My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Marilynne Robinson’s second novel, Gilead (2004), is literally stunning. Every time I tried to read it, I would become dazed with boredom or would even fall asleep, knocked out by the novel’s descriptive vagueness and tonal self-effacement. Gilead is a beloved book, a contemporary classic, as we are told, so I’m sure this reaction marks me out as a bad person—but this novel is not against bad people per se; it even quietly argues that, in unheroic times, bad people might be the only people with spirit enough to be heroes. This insight is pursued in major Christian fiction from Stowe and Dostoevsky to O’Connor and Coetzee, but Robinson’s choice to narrate this tale of sinning one’s way to Jesus in the voice of a quietly good, heroically unheroic man mutes the paradox and weakens the irony.
Gilead is set in 1956 in the eponymous Iowa town (Robinson’s invention) founded by Christian abolitionists before the Civil War. Its narrator is the Congregationalist minister John Ames, an old man nearing death. Ames has found romance and marriage with a young woman late in life and Gilead takes the form of a letter for his son to read when he comes of age. Given this structure, Gilead is a very expository and seemingly even aleatory novel, its narrator following chains of association as he writes every day to an imagined interlocutor—his son as he will be as an adult. Ames details his daily life, reminisces about his past, tells stories about his family and friends, and vouchsafes his thoughts on theology.
Gradually, though, the novel reveals itself to be less Ames’s story than the story of two other, more active characters: his long-deceased grandfather, a fiery and fanatical prophet-like old preacher who helped to found the town and who was the comrade of John Brown, and Ames’s namesake and godson John Ames (Jack) Boughton, the prodigal son of the old man’s best friend who has returned to Gilead from a long and mysterious period of wandering. While Robinson certainly invites readers to admire Ames’s humility, his diffidence, his reticence, his devotion to the commonplace, his readiness to praise others, his gratitude for his good fortune in having found the love of a good woman in the twilight of his life, his humane religiosity, the novel remains an elegy to the vanished heroism of his grandfather’s generation, who fought to free the slaves, and a paean to the rising generation represented by Jack, who risks all, we learn at the novel’s climax, for interracial love.
Like Robinson’s nonfiction, such as the drubbingly tendentious and self-righteous essays collected in The Death of Adam, Gilead presents us with a moral history of the United States whose collective protagonist is the Puritan diaspora of Calvin’s Geneva and Winthrop’s Boston, those Christian radicals who founded the Midwest as a bulwark against slavery and built modern liberalism from Calvinist doctrines of individual perfectionism and mutual aid. It is almost too easy to complain about how much is left out of this story—Catholics and Jews, as William Deresiewicz points out; or the agency and independent political thought of black people, who figure in Robinson’s historiography largely as index and object of Calvinist morality; or even the inner complexities of Puritanism and its legacy themselves, Jonathan Edwards’s assurance to his fainting congregation that God hates them or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s need to abandon the pulpit. For the purposes of literary criticism, though, Robinson should be granted her historical and political donnée. The problem with Gilead is not necessarily its message, which seemed so timely in 2004, but its message’s vehicle: prose too devoted to the Protestant plain style, to my mind, to bring a fictional world alive.
It is not that the novel simply argues a thesis; it is as irony-rich as any serious fiction needs to be. For one thing, Ames is clear enough that the moral fanaticism of his grandfather came at the cost of any practicable or peaceable social life, and also that the white abolitionists’ quest had an element of quixotism in it—a comic episode in the novel, wherein one of the abolitionists’ underground railroad tunnels collapses under a horse, leading the only black man in Gilead to flee for fear of his would-be saviors’ incompetence, makes the latter point. Ames’s father speaks up for pacifism, and Ames himself laments that, since the Great War, “we have had war continuously,” thus calling into question his grandfather’s belligerence even in a good cause.
Similarly, we are led for much of the novel to see Jack Boughton as a menacing, Stavrogin-like figure, a charming atheist and predator: his youthful mischief is described with hints of sociopathy and, after Ames reveals that Jack fathered a child on a very young and impoverished woman whom he later abandoned, we begin to worry with Ames about what is portended by Jack’s attention to Ames’s young wife and son.
