousand times, if you came home you would never hear a word of rebuke from me. No matter what.’ Such confessions do not come easily to men like Boughton, they speak of a deep truth; but even now, when this confession of weakness – failure – is finally made, this promise of connection between kin, the opportunity is lost. ‘I don’t mind,’ Jack tells his father. ‘I deserve rebuke.’ And so father and son remain mysteries to one another. Boughton queries why his son always greets him with an impersonal ‘sir’ but, late in the novel, when Jack does call him “dad”, he reacts:

“Don’t call me that.”
“I don’t like it at all. Dad. It sounds ridiculous. It’s not even a word.”
“I’ll never use it again.”

Glory and Jack are two of eight children. The other six have all, in their ways, become successes. Glory and Jack, in their ways, are failures. For Glory, there is something inevitable about this:

[they] were the unexceptional children, she thought – slighted, overlooked. There was no truth in this notion. Jack was exceptional in every way he could be, including, of course, truancy and misfeasance, and yet he managed to get by on the cleverness teachers always praised by saying “if only he would put it to some use.” As for herself, she was so conscientious that none of her A’s and A-pluses had to be accounted for otherwise than as the reward of diligence. She was good in the fullest and narrowest sense of the word as it applied to female children. And she had blossomed into exactly the sort of adult her childhood predicted. Ah well.

This is the first of two uses of “Ah well” in the novel, and it is clear that, in their almost bashful informality, they represent key moments. For Glory, this is the acceptance that the accumulation of disappointment she has known in her thirty-eight years has been, is and will continue to be inevitable. This is her, and this is her lot. Had she been a boy she might have entered the ministry. As a girl, bright, conscientious, caring, naïve, irresolute, she is resigned to being the one charged with maintaining the family house after her father has died, the core to which the family – the others – may return should or when they choose. She has no future, other than as a means of preserving the family’s history, the curator of the ghosts of the past. It is a desperate submission of a woman’s vitality, heartbreaking.

The second “Ah well” comes late in the novel, and also comes from the perspective of Glory, but this time referring to her father:

He loved to reflect on the fact that grace was never singular in its effects, as now, when he could please his son by forgiving his friend [Ames]. “That is why it is called a Spirit,” he said. “The word in Hebrew also means wind. ‘The Spirit of God brooded on the face of the deep.’ It is a sort of enveloping atmosphere.” Her father was always so struck by his insights that it was impossible fo him to tell those specific to the moment from those on which he had preached any number of times. It had made him a little less sensitive than he ought to have been to the risk of repeating himself. Ah well.

The significance of this throwaway remark, this shrug of a sentence, should not be underestimated. This is not a novel, and these are not characters, where failings are easily forgiven or even understood. If forgiveness and judgement are twin prongs on which the Christian faith is built, in Calvinist Christianity the latter has greater weight than the former. Boughton’s promise not to rebuke his son is lost. When money disappears in Gilead he immediately believes his son to be the thief and seeks to make reparation: this, a well-intentioned but thoughtless response, a failure to observe the man in front of him other than through the prism of the boy he had been twenty years before, seals the divisions which have always existed, creating a vacuum across which father and son have no means of communicating. Glory, with her simple “Ah well”, discerns another such flaw in her father and dismisses it. Ah well.

The fourth character in the novel is Reverend John Ames, a Congregationalist minister and long-time friend and theological sparring partner of Boughton, after whom Jack is named. Ames is the central character of Gilead, which relates the same basic story as Home but does so on a more theological level. And it is largely through Ames that the telescoped nature of Home’s analysis of familial crisis is broadened into a wider study of spirituality, an analysis of faith and trust, hope, redemption. Ames, also dying, is mistrustful of Jack, fearful that he will once again bring pain upon his father and suspicious of his motivations. A manifestly good man, but afflicted by a tendency to judge in absolutes, he is responsible for the novel’s most damaging event, when Jack, seeking absolution and aiming to proclaim publicly his belief in God, attends Ames’s Sunday service, only for the old man to extemporise a sermon on guilt which is clearly, shamefully aimed directly at Jack. Jack, one feels, would inevitably have broken before the novel’s conclusion, but this rebuff entirely ensures his failure. The balance of forgiveness and judgement tilts again towards judgement. The capacity to change, to shift long-established beliefs, is rendered impossibly hard for men in whom rigid sense of duty and propriety is all. Boughton, similarly, is unshakeable in his faith, blind to its failings. He tells Jack:

“I hate to think that any trouble might have come to you because your father was a tight-fisted old Scotsman!”
“I can reassure you on that point, sir.”
“Good. That’s fine. But there is that other vice of the Scots, you know. Drink.”
Jack smiled. “So I understand.”
“It is a plague amnong them, my grandmother said. They have no defense against it. She said she had seen many a good man wholly destroyed but it.”

