Dana Ray

Dana Ray is a writer, dancer, tea drinker, idea wrangler, and graduate student in English and Creative Writing at Bucknell University. You can find more of her writing at www.danamray.com/blog. She blogs at danamray.blogspot.com

Voice and Intimacy in Robinson’s Lila

 

“Someday, she would tell him what she knew.”

Marilynne Robinson writes like fine wine: she takes her time in years and the result is rich, heady prose. Gilead won the Pulitzer 10 years ago. The epistolary novel came 24 years after her novel Housekeeping, a text well received in literary circles. The wait has been worthwhile. In every piece, fiction or nonfiction, Robinson’s prose changes, and what Robinson has done in her most recent work, Lila, is something altogether different from her accomplishments in Gilead. Robinson still uses her great strength: vivid first person perspective, intimate details, and her lyric tone. But the language and pacing of Lila veers in a different, earthy direction, towards the genuine voice of a different economic class.

In Lila, Robinson returns to the world of Gilead, Iowa and introduces us to Lila, Reverend Ames’s young wife. Gilead focuses on the love of a father to a son in a series of letters to the young child John Ames will not know into adulthood. Lila focuses on motherhood, of all that goes through Lila as she waits for her child to be born. Lila’s history is absent from Gilead because as a first person narrative, Reverend Ames cannot reveal what he does not know. Lila is from a different world, a different class, yet it would be a mistake to claim Lila as a text about class. It would also be a mistake to accuse Robinson of co-opting a language unsuited to her, one where imitation is a form of pity. Instead, she imbues Lila’s stream of consciousness and intellectual strength on par with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Lila’s vocabulary never strays into what could be called a false, scholarly tone. Robinson never missteps. Instead, the author’s clear love for her characters grants them dignity and grace that never involves condescension. Ultimately, Robinson’s work here expands and deepens what has been a central exploration in all her works: what does true human compassion look like and what does it take to cross the distance between one human and another?

Robinson captures our human isolation from each other in the most intimate spaces seen most vividly in the relationship between Reverend Ames and Lila. The difference and distance between the two is great, but is marked by love for the other.

Lila is as different from the Reverend as she could be, both by education and the independence of her thought; she regularly challenges and questions the honesty and love in what she is taught about God. The Gilead community and the Reverend’s parish responds to her at times with pity instead of love, and pity undresses human dignity. She vacillates between shame and defiance, saying, “I got shame like a habit, the only thing I feel except when I’m alone.”

The syntax of that sentence is rough yet elegant: “I got” instead of “I have” followed by unique turns of phrase. It is not usual to speak of having something “like a habit.” She struggles to read the Bible much less understand it. She learns, with fascination and pride, to write her own name. Lila is not a woman who would speak to anyone directly in a letter much less allow for the direct address of a first person narration of her story. Lila will tell what she knows in a different way.

Lila’s way is through a close third narrative voice and the voice of her memory, one that associates freely and profoundly, like a poet. Her mind wanders from memory to subject to reflection, one that masks, unveils, and re-masks herself. She begins the new practice of reading the Bible and then thinking on it in the mornings. One morning she copies the sentence “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The line prompts a long meditation on beginnings and darkness, one that ranges from the plants she loved to the people she knew. Deep into the scene she stops abruptly to consider what the “old man,” Reverend Ames, would think:

“She would tell the old man, I didn’t use to mind tansy. I still like apricot now and then. She pretended he knew some of her thoughts, only some of them, the ones she would like to show him. Mellie with her babies. Doll smiling because she had a bit of sugar candy from the store to slip into Lila’s hand when the others weren’t looking.

Lila curates her own thoughts for us, carefully and specifically, choosing what she would like to be seen. This is early in the novel and as the story progresses, she lets herself think more and more on the darkness, the places the Spirit of God had to go before he said, “Let there be light.”

The narrative voice here is striking. The close third person could also be Lila’s own voice considering herself and her life at a slight distance, as if it would make remembering easier. It places the reader in close proximity to her, but not fully inside of her. Similar to her relationship with Ames, there is intimacy here, but there is also distance.

