"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"
Monday, October 1, 2012
The form of the story, as I said, is a letter, and in that sense it reminded me of The True History of the Kelly Gang, but instead of an outlaw writing to his daughter on the eve of his death in battle, Marilynne Robinson takes on the voice of John Ames, a reverand writing to his young son on the eve of his death from a heart condition. So at first the stakes seem very low indeed. But this book also reminded me strongly of The Remains of the Day because Ames is, in some ways, an unreliable narrator whose story conceals more than it reveals about the fraught lives of the people of Gilead. Over the course of the book, we glean bits of insight, not only into Ames' life, but also those of his father and grandfather and of his friend Reverand Boughton and his family, particularly his wayward son, Jack. The two families' stories are woven together around themes of faith, honor, and fatherhood. (And if this all sounds like a very male-dominated book, not to worry. Robinson has written a kind of companion novel written from the perspective of Glory, Boughton's daughter, which I'm looking forward to reading.)
Having said that Ames is unrealiable, I need to clarify by adding that he strives very hard to be as reliable as possible. He says over and over that he's trying to be honest, but over and over he finds himself hemmed in by his own stringent morality. He prides himself on never speaking ill of anyone, and so he finds it extremely difficult to recount the story of the various characters' failings - some of them very extreme (I won't give them away, because not knowing what exactly Ames was trying to shield is what kept me going until the end of the book).
Although this reticence can get quite frustrating, it also feels completely organic to the character. I don't know what Robinson's own background is, but she certainly writes a convincing portrait of a mind steeped in religion. Ames laces his prose with Scripture, which he knows off by heart, and the same heritage of ideas and language permeates all the conversations he describes. This is the story of people brought up with a strong sense of faith and charity who nonetheless find themselves confused and troubled in the face of historical and personal circumstance. From Ames' grandfather's questionable actions in the Civil War to Boughton's and Ames' struggles to forgive the impossible Jack, Robinson shows the limits of doctrine and at the same time the boundlessness of faith. Ames finds manifestations of god not only in his struggles with moral questions, but also, more importantly, in everyday moments of beauty and joy, in his observations of people in his town and his own enjoyment of his wife and son, whom he values above all else.
So although I have no religious feeling or knowledge of Christian belief, I found myself entirely drawn in my Ames' reflections on his religion. This book is a fascinating window into American history, especially around the Civil War, and into a distinctly American code of faith and morality (Ames' life is set against that of his brother, who travels to Germany to read philosophy), and an equally fascinating portrait of a mind and a life woven through with historical, cultural, and social circumstance. I really could be considered a meditation on the meaning of individual existence within that network of history and present. But unlike many meditations on existence, this one left me with a really positive feeling. It's a tough book, but not an entirely sad one.
Now I must run off to class to discuss it.