“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:
‘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.