Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Lila

Lila Lila by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having loved and admired Gilead and Home, I was a little nervous about Lila, wondering whether Robinson could possibly live up to the high standards she’d set for herself in the Gilead novels. The first several pages had me disappointed – Lila in a setting very different from the Gilead I’d come to feel I knew very well – and then the lights switched on: it became clear to me that the point of Lila is that she has no history. At best, she has snatches of memory, but they’re deeply personal, without names that have consequence. (The name she takes is a mistake, an accidental appropriation of the first name of the woman who kidnaps her as a child, and at least one later person thinks she is Norwegian because of it.) She is, in other words, a blank book.

That’s an intriguing premise on its own, and Robinson does some striking things with it. Lila has so little sense of who she is or where she’s been that she has to discover, almost in literal fashion (as she learns its name only late in childhood) the United States of America. She is a latecomer who is also a native, someone unmistakably of the nation and yet needing to learn bit by bit what that means. And she does that learning through her early travels and through her later conversations with Ames over the Bible. She is, again almost literally, a child of God, someone profoundly innocent and yet perpetually threatened by the world.

I’d call that a success on its own terms if that all this were. Put it in conversation with Gilead, though, and it’s mind-blowing. To my eyes at least, Gilead is the story of a man trying to negotiate a too-thick history surrounding him. He has to try to live up to the legacy of his abolitionist grandfather, a man who has almost certainly committed murder in the name of freeing the slaves, and the simultaneous legacy of his pacifist father who rejected that violence. Ames has lived too long in his town, outlived all that originally defined him with the sole exception of Boughton, his life-long friend and fellow minister. They have had a deep and rich friendship (and that friendship is one of the great literary inventions I’ve come across in at least the last decade) but it has always been framed through text, through their shared and diverging senses of what scripture tells them to do in this odd post-World War II world.

Anyway, Ames is a man steeped in history, a man so aware of it – and simultaneously so aware of his imminent departure from it through death – that he creates a manuscript to record it for his son who is as yet too young to learn it firsthand. He cannot escape text, even as he understands himself to be slowly dying; he writes of his life for his son, a life so steeped in history that he can’t frame it through the experience of his own personal history.
When you put those two into conversation – Gilead and Lila – it becomes the same story told with entirely different premises, one so dependent on history it can’t understand itself without it and the other so empty of history that it cannot initially find its bearings. Throw in the terrific ethical complications of Home, where we learn that Ames, while still deeply intent on being a good man, has not always managed to be the decent person his full faith calls him to be. (I’m giving Home short shrift; it’s as beautiful as the others, and it negotiates history more at the level of the family and the community rather than in the generational scope of Gilead or the narrowly personal of Lila.)

As if all that weren’t enough, Ames is such a staggering decent and ethical presence that he finds a way to enter into conversation with Lila in a way that is not condescending. In an America of Biblical literalists who claim direct access to the divine – and who have more or less successfully hijacked the mantle of the great mainline Protestant traditions that built so much of the American ethic – Ames comes across as almost too good to be true: a man whose deep self-doubt is only barely conquered by his even deeper religious faith.

He discovers a belated chance at happiness in his meeting with Lila, and he makes the most of it, redeeming her from the mystery of her childhood and the ignorance of history. He does so only slowly and imperfectly, and only through his inspiring patience and love. In all, he comes across as a latter day Protestant saint, one of those quiet and pious people unsullied by sanctimony, who, always rare, would be nearly unrecognizable in an America that treats religion as a checklist of socio-political positions or, worse, a badge of unassailable license to judge others.

There’s a greatness in Ames, and it rubs off on all who enter his orbit. He isn’t perfect, but the beauty of his faith is that he recognizes that sooner and more deeply than anyone else. I find Gilead and Lila together echoing one of my favorite novels of all time, Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, for the way it makes a good man’s faith something palpable in a world that can barely recognize it.

Bottom line, Robinson has really done it. If she isn’t the greatest American writer of the moment, then I don’t know who is. (Maybe, still, the very different Jonathan Lethem?)

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