In short, it is precisely because Ames’s grandfather and his godson were and are so ill-adjusted to the ordinary—unlike the supremely quotidian Ames himself—that they were and are able to advance, however problematically, the causes of justice and faith. Abraham and Isaac are alluded to, just so we know what story is being avoided, what Kierkegaardian existentialism and extremity Robinson evades. There is no sense here, as there is in The Idiot or Wise Blood or The Schooldays of Jesus, that faith might be inhuman, desolating, shattering.
I even dallied with the idea that Gilead should be understood as a Nabokov-like or Ishiguro-like novel of morally unreliable narration, a Browningesque dramatic monologue whose speaker stands inadvertently self-condemned: Ames the impotent, too well-behaved to be good and so obscurely evil, contemptible in comparison to the Civil War generation:
They had been to Lane and Oberlin, and they knew their Hebrew and their Greek and their Locke and their Milton. […] Still, they were bodacious old men, the lot of them. It was the most natural thing in the world that my grandfather’s grave would look like a place where someone had tried to smother a fire.
But Gilead is too rhetorically invested in Ames’s praise of the everyday for readers to come away with anything other than conviction that Ames is right: the evidence of grace and the warrant for faith is the beauty of the ordinary rather than any extravagant gesture of nonconformism or annihilating experience of the divine. The problem is that this beauty is asserted more than it is described in the novel. While Ames does not really write like a man of his age, background, and time period would write such a letter to his son—he writes, in fact, like a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, in fragmentary epiphanies destined not for family but for a literary journal—Robinson’s concession to verisimilitude is that Ames is no shimmering stylist. If I am to be convinced, though, that the loveliness of the world is justification enough for faith, I am going to need prose more precise and intense and alive than this:
Sometimes the visionary experience of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. For example, whenever I take a child into my arms to be baptized, I am, so to speak, comprehended in the experience more fully, having seen more of life, knowing better what it means to affirm the sacredness of the human creature. I believe there are visions that come to us only in vision, in retrospect. That’s the pulpit speaking, but it’s telling the truth.
Gilead has far too much of this abstract pulpit language for a novel ostensibly about beauty. There are memorable descriptions throughout—fireflies rising from a field, a stream near a farm, the baptism of cats—but Ames’s tone is so rambling and ingratiating, the language so bereft of any dazzle, that I just never became absorbed in the novel or persuaded by it.
Gilead felt urgent upon its publication, hence the gratitude in its reception, evidenced by the breathless blurbs that adorn the paperback. Robinson implicitly promised nothing less, in the midst of what Philip Roth once called “the ministry of George W. Bush,” than a reclamation of Protestantism or even Christianity itself from the preachers of the prosperity gospel and the masters of war. Whether or not the novel’s polemical calm in the midst of crisis can survive its moment, though, I for one tend to doubt. Gilead defends the local from the imputation that it is parochial, and its concluding benediction—”I’ll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country”—makes of Gilead the microcosm of the nation; but prose as plain, a voice as muted, as that of John Ames may not be saved even by such authorial self-defense. Maybe reading Home and Lila, if ever I do, will change my mind, but I found Gilead, 13 years after its publication, unable to transcend its place and time.
 Now that the first accounts of alt-right thought are being written, it is worth noting that the thesis of contemporary American liberalism’s direct and linear descent from Calvinism is the key historical claim of neoreaction as elaborated in the political philosophy of Curtis Yarvin and Nick Land. Marilynne Robinson and Mencius Moldbug: strange bedfellows, to say the least.
 When the novel was published, fanaticism for freedom leading to emancipatory war would have been associated in the minds of the liberal literati with George W. Bush’s destruction of Mesopotamia, hence the political need for Robinson’s irony about the quixotic abolitionists. It was only during the Obama administration that the myth of the good war was redeemed for liberalism by a shift in the focus of historical memory from World War II, tarnished by its constant rhetorical use as a war-justification from the 1980s through the 2000s, to the American Civil War, understood as the second American Revolution and absolute sine qua non of African-American freedom. One need not hedge about the justice of defeating both the Nazis and the Confederacy, however, to allow that the question of whether democracy can or should be brought to recalcitrant territories at the point of a gun remains open.