Lila sometimes reads like a gentle mystery novel with significant events left untold. Robinson allows for the mystery: the complexity of what we know and do not know, the complexity of what we say and what we do not say. Lila knows and does not know and lives between the two.

“Lila knew it couldn’t have been the way she remembered it, as if she were carried along in the wind, and there were arms around her to let her know she was safe, and there was a whisper in her ear to let her know that she shouldn’t be lonely.”

Lila knows things even when that knowing is of what she does not know. Like a skilled philosopher, she parses what must have been alongside a vivid experience of what could not have been. Memory has made her first years good, a kind of retroactive grace just as she finds “the old man” and carries his child.

The voice also allows us to experience dialogue naturally, rather than in a constructed (and false ringing) retrospection. We can both be inside Lila’s experience and separate from it, seeing her—or as she imagines herself seen—by her husband, the woman who raised her, and other characters. Just after her baptism, Lila and the Reverend discuss getting married.

“’No. No.’ She wasn’t crying. She couldn’t look at him. ‘I want this so damn bad. And I hate to want anything.’” This is a moment when Lila reveals more of herself than at other times. She exposes herself even as she can’t look at him directly or tries to prevent herself from crying. She uses “damn” in a way that emphasizes the emotion behind her words. Neither she nor John Ames responds to that. He replies:

“‘This?’

‘I want you to marry me! I wish I didn’t. It’s just a misery for me.’

‘For me too, as it happens.’”

John Ames is trying to reach her in these words. There is a shared experience between them, a desire for marriage that seems contrary to their lives before yet interwoven with it as well. Then Lila fires back at him:

“I can’t trust you!” And this is the heart of Lila. She does not trust. She does not trust others or herself. And the promise of a life with someone who could love her and who she could love dismantles her quiet poise. “I don’t trust nobody,” she continues. “I can’t stay nowhere. I can’t get a minute of rest.’”

There is a power in Lila’s words–intimacy and distance. Her words allow us to identify with her and love her. The shame Lila feels towards herself is not one we participate in; the love others feel towards her is one we do.

Robinson grants dignity to Lila through the evasive and associative voice; Lila is given a choice in how she expressed. This praise cannot be said for many other texts that attempt to transcend personal positional experience into a strong empathy with another time, place, ethnicity, or culture. A popular example of this failure is The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 best-selling novel. Stockett gives a close first person voice to a variety of characters. Yet her local dialect falls flat. One character describes her mother this way:

“Mama turned me by the shoulders so I’d look at her instead of the cake. Mama was a crack-whip. She was proper. She took nothing from nobody. She shook her finger so close to my face, it made me cross-eyed.

The first person creates a constructed vocabulary and syntax even while trying to have a local sound. It is, one must concede, a suspension of disbelief that all first person narrations require. But authorial dignity is still missing; it is not imbued into the voice but declared in the voice of the characters, a forced move. Instead of giving breath to the characters, the author takes away their autonomy and dignity.

Robinson retains a respect for her characters, admitting them to be “mysterious” even. She noted in her interview with the Paris Review that, “The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.” She permits things to go unsaid and allows the development of individuals to proceed on their terms and not on hers. Not once does the narrative voice ask or require Lila to be any woman other than what she is, never once insisting on a vocabulary or syntax false to her education and her experiences.

Admitting to the separate mystery of a character is a kind of grace, one we see in the mystery of Lila. An author cannot manufacture grace for her characters, a kind of “grace” that lands on our ears as trite and watered down. It is woven in the narrative voice as Robinson does or it is applied like pity. It is only as Robinson has identified with Lila, seen herself in this woman, lost but wise, that such art could be made. As full spiritual experiences, novels like Lila challenge our humanity beyond the technicalities of readership or authorship. They challenge us to become more fully human by entering intimacy with the stranger, as Robinson has done with Lila, and finding the grace we need in that act.

