Housekeeping


book by Marylynne Robinson

annotation by Philip Barragan

Marilynne Robinson created a unique, magical and somber world in Housekeeping. Unique for her story about three independent women with no significant male characters. And in spite of this, Robinson’s story stands strong as a novel for everyone. Magical for blending together the empirical, physical world with the ethereal world of ghosts and the imagination. And somber for the storyline about loss, abandonment, and the different steps we take in order to survive.

Throughout the book, there were many moments of lyrical writing. Robinson has a strong command of poetry and her prose is filled with lyricism. On page 92, Robinson glides effortlessly into her poetic hand:

It was perhaps only from watching gulls fly like sparks up the face of clouds that dragged rain the length of the lake that I imagined such an enterprise might succeed. Or from watching some discarded leaf gleaming at the top of the wind. Ascension seemed at such times a natural law…For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?

The New York Times Book Review described Robinson’s novel as “So precise, so distilled, so beautiful,” that I wanted to know how Robinson utilized her words. Among the many examples, this line seemed to make the case for me: “And we glided across the ice toward Fingerbone, we would become aware of the darkness, too close to us, like a presence in a dream.” This simple foreshadowing paints the background for the story. The reader is advised to hold on for the bumpy ride.

Robinson’s executed great skill in describing her world. Her attention to detail was a fine example of how to bring the reader into your story: “…and never since then had she been so aware of the smell of their hair, their softness, breathiness, abruptness. It filled her with a strange elation, the same pleasure she has felt when any one of them, as a sucking child, had fastened her eyes on her face and reached for her other breasts, her hair, her lips, hungry to touch, eager to be filled for a while and sleep.”

Housekeeping is a fine example of a polished work filled with beautiful descriptions and lyrical prose. The story is simple and shows how good writing can bring the story to life, brilliantly, and let it shine.

Tinkers

Normally, I prefer coming into a new book cold, not knowing the particulars of the author or reviews (I also don’t like movie previews). However, I did hear a few things from a publishing insider before reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers. After many rejections, the book was published by Bellevue Literary Press, an imprint of the NYU School of Medicine. Word of mouth built through independent book sellers and the book just won the Pulitzer. Why mention this? Because we often write with an eye on the audience. Tinkers doesn’t. Of course a prominent literary mentor helps (see below). The best thing an author can do is to write and worry about the rest after the book is done. The other piece of information that perhaps made me a bit more tolerant of the structure was hearing that Harding sat down with the entire manuscript (not long at 191 small pages), cut it up and pieced it back together. When faced with some structural changes in the novel I recently completed, I sat down on the floor with the physical manuscript and moved things around, not to the degree Harding did (not appropriate for this book), but it was very helpful to work with the actual rather than virtual pages. In Tinkers, there is a certain patchwork quality that reinforces the jumble of memories that come to a man as he dies and I found it interesting to consider both of those processes as I read the book. There is not always such a clear opportunity for narrative and theme to mirror each other, but when there is as in this case, it’s an effective tool.

What I was not aware of ahead of time, but what is unmistakable, is the influence of Marilynne Robinson, particularly Gilead. The tone, mood, language choice, the son with a minister for a father are all similar. I found it less derivative, more inspired by Robinson, but that’s a fine line depending on whether one enjoys the book or not. Harding does have his own distinct poetic style and (also like Robinson), he puts it to use to observe the world in remarkable detail. There is no earth-shattering plot here, just a quiet finely tuned story about a dying man. Harding is a good example of keeping language simple in order to be effective.

His sentences are often long, “The weaver might have made one bad loop in the foliage of a sugar maple by the road and that one loop of whatever the thread might be wound from – light, gravity, dark from stars – had somehow been worked loose by the wind in its constant worrying of white buds and green leaves and blood-and-orange leaves and bare branches and two of the pieces of whatever it is that this world is knit from had come loose from each other and there was maybe just a finger width’s hole, which I was lucky enough to spot in the glittering leaves from this wagon of drawers and nimble enough to scale the silver trunk and brave enough to poke my finger into the tear, that might offer to the simple touch a measure of tranquillity or reassurance.” (54) I don’t always consider sentence length, particularly not very long sentences, as a way to control the pace of the narrative and it’s a device to keep in mind. More importantly, when I write, I tend to gallop ahead to the next conflict and then go back to fill in detail. Such a minutely observed narrative shows the power of slowing way down and as I begin the next novel, I will try to stay in the moment in order to mine all of the sensory detail before moving on.

