It is refreshing to read a novel by an author who doesn’t care about the reader.
No doubt this can be taken too far. But a certain lack of commercial acumen, a failure to keep an eye on those publishing formulae which mark a book’s blueprint for definite success, is a pleasure even as it denies you the easy cadences of the reader-focussed narrative.
Gilead is Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel and came a surprising twenty years after her critically acclaimed first. She’s been writing in the meantime, but not fiction – essays, polemics, and generally following a devotional religious path. This is not an author who felt the need to pipe out a chart-topper every two years, and it shows in Gilead.
The narrator is an old man, and it is clear from the start that Robinson is more concerned with authentically capturing this ageing voice – circling, repetitive of key episodes, given to homily, occasionally advancing a story with sudden bursts – than writing a driving narrative. I want to be philosophical about this, as the book reviews I’ve read are – talking about the stately, processional pace of the novel. But frankly, it’s slow, and frequently dull. That Robinson clearly does not care about this is impressive, but doesn’t make the pages turn faster.
This is particularly present in the first half in which very little happens. Let’s be clear – not a great deal happens in the second half either – but it somehow draws you in as it slowly unveils complex weaknesses within the narrator (without straying into the much trodden unreliable narrator territory.) Drama is in the past, but as the book progresses the present becomes less of a calm sanctuary – its problems exist, though they are less bloody and more hidden. John Ames is an old preacher, but he’s also a product of his preacher father and grandfather, of the town that he’s chosen, of the life that he has and hasn’t lived. Underneath the stately tone lies the religious wrestlings and jealousies of the younger man, which do not overturn the immediately visible elements of his character, but enrich them. While I found its heavy religious content at worst alienating and at best dull, it provides a deep moral framework for the books and the characters.
By the end, you’ve been captured by its tone and been drawn into the strange, unfolding dynamic of John Ames and his namesake and son of his best friend, John Ames Boughton. You see there is something magical going on, something special and sad and full of meaning in what you’ve witnessed. Having dredged through the percentages (I read this on kindle) earlier on, I was shocked to suddenly notice the book was at 97%.
Once you’ve invested in it, Gilead responds to your efforts with something delicate, profound and hard to articulate about father and son relationships, faith, history and the struggle to know oneself. Quality writing for the contemplative thinkers amongst you, who are happy not to have it all served up on a platter.