This autumn Marilynne Robinson’s burgeoning congregation of adoring readers took to the digital street corners to share the good news. The publication of Lila, Robinson’s third novel in the series inaugurated by her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, was an occasion for the faithful to publicly reflect on the luminous gravity of her fiction and its power to involve the reader in the same questions of being and meaning that occupy her characters. Some of the best of these reflections came from secular writers nonetheless deeply moved by what they acknowledge is an “unapologetically religious” perspective. And indeed, it is no stretch to say that there is an evangelical zeal behind much praise for Robinson’s lyricism and her gracious, complicated handling of Christian theology.
Yesterday, Fare Forward editor-in-chief Peter Blair discussed some of the things Robinson arguably gets wrong in her fiction: one can be too doubtful of our capacity to know God or one another, too tentative in response to divine mystery. But ironically, something Robinson gets right (perhaps the thing-she-gets-right) is a surpassing, even transcendent knowledge of her own, often mysterious characters. At times, it seems Robinson is reaching beyond even the author’s usual omniscience to exercise a synthetic spiritual insight, a fictional apokalypsis in imitation of God’s own perspective on the minds and hearts of mankind, filtered through a lens of grace that rarifies and even glorifies the human person.
While this may seem an extravagant claim to make for any writer, it really adds just another object, the human condition, to Robinson’s field of sacramental vision. It is commonly acknowledged that she discerns the spiritual dimensions of the immanent and inanimate: if the mystery of existence can be transcribed in descriptions of soap bubbles, why not in streams of thought? As Ames says, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.” For Robinson, surely this applies as much to looking inward as outward.
This interpretation is necessary not merely because Robinson crafts some of the most exquisite sentences in modern literature, but because she takes those sentences and puts them in the mouths of children, country parsons, and unread drifters. We are forced to conclude either that her protagonists are an unlikely set of frustrated poets or that their thoughts are being transposed into a higher lyrical key for some communicative purpose.
Gilead probably offers the fewest clear instances of this transposition. Because Ames is a well-read, thoughtful, and articulate person, many of his expressions have a grace that is believable as his own. The remark on transfiguration quoted above is an example. However, consider the following passage:
This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven—one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it.
While this remains—recognizably—Ames’s voice, if we ask ourselves how Ames the character would view this passage, he (and we) might agree that it shows signs of inspiration, a something beyond his own rhetorical style. And neither he (nor we) should see much remarkable about that; after all, Ames purports to bring the Word of God to his congregation on a weekly basis. What is remarkable, even audacious, is Robinson’s effort to illustrate the sanctifying power of grace in words.
In Lila, this translucency is all the more visible. An important theme of the novel is Ames insight into Lila’s wisdom and kindness, which is concealed from others by a self-protective hostility. The reader also experiences this insight through Robinson’s elevation of Lila’s inner voice. While Lila’s speech is terse and flat (“Damn catfish. Seems like you can never quite kill ‘em dead.”), her thoughts can be rendered with the same musical lucidity as Ames at his best:
[T]hey were ghosts all gathered in the dark, watching the world, seeing all the scheming and the murder and having no word to say about it, weeping with the orphans and having nothing to do for them. And then the dancing and the kissing, and all of the ghosts floating there just inches from a huge, beautiful face, to see the joy rise up in it. Like sparrows watching the sun come up, all of them happy at once, no matter that the light had nothing much to do with them.
Beyond the longing for fellowship lies the same probing of the “mystery of existence” that animates all of Robinson’s fiction. Lila’s experience is merely human; but its glorious expression is tinged with the divine.
Why is this significant? Certainly Robinson’s spiritual insights are fictional. They are manufactured just as her plots are manufactured, and if truthful, in the same manner and degree. However, her treatment of her characters is a model for us of the beauty, mystery, and promise of glory in real people. Ames says that transfiguration is everywhere to be seen, “Only, who could have the courage to see it?” So much of the power in Robinson’s fiction comes from just the courage to see—and to see ordinary people. Of course, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.” It is immortals whom Marilynne Robinson writes about.