This is a remarkable passage. Drink is, indeed a curse of the Scots, and it is, specifically, the curse of the alcoholic Jack. And yet, in this one-dimensional caricature of their shared Scots heritage, Boughton misses the one, overwhelming inherited characteristic that has brought their family to this pass: their Calvinist need to judge, to weigh the measure of forgiveness on the unforgiving and intolerant scale of religious rightness. Robinson, a committed Congregationalist herself, is impressive in the way she allows the faults of the Congregationalist Ames and Presbyterian Boughton to stand in such stark relief.

Late in the drafting of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, upset and bemused by the lack of success of his career, wrote into the beginning of the novel a key passage in which Father Mapple speaks to the men before they embark on their whaling voyage, in a church surrounded by memorials to their dead predecessors, men killed or lost in action. It is a lengthy oration, brilliant and unifying, drawing together a room of individuals into a single congregation. In it, Melville released some of his frustrations at the lack of response his novels were eliciting from his own congregation of readers. Father Mapple succeeded where Melville, despite his best efforts, was failing. He was using words as a tool to draw people into a greater consciousness. Ames and Boughton, fine ministers both, have a similar ability to use the power of words to shape an audience, draw it into their world view. And Robinson, too, another genius with words, allows herself her pulpit moments, but this is no blinkered, didactic sermonising. Her characters’ flaws are all too evident.

Robinson understands human failings and foibles. None of her characters are irredeemably bad, none saintly in their goodness. The ostensible rotten apple is clearly in search of understanding, both his understanding of others and others of him; while the pair of dying ministers struggle to forgive or forget or to ascribe to Jack anything other than ill-intent or recidivism.

Meanwhile, the true sin occurs outside the family, in the community of Gilead itself. The novel is set in 1956, the year of the Montgomery bus boycott, the start of the Civil Rights movement in America. Civil rights is not a subject old Boughton considers to be of any import: whenever Jack raises the subject it is rebuffed. The ‘colored’ people are creating the trouble by themselves, his father says. ‘It will soon be forgotten.’ There is no problem in Gilead, he insists. Perhaps not, but the only black church in town was burned to the ground, in what Ames describes as a ‘little nuisance fire’, many years before, since when no black families have lived there. Racism can just as easily be discerned by absence. This is the third great theme of Robinson’s novel, the structure of American society, and it is deftly handled. It is through Jack, the flawed individual, that it is presented, time and again. A plot development brings it to the fore as the novel reaches its conclusion, and we are left with the message that secular matters, as well as spiritual, are not as clearly beneficent in the sleepy town of Gilead as its aged and paternalistic ministers may care to believe.

Home is undoubtedly a melancholy novel. It’s characters are damaged people. It offers no major hope of transformation, only small glimmers. Glory, for example, despite her crushing emotional reticence, does achieve a breakthrough, a glimmer of understanding. She and Jack finally come closer – not close, but closer. It is a small triumph in a book where small triumphs are not to be overlooked. Near the end, there is one paragraph which is haunting in its perfection. Boughton is rapidly approaching death, his mind wandering; Jack is preparing to leave; Glory is soon to fulfil her role as custodian:

Glory was aware suddenly that the weariness of the night and day had overwhelmed her, and her hope of comforting had not had anything to do with the way things really happen in the world. Her father was crouched in his chair, with this chin almost in his plate, drowsing and speaking from what she could only hope was a dream, and her brother was withdrawing into utter resignation, as if the old incandenscence had consumed him before it flickered out. But he brought her a tea towel for her tears, and then he helped his father to his room.

Everything is contained within that brief paragraph. It is a beautiful study of loss and connection. It leaves nothing else to be said.

No comments: