Jonathan McGregor is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he's writing about twentieth-century American literary intellectuals and Christian social thought. You can follow him on Twitter.
There’s a moment in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2005) when the old preacher John Ames nearly loses control of his storytelling voice to a torrential repetition of the word “just”:
I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed…. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness…. (emphasis in original)
This passage epitomizes Robinson’s aesthetic. She shows us how all things exist in excess of themselves, if we pay them the proper attention. You can feel her exerting that same restraint to keep from using “just” in every sentence, even when she’s not writing in Ames’ voice.
But “just” does find its way into the first sentence of her new novel, Lila (2014), which gives us the backstory of Ames’ mysterious second wife. It opens: “The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping.” Unlike Ames’ anecdote of purity and lavishness, the scene here is of dirt and privation. Robinson sets Lila’s sheer “mystery of existence,” to use a phrase that she acquires from John Ames later in the book, against the meanness of her circumstances. The girl is just there, a commonplace miracle amid squalor.
Lila sitting on the steps of a house, or a house of God—perched uneasily on the edge of community, family, or faith—is an image we meet throughout the book. It’s an image that captures Lila’s dogged but radiant individuality. Robinson must be one of the only living writers who can exalt philosophical individualism and make it sound beautiful and compelling. In this book, every person is an orphan before they are a daughter or a son—or a wife, or a worker, or a preacher. And we carry our indelible orphanhood with us into whatever family, community, or vocation eventually takes us in. Late in the book, Lila thinks of her infant son:
She was glad she had seen the boy brand new, red as fire, without a tear to give to the world, no ties to the world at all, just that knot on his belly. […] That orphan he was first he always would be, no matter how they loved him. He’d be no child of hers, otherwise.
I can’t remember reading a book so dominated by the word “loneliness.” Nor can I recall a novel where loneliness is so sweet and yet so terrible. Sometimes Lila fears to be left alone; sometimes solitude is her only solace. At the low point of the book, stranded in a St. Louis brothel, Lila descends into the coal cellar “to be quiet with herself.” After giving all she has—even her one inheritance, a well-honed knife—to her madame, Lila discovers in the solitary darkness that her only durable possession is her self.
For Robinson, to be alone is a religious experience, a simultaneously harrowing and comforting encounter with the divine in the self. The constant, unmediated presence of God in human inwardness, which Robinson traces back to the doctrine of the imago dei, is the theological sine qua non of her art. (Sometimes, she presses this emphasis so hard as to almost conflate God and the self.) In Lila, the feeling of human loneliness comes paradoxically to signify divine presence, even when it is not explicitly glossed as such.
Loneliness may be a constant theme of Lila, but it’s hardly the end of the story. That child on the stoop is soon swept up into the arms of Doll, a wild and resourceful old woman with a marked face and a wicked blade, who shepherds Lila into young adulthood the best she can. “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Robinson renders their hard life together as migrant farm workers, new territory from her previous domestic fictions, convincingly. Their sense of time is defined by sun and seasons, their sense of space “a whole world of weedy, sunny, raggedy fields with no names to them. Only that one name, the United States of America.” Lila and Doll’s intense bond blurs the distinction between self and other. In the solitude of the brothel coal cellar, Lila converses with her memory of the dead Doll. To be with Doll is to be with her self.
Lila loses Doll, but she gains the “beautiful old man,” John Ames. That gain assuages, but cannot replace, her loss. The consolation of their marriage is a difficult grace for either John or Lila to accept. Nevertheless, the outcome of their courtship is never in doubt; even for those who haven’t read Gilead, we learn early in Lila that the pair are married in the book’s present. The drama of their love story, then, is one of personal transformation: How did that abandoned child on the stoop become Lila Ames, wife of an elderly preacher and mother of a little boy?
As Lila’s acquaintance with John grows, so too does her acquaintance with Christianity. Her dramatic encounter with the Bible is one of the most remarkable parts of the book. Lila steals a Bible from John’s church and buys a notebook and pencils with her small income. She copies biblical passages into her notebook wholesale. She has a knack for finding the difficult parts; she’s especially enamored of Ezekiel. But it’s just those hard sayings, which cause John to stumble, that draw Lila in. “It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth,” she muses, as a tornado touches earth.
Lila never shies from the difficult parts of Scripture, and she never hesitates to ask John hard theological questions, either. Her attraction to the wild things of the Bible does not lead her to embrace of the doctrine of hell, for example, and she can’t imagine wanting a Heaven without Doll in it. When Lila puts the question of eternal fate to John, the preacher dodges and qualifies and finally falls back on the mystery of God’s grace. Despite John’s often faltering answers, Lila insists that the language she learns from John has allowed her to name parts of her life that before were nameless, and even to think new thoughts:
Could she have these thoughts if she had never learned the word [existence]? “The mystery of existence.” From hearing him preach. He must have mentioned it at least once a week. She wished she’d known about it sooner, or at least known there was a name for it. She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who couldn’t make sense of things.
Like most married couples, Lila and John spend a lot of time talking past each other, misunderstanding each other, wounding and forgiving each other (though they have wider gaps in age and life experience to overcome than most). A fantastic and frangible, if hard-won, skein of trust holds them together. Lila’s tie to Christianity is like that, too—a baptism she once tried to wash off, an unrelenting attraction to the Bible, an acknowledgment that the vocabulary of mystery meets a human need that it also discovers.
Lila marries the style and themes of Robinson’s earlier novels. The third-person narration of Home (2008) was a departure for Robinson, and it sometimes fell flat. Lila, however, is light on its feet. The novel’s free indirect discourse moves with great suppleness into and out of passages more thickly textured with Lila’s dialect. This style gives us intimacy with Lila’s perspective without presuming on her interior voice. Lila’s life, first with Doll and then with John, brings the concerns of Housekeeping (1980)—wilderness and feminine community, abandonment and consolation—together with those of Gilead—theological language and its limitations, perception and grace. For readers looking for a way in to Robinson’s corpus, this makes Lila the new best place to start.
Like the Ames’ marriage, though, these stylistic and conceptual bonds are uneasy and tentative, even when they’re graceful. If marrying John forces Lila to make her peace with community and its consolations, it also forces him to do justice to her freedom. If John’s theology gives Lila words for old impressions and new thoughts, her questions force him out of his complacency to reckon with her razor-edged experience. Robinson would remind us that tradition needs untamed experience to keep it sharp, and community needs wild individuals to keep it alive. Likewise, she would remind us that tradition expands the mind; it does not restrict it. And if loneliness is sacred, then so is comfort, which we can only give each other when we’re together.