The other striking thing in Tinkers is that Harding changes tense, moving from first to third to second person. This is not something to be undertaken without purpose. Here it serves the notion of the dying brain and a narrative that begins, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” There are quiet pleasures, from the building of a bird’s nest to the inner workings of watches and clocks, that can be read in a sitting. Harding is a solid example of the treasures found in a meticulous novel that has more to tell than the story of a man’s death.

Gilead

book by Marilynne Robinson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Gilead is a novel about fathers and sons on many levels: God and Jesus, God and Ames, and Ames and the nearly seven year old son for whom he pens these ‘begats.’  Robinson echoes the clerical tradition of epistolary narration to complement Ames position as a minister.  Biblically, Gilead means ‘witness’ or ‘mound of testimony’ and was a place of healing, birthplace of the prophet Elijah, and in the New Testament, the source of large crowds who followed Jesus.  This Gilead is Ames’ testimony of his life and the name of the town where he grew up and had his ministry.

Robinson begins with the recounting of a conversation between Ames and his son, the end of which states his intention for this long letter to his son. (3)  Ames then delineates who he is, “I grew up in parsonages,” (4) and his medical condition, “angina pectoris” (4) which provides both the context and tension for the rest of his letter to his son.  This section concludes with foreshadowing “There’s a lot under the surface of life…. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.” (6) Ames maintains a confessional mode throughout most of the narration, initially confessing that what he has not learned “was to control his temper.” (6)

His first person meanderings turn poignant as it becomes clear that he is jealous of the son of his best friend, a far closer match in age to Ames’ young wife.  In this case, the first person narrative is more distant than intimate.  As a reader, I felt too removed from the others in his life, even though it was an intimate look inside his thoughts and opinions of not only those around him, but also his relationship to God and the larger questions of life.  Robinson uses this first person diary point of view to good effect in that Ames concern about his namesake reveals as much about himself as the younger man whom he finds by turns threatening and irritating.

There were a few points when the narrator seems inauthentic, his voice more the modern author than the characters (42), particularly for a character well versed in Greek and Hebrew, but these lapses were brief and rare.  Gilead is a meditative and beautifully written novel and gave me something to consider as far as a subtler revelation of the protagonist’s thoughts using the first person point of view.

The narrator states he has a ‘reputation for piety and probity’ (65), but the reader sees the darker thoughts and struggles throughout the letter of envy for his best friend who has not lost a wife and child (65) and his jealousy of his best friend, Boughton’s son (119) who is named for the narrator.  The quiet tragedy of Gilead is the his best friend’s son comes to him for counsel even as his writes a long letter of counsel to his own son, he is loathe to do it for Jack Boughton.  He finds the younger Boughton difficult and repeatedly admonishes himself for his attitude toward the younger man, “I am trying to be a little more cordial to him than I have been.” (123)  He keeps returning to the point, “I found that extremely irritating” (184)  The narrator makes the big assumption that the younger Boughton is hanging around because he fancies the narrator’s life and works himself up into a state where he can imagine the younger man stepping into his place or do his wife and child harm “How should I deal with these fears I have, that Jack Boughton will do you and your mother harm, just because he can, just for the sly, unanswerable meanness of it?” (190)

Toward the end of the book, the narrator doles out advice more freely, having recounted most of what he knew about their family history.  He advises his son, “…don’t look for proofs.  Don’t bother with them at all” (179) because, paraphrasing Coleridge, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine” (179).  Despite this, the narrator still struggles with his negative feelings toward Jack until the revelation that Jack has a wife and child (217).

There is some lovely writing, nice construction with uncomfortable family secrets mirroring the narrator’s discomfort with Jack Boughton, but ultimately I found it unsatisfying for a myriad of small things that added up over the course of the book (and perhaps that is my primary takeaway for my own work). For example, it seemed odd that a preacher would conclude a letter that “hope deferred is still hope” (247) when the biblical passage he would know well is Proverbs 13:12: hope deferred makes the heart sick. At that point, perhaps it is supposed to tell us something of his character that he would still characterize heartsick as hope, but I was no longer engaged. The tone of the book is slow and prayerful and Ames concludes with a series of prayers for his son and the last act he chronicles is “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.” (247)