In Word and Dance

I’ve been standing straighter since ballroom started. It is affecting my hunched overlook, the one meant to exude a contemplative writer lifestyle, the one that I adopt out of habit or out of a desire to imitate some sort of writerly posture. Don’t ask why I assumed that writer’s hunch. Ballroom dancers never hunch. Jolene, the dance coach, will wander the overheated gym adjusting bodies like a sculptor: pushing in bellies here, grabbing butts and hips to align them under the ribcage, slightly adjusting the minute angle of an arm connection. I’ve begun noticing when my shoulders come forward toward my chest and up towards my ears. There is a sharp pain in my left shoulder from where I’ve strained it into good posture.

Ballroom Dancers from yesteryears.

Making my body dance is like making my words work on a page–making me pay better attention to the world. Nietzsche said, “Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education; dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?” Writing and ballroom have become two partners in my own dance of being alive. They challenge me to constantly practice attentiveness to the world, keeping my body and mind aware and moving as intimate partners that cannot perform without the other.

Grounded

“Grounded. Cha-cha is about being grounded,” Jolene insisted. “The problem with you two,” (here she looked away from me and towards my partner, James), “and it drives me crazy to see you doing it, is the way you both live on your toes. What are you doing up on your toes?” We shuffled our feet seriously as if it had never occurred to us to do anything as silly as stand on our toes. I didn’t look at James. But why couldn’t I stand on my toes? I liked my toes. I thought it made me seem “light on my feet.”

We tried the routine again.

“No. This dance is about your relationship with the ground. Your weight is always pulling you into the ground. Push into it, against it. Don’t try to escape it.”

We tried again. Better.

“Dana, land on your whole foot.” She leaned all her weight into my shoulders, pushing my heels onto the ground. We did the basic step. “You’re still back leading. Stop leading. Wait for my weight transfers.” We tried it again. Better this time.

This felt different. We were dancing with gravity, playfully teasing it. Keeping weight centered, pushing the ground, staying low, keeping grounded:

That’s how to look like we’re flying.

Making words fly is not easy. My poetry prof said: “I think it’s sometimes easier for the people who just fill their words with real life things and then find out weeks later what it all meant. It’s harder for someone who has abstractions and then looks at real life objects.” I’m the second writer. I am abstract. And so is my dancing. I’d like to think that abstraction is valuable for its airiness when, in reality, it is as flimsy as a carnival balloon, rising and rising until the atmosphere shreds it. I’d rather have a hot hair balloon that rises steadily, heavy with canvas and basket and fire maker and sandbags that comes down when it’s time, watching the ground and playing with gravity. Trying to leave the ground permanently just gets the writing all tripped up.

Presence and Poise

I swallowed another spoon-full of my tomato soup. A sip of water. Our dance team was on the way home from a ballroom competition.

“Jolene… can I ask you a dancing question?”

“Sure.”

“What would you say is my biggest problem?”

“Presence and Poise.”

This wasn’t what I was expecting. I thought I knew my problem. I did. I thought it was frame. I thought it was my shoulders. But no. This.

She sat quietly, eating her apple. “I’m not sure how to explain presence. It’s a way of existing on the floor. Of being seen that isn’t quite the same as performance.”

“Performance implies force, action. It isn’t that?” I asked.

She shook her head slowly, choosing words carefully. “The only way I can explain it is that your movements look lazy a lot. Very soft. And you go, you stand tall, but you still look limp.”

I nodded. I knew this.

Poise. “It isn’t a straight back. It has to do more with things that go on here.” Jolene motioned towards her core. “It’s a way of being present, controlled and controlling, of self and audience. I’m sorry this is so abstract.”

I understood this hesitancy, inability to fully explain. She sounded like a writing instructor, not quite able to put into words what is missing in a paper. Your grammar is fine. Your structure is fine. But you aren’t writing yet. Writing with the whole self and not with tools. Dancing with the whole self and not just the body. It is the skill to take the spirit, my spirit, and make my words express me. It is the skill to take the spirit, my spirit, and make it alive in my body.

I had forgotten what I have learned in writing words: technique will never bring presence or poise. Technique is the accurate expression of that center, and not the other way around, even though the learning often takes working from the outside in. The spirit of the things has to come from the inside– changing and working its way out in the body.

Boundaries

The day had been tense. I was cold as we began social dancing (salsa at a local bar). It took a while to stop shivering. My friend Robbie was the only man I knew dancing. Knowing only him was enough; he was the best dancer there.

We were dancing. It was clear he was having a very good time. And in one movement he disorients me, some unspoken line crossed. I touch the small of his back with the tips of my fingers, measuring the space between us, awkward. He turns, laughing down at me; puts his head near mine to talk over the music: “It’s fun making you blush.”

Called me out: I am blushing. I continue to blush. I had never fit in at the bar, though I had pretended otherwise. There are things I don’t know how to do, like play in response to physical playfulness. So instead, my hand held distance without thinking.

I am embarrassed. “Great. Thanks for the comment. Now I’ll be awkward the rest of the night!”

He laughs at me again. “No, you won’t.”

And he is right. I keep dancing. He teaches me more salsa moves. I am getting better and I love it.

Creating boundaries is the most natural instinct I have, as a writer and as a body. I tell myself what I can do or say and when I can do or say it. I measure interactions based on comfort level. I can skirt around the edges of discomfort.

Or I can head straight for discomfort and see where the words take me. I can learn foolishness. I can learn embarrassment. I can become a better dancer. My mother reminds me often: “The moment you feel stupid is when you are about to do it right.”

Commitment

Holding boundaries is a sign that I am afraid to fail. Ballroom, on the other hand, forces me to “commit”. I learned “commitment” when Tal, a dancer from New York, came to teach some workshops.

Neither James nor I knew how to dance Paso Doble when Tal chose us to demonstrate the routine, which consisted of struts, spins, dramatic head tosses, flying arms, intense glances, and marches across the floor. “You have to think you’re the hottest shit to ever walk out there,” Tal kept saying.

Hottest shit. Right. I laughed nervously. James shook his head.

So we tried. Tal said to try it again. And then again. We danced the routine three times before he let us stop. I was blushing, but I was doing it. Each time, my feet moved a little more confidently. I threw my head a little more. I started walking like I was the “hottest shit out there” and lost awareness for the audience. Jolene just kept saying, “Wow, they really don’t have the technique but they win on commitment alone!”

I called my ballroom friend, Jesse, that night and asked him what Jolene meant by “commitment.”

“It means that you looked like a complete idiot but went for it and didn’t care.”

Writing and writing badly can be as awkwardly visceral as learning Paso. Muscles tighten, heart rate rises. Tight neck muscles, oncoming head ache. The audience does not exist for the writing yet, but I blush to imagine them reading my sentences nonetheless. But why not just let go and let them look ridiculous? Why care? Why not let characters and words strut like mad peacocks to a dance of their own invention?

Imperfect

My first State College salsa night was a cool early summer evening; dark, lively, the way only summer evenings seem capable of being. It was dark and warm, the dense sound of talking, and the middle floor filled with people spinning and twirling.

I noticed Matt, a rather good-looking fellow who had helped me in ballroom class, on the other side of the room. He nodded his head, came over to me, reached out a hand wordlessly and took me to the crowded dance floor. My back and arms were tense, trying to read his motions, trying to be a good follow, to not make him sorry he asked me to dance.

“Hey, loosen up!” he said. “This isn’t class. Loosen your hips. And look at me.”

Turning the mind off, letting it come, follow without thinking, without trying: this is dancing.

I try too hard to write. I have perfection in my head but forget that even my head probably has the wrong version of perfection. There is a bodily difference in unforced writing. Attempts at accuracy instead of spirit are felt in shaking hands, tense back, and bad following.

But in letting go, the body settles into focus and concentration, physically comfortable and content from hard word making.

Partnership

The physical stillness after dancing is the closest to silence I can imagine. Air is clearer, freer. Movement slows and the breeze feels cold and gentle. There is an awareness that comes when the body is tired from moving and moving well, from music in the ears that are now listening to its absence. The ear is trained on the body and its sound.

The quiet after writing is the same, when the work is done, the process complete. It comforts. I listen and am attentive. Mind and body move together. Mind and Body are partners. I return again to Nietzche: “Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education; dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?” And writing is the supreme partner for the mind and the dancing body. Learning is write is learning to dance. Dance is attentiveness and care, presence and performance. It is a practice. It is staying more alive.

And it is addictive, this being more alive.