Marilynne Robinson is more than simply another stunning addition to the cannon of contemporary female writers who capture the world with delicious accuracy and a unique, purposeful perspective. Robinson is a writer of thrilling grace, of limitless empathy, of poise and passion and a quietude both beguiling and bespoke. Robinson is a writer who has surpassed the usual excellencies.
Over the years I've spent countless hours curled up on the couch draining mug after mug of tea, transported to the world of Gilead, reluctant to return. I've stepped off the subway utterly confused and balking at the uptown bustle when I should have stepped out in SoHo, if only I could have torn myself away from The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. I've cried myself to sleep with Lila and nursed myself back to health with When I Was a Child I Read Books. I have loved and lost with Robinson, I have given in and grown up, I have mourned and mused and lived beyond myself. I have changed.
Reading Marilynne Robinson will change you — it's inevitable, like the glass of milk the mouse will ask for after you offer up a cookie. At this point, the only question you have to ask yourself is how. Now, over the years I've given that question a good deal of thought, so, if I may, allow me to suggest a few possibilities:
1. Your universe will expand
The world of Gilead, Iowa, home to Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 novel Gilead, as well as the subsequent Housekeeping and Lila, effectively epitomizes small-town life. Gilead is both rural and remote, congenial, contained, and characteristic of a certain time and place somehow representative of America. And yet, without wandering too far from the halcyon homes and streets of the fictionalized farming community, Robinson pushes the boundaries of existence to the very breaking point. Robinson's stunning capacity to represent life in all of it's extremes without over leaving Gilead's rickety front porches will open your eyes to a whole new world without ever showing you anything you haven't seen before. This is magic of the highest order — this is Marilynne Robinson's unique gift.
2. Your sense of time will shift
Perhaps more than lusty tugs at language and usage, more than new themes and stylistic exploration, experiments in the structure of time within the space of the novel have become the hallmark of modern literature, and no one take on time quite like Marilynne Robinson. Like a chronological rainbow, Robinson blurs the lines between past and present, merging days gone by and the immediacy of the present moment with a lucidity luminous to behold. Robinson's temporal transience is rooted in the telling of the story, and spending time within the continuums crafted by Robinson will forever alter your perception of the nature of narrative and the essence time itself.
3. Faith will feel closer than ever before
Love drips from every word and deed in a Robinson novel like honey from the catacombs of a well-built hive: love for place and personhood, love of story and friendship and family and the inescapable miracle of life itself. Even in abandonment, murder, lonliness and loss there is love — and this is not the rushed and raucous love of D.H. Lawrence or the staid, state-sanctioned love of Hawthorne. This is a deeper, greater, gentler love — a godly love. Marilynne Robinson is a woman of faith, and I, as it just so happens, am not. Nonetheless it is an inescapable fact that Robinson's books conjure up a new kind of conviction, a warm, healing lattice-work of love, community, curiosity and trust that will forever alter your perception of faith, whatever your current belief system may be.
4. You will be humbled
The raw power and carefully honed craft of Robinson's writing would surely be enough to breathe awe into the world of any willing reader, but the magnificence of Robinson's authorial capacity pales in comparison to the humbling majesty of the stories themselves. Robinson writes first and foremost about people, and her novels are narrated with an honesty and fidelity awsome to behold. Infrequently in life do we come across the opportunity to look directly into the mind of another and see clearly the hopes, dreams, doubts, fears, fantasies, and flights of fancy that constitute a unique consciousness. Robinson's work offers direct access to the human soul, and it is quite impossible to stare directly into the face of humanity itself and walk away unscathed by the beautiful bite of humility.
5. You will ask big questions
Marilynne Robinson is clearly a born wonderer — over the course of a stunning interview with Wyatt Mason for The New York Times, she asks more questions than she answers, and still manages to satisfy both author and audience. Robinson's books of essays are also clearly aligned towards a tradition of inquiry and the queries seem to be contagious. To read Robinson is to find yourself looking up in earnest, tilting your head to the side and musing, really pondering, deeply and pointedly. With so few opportunities to ask big questions in the contemporary milieu, Marilynne Robinson's books are like a long walk in an empty park, a discourse with Socrates himself, a prayer on bended knees — they are nothing if not an invitation to ask those questions that cannot be answered but must nonetheless be pursued.
6. You will feel a renewed sense of purity
Modern stories suffer from a surfeit of irony. The upturned eyebrow, the casual sneer, the attitude of cultural and moral superiority — there is a subtle poison in this self-satisfied cycle of deprecation and idolization, a poison wholly absent from the Robinson's work. To read a Robinson novel is to find beauty soft and quiet tiptoeing into the picture early on, spreading outwards and infusing the entire story with a gentle glow. Of course there is pain in a Robinson novel — pain and prurience and hardship and even hatred — but these are pure, un-ironic emotions, honest and earned. A Robinson novel is entirely unaffected, unconcerned with what it looks like or feels like, undeterred by how it might seen. A Robinson novel is simply true to itself, and that pure unadulterated honesty is so refreshing, so rigorous, so remarkable that you will feel renewed when you look at literature.
7. You will fall in love
In my experience, love does not approach head on — it creeps in at the margins, slowly overwhelming you until you find yourself immersed, drowning in it before you see it for what it is. When I first picked up Gilead I read matter-of-factly for the first few chapters, frustrated, bored, confused by the novel's quiet, steady unfolding. I contemplated putting it down, couldn't quite make the commitment to cut myself off, kept on reading. Before I even knew what was happening I found myself ensnared, and inescapably in love. Reading Robinson is not like tripping and falling on the love of your life, reading Robinson is developing a friendship over decades and then slowly realizing you've found your soulmate. Whether you like it or not, you're bound to fall in love.
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