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Lila - the next novel by Marilynne Robinson

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Hmmm... Another Gilead story? I'll take it over Robinson's nonfiction, but I wish she'd try something different -- the same way I wish Junot Diaz would branch out (although I pretty much loved Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her).

Edited by Christian

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This sounds great.

 

Re-reading Gilead after Home was a blast and I hope the same is true following Lila.

 

Of course, I am a total sucker for the comforts of series fiction, particularly when the author creates a world and builds on it and then builds some more.

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Of course, I am a total sucker for the comforts of series fiction, particularly when the author creates a world and builds on it and then builds some more.

 

Absolutely, which is why I'm drawn more and more to both Jim Butcher and Wendell Berry (never thought I'd see both of their names in the same sentence).

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Great news. I had wondered if she would stop writing fiction after those two near-perfect Gilead novels. 

 

I don't know if it's safe or brave of Robinson, but I can't think of any writer alive who's less likely to churn out a disappointing 'sequel' through lack of ideas. 

And Lila was such a fully-realized character, even in the background, that I can imagine this being really good.

 

Hmmm... Another Gilead story? I'll take it over Robinson's nonfiction, but I wish she'd try something different -- the same way I wish Junot Diaz would branch out (although I pretty much loved Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her).

 I kind of know what you mean, but aren't you happy when an artist finds something that fits them perfectly? I always think of Jane Austen - her novels are mostly very similar in storyline and scope, but few would argue they suffer for it. 

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Well, I should probably revisit Home, which was fine but missed what I so loved about Gilead -- that pastoral voice. If Lila is told from Lila's perspective, I expect to have a similar experience.

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Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal:

... But to the novelist, Gilead’s modesty is elemental to its majesty. In the incandescent moral order of her fiction, there can be no true understanding of happiness without an attendant understanding of shame, and no real grace without the presence of sorrow. “Praying,” Lila discovers, watching her devout husband, “looks just like grief.” For Ms. Robinson’s characters, the yoking of joy and pain is central to life’s defining mysteries: Why does a loving God, whose goodness is so often manifest, allow cruelty and injustice? What does suffering mean?

 

Ms. Robinson explored these questions in both “Home” and “Gilead” but never with the fullness of feeling or the beauty of expression present in “Lila,” her finest work since her 1980 debut, “Housekeeping.” In its sacramental respect for faith and doubt alike, and its reverent uncertainty about everything except the dignity and pathos of its characters, “Lila” is a book whose grandeur is found in its humility. That’s what makes Gilead among the most memorable settings in American fiction ...

 

“Lila” brims with moody, crooked metaphors that transfigure the dilapidated world into something strange and precious. A runaway boy that Lila meets looks to her like “something that came up in a drought and bloomed the best it could and never got its growth.” A broken windmill has “lost half itself to the wind, like a blown milkweed.”

 

Most striking of all is the bluesy beauty of the exposition. The novel is told in the third person, but it seamlessly inhabits the motions of Lila’s mind, and the irregular and imperfect hitches of her thinking are the legacy of her transience, her nearness to nature and her intimacy with the “great, sweet nowhere” of homelessness ... “Lila” can be read and appreciated on its own, but one of its rich pleasures is the way that it builds on “Gilead” and “Home,” viewing the same characters (and sometimes the same scenes) from a different slant of perception and a different set of sympathies. The prismatic effect of the trilogy makes Gilead a kind of mythic everyplace, a quintessential national setting where our country’s complicated union with faith, in all its degrees of constancy and skepticism, is enacted ...

 

Marian Ryan, Slate Book Review:

... Lila is easily the richest and most satisfying in this triptych of masterly works. The novel is the first of Robinson’s so commanded by voice, though she used first-person narration in her first two novels. In Housekeeping, the prose is so conspicuously beautiful that it acts against the possibilities of voice to illuminate character; the book ultimately concerns itself largely with exterior forces, the harsh Fingerbone landscape and the town’s harshly indifferent community. And Ames’ voice in Gilead is necessarily the controlled, tentative voice of a man wary of emotional extremes. But the anguish and transparency of Lila’s voice are utterly transfixing. In fact, the novel is not written in the first person but is such a tight weave of third-person narration and direct transmission of Lila’s memories and thoughts that it might as well be in the first person—it feels like it is. (The tedious literary term for this sort of writing is the free indirect style.)

The voice’s seductions encourage us to submerge ourselves in Lila’s story and serve as guide and comfort through the novel’s challenges and complexities. Besides the rapid shifts in narrative distance and time frames and multiple peaks of action we experience as Lila fossicks through different eras of her past, the novel grows steadily in allusiveness and rigor as it goes, confronting us with no small selection of obtuse Old Testament verses, parables inside and alongside and underneath parables, allusions to Calvin, and rehearsals of inter-denominational arguments over eligibility for eternity. (Lila is gripped with fear that her beloved Doll, as an unbeliever, will be forever punