Marilynne Robinson’s tenderness for life

Natasha Moore writes an open letter to Marilynne Robinson about her latest novel 'Jack'.

Dear Marilynne,

May I call you Marilynne? It’s not that I’m worried about the presumption, so much. It’s more that I’ve been noticing lately I’m more likely to refer to a writer — specifically, a favourite writer — by their first name if they’re female.

A classic feminist bugbear: men, who are serious writers, we accord the gravitas of the stand-alone name. Roth. Nabokov. Coetzee. Hemingway. Um, Shakespeare. Women, who consume and produce a majority of fiction, and have won a decided minority of prestigious literary awards — somehow it just seems more natural with women to assume the chattiness of a first-name basis.

Naturally, I have my justifications to hand. On the male side, so many Johns and Williams, so many thickets of initials to thwart easy reference. On the female side, words like “affinity” and “intimacy.” It’s a compliment! A sign of affection, of emotional investment. (Yet my declared favourite book of all time is Moby-Dick, and it’s barely even occurred to me that Melville’s first name is Herman. But — Hesse! The logic holds?)

And then, the particulars. It’s hardly my fault that Liane shares her last name with Conan Doyle’s arch-villain. I must say Charlotte, because the Brontës come multiple. If I say Jane — often I do, in fact, say Austen — but when I say Jane, it feels almost like Madonna, or Beyoncé. A nonpareil! A mark of respect? I can’t say George for George Eliot, because Meredith or Gissing or (more likely) Orwell — and if I simply said Eliot, I’m guessing T.S. would cut in — hence, inalienable, George Eliot. Yet it’s also a man’s name and now I don’t know which side of the scale Mary Ann (see?) is tipping for me.

And so, Marilynne. Especially written, not the most common spelling of the name, not to be confused with Monroe. You did win a Pulitzer, of course (far from your only literary award), for Gilead, whose narrator is male, the mid-twentieth-century Iowan pastor John Ames — apparently novels with a male protagonist, whether written by men or by women, are also more likely to win awards — and (here we come full circle) your new novel in the world of Gilead, your fourth, is called Jack. Protagonist: male. Title: stand-alone first name. Tone: one of searing intimacy. I give up.

Secretly, I worried a little that I mightn’t like Jack too much — because, of course, I didn’t like Jack too much up to now. I worried that my emotional investment in the world of Gilead, Iowa, and the spiritual turbulence and peace and power of its inhabitants, might be setting me up for disappointment. John Ames Boughton — “Jack” — the prodigal son, the black sheep, the Prince of Darkness (as he wryly dubs himself, in Jack), features in Gilead, in Home, and in Lila. And though in those novels you do bring us, your readers, to pity him and think some little good of him, it’s also clear that he’s a headache and, more seriously, a heartache for the many who continue doggedly to love him.

But I trust you — I trust your prose — to lead me somewhere I would not otherwise willingly go, to illuminate some dingy alley with a light that’s all the brighter for the dinginess. From Housekeeping onwards, you seem to have a particular attention for the transient, the transients. Transience. Transcendence. To your eye everything is transcendent and, as I read, to mine, every minor or shabby thing a dust mote dancing golden in the shafts of your quiet, shining sentences: “Giant miseries and giant hopes can carry on their wars in the merest cranny.”

Jack’s life, like Jack’s suit, is threadbare. At the time of Jack, several years before the “present” of the other Gilead novels, he is (again, in his own words) “a confirmed, inveterate bum.” He leads a shiftless life in St. Louis, Missouri, sometimes homeless, often drunk, subject to the whims of violent debt collectors, newly released from a two-year stint in prison, trying to keep body and soul together but unsure to what end (“The point of all this was to stay alive as long as decency required”).

Born well within the kinds of buffers that protect people from such a life — a loving family, abundant educational opportunities, a respectability that is not hypocrisy but genuine decency — Jack has long slipped that safety net and chosen precariousness. No longer buffered, constantly buffeted.

But “chosen” is not quite right, is it? From the inside, we find out what it’s like to be Jack, to carry that mix of charm and malice that has so mystified those around him since childhood, and which, it turns out, is just as much a mystery to the man himself:

“I suppose sinning is doing harm. Agreed? And everything is vulnerable to harm, one way or another. Everybody is vulnerable. It’s kind of horrible when you think about it. All that breakage, without so much as an intention behind it half the time. All that tantalizing fragility.” … When did he first notice that in himself, that little fascination with damage and its consequences?

In Jack, you crack open for us Jack’s experience of the world, and of himself, and invite us to join him there on the fringes.

Jack knows, we discover, more than anyone about the harm he has done in his life. He has long aspired to harmlessness — and is dismayed to find that good intentions make little discernible difference to his effect on the world. He is convinced it is his curse: to sow damage and disruption wherever he goes. The best he can do, he concludes, is simply to limit his proximity to others. To be set apart. (“How did people live? His oldest question.”)

In Jack, you crack open for us Jack’s experience of the world, and of himself, and invite us to join him there on the fringes. His inner compulsion to do harm is not unknown to us. His special precariousness confronts us with the reality that being human is quite the precarious business, in fact. Your tenderness for his wasted life feels like a tenderness for all of us — all of us wayward, needy, liable to do harm.

This would feel glib to say — we’re all transient when you think about it, aren’t we? or, we all feel some pull to destruction — were it not for Della’s refusal to allow Jack to remain aloof, to be an exception to humankind and the general suffering: “You’re just like everybody else. You seem to think other people aren’t doing the same thing you are, more or less.”

Della is Jack’s link back to other humans and to society at large, for better and for worse. For better, because her value for him is the antidote to his own sense of worthlessness (“He was waiting to see what she would make of him, as they say. And then he would be what she made of him”). For worse, because their love is impossible under the anti-miscegenation laws of the time. To enter into this unofficial marriage with a “colored gal,” a preacher’s daughter and a high-school teacher, who is gentle and steely and a pillar of her community and also (underneath it all) not very conventional, is the best thing Jack has ever done. His struggle to prevent himself from doing it — from turning the woman he loves into an outcast — is also, perhaps, the best thing he has ever tried to do.

For me, this was the beauty and the agony of the novel — the impossible relationship that nonetheless is, the love that can’t be a bad thing, but can’t be a good thing either. The way it’s possible to subsist on the mere thought of someone for a year, the way they can become the person you talk to in your head when nobody’s there:

Della was speaking to him sometimes in his thoughts, or she was quiet, simply there at the edge of his vision. In her gentle way she was making everything easier. What would she find becoming in him? That was what he did. And by putting himself in the way of survival, not to put too fine a point on it, he was doing as she had asked him to do, so forthrightly. Can these bones live? Oh, Lord, you know. But for you, Miss Miles, I am eating this sandwich, for you I am smiling at this stranger, for you I am trying to sleep. He could not imagine an occasion when she might acknowledge any of this. No matter. Their lives were parallel lines that would not meet, he knew that, he would see to that. But they defined each other, somehow.

Jack is about race, in a way that is constantly upending or thwarting expected power dynamics. (“I have never heard of a white man who got so little good out of being a white man,” Della half-scolds Jack.) Jack is about what power exists that can lift us out of the ruts of our lives, lift us above all that is ugliest in the state of things. In short — like everything you write, Marilynne — it is about grace.

Jack knows that he does not deserve Della, or everything she forfeits for love of him. He is an atheist steeped in the love of a father whose desperate love for him is that of the Father for the prodigal son: “His own father would embrace him weeping if given the chance, he was fairly sure. This thought was the thread his life had hung by.” Meeting with a black pastor in St. Louis, he finds himself moved to confess, not only the harm he is and does, but the insufficiency of his regret over harm done:

He said, “Mr. Ames, if the Lord thinks you need punishing, you can trust Him to see to it. He knows where to find you. If He’s showing you a little grace in the meantime, He probably won’t mind if you enjoy it.”

Jack said, “I’m not sure that’s what’s happening. It’s not always clear to me how to tell grace from, you know, punishment. Granting your terms.” If the thought of someone sweetened your life to the point of making it tolerable, even while you knew that just to be seen walking down the street with her might do her harm, which one was that?

A Marilynne Robinson novel is a kind of training exercise in generosity of spirit, or so your novels have been for me.

The grace that God shows to his creatures, and that those creatures (some of them) show to each other, is something high and holy, serious and searing — as well as homely and sometimes whimsical, even absurd. A Marilynne Robinson novel is a kind of training exercise in generosity of spirit, or so your novels have been for me. You’ve used the term “cosmic realism” to describe what you do, what you show — “a patient chronicling of the astonishing nature of existence.” Your cosmic realism continually buttonholes me, draws me in close: You believe in grace. What is this so-called grace, who is it for, if not for the Jacks of the world? How is love ‘love’ if it’s merited?

“There are no ordinary people,” write C.S. Lewis in “The Weight of Glory” (one of his most-quoted essays). “You have never talked to a mere mortal.” Revisiting this essay, Lewis’s reflections read suddenly like a gloss on Jack/Jack — on the father-son ground of Jack’s being, the solemnity of Jack and Della’s connection, and on your obvious heart for Jack:

To please God … to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness … to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son — it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is …

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

Ames and old Boughton; Glory, Lila, Jack. The rich and sad and quirky inner lives of the constellation of souls we meet in and through Gilead confirm what we ought to have known: that there is a disproportion between our outsides and our insides. That weightiness — that weight of glory borne by each and every human — is made visible by tenderness. That true respect for the depth and weight of another is a function, not of remoteness, of gravitas, but of intimacy.

Like an actual human life, each of these novels has felt at once complete in itself and also like a tangle of loose threads trailing in every direction. I don’t know (from what I’ve read, I don’t think you do either, yet) if Jack will be the last visit to the Gilead-world that you invite us to make with you. Either way, Marilynne, thank you for introducing us.

Natasha Moore is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. She is the author of For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined, which is the 2020 Australian Christian Book of the Year, and most recently of The Pleasures of Pessimism, as well as a co-host of the podcast Life & Faith. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.

Image: The University of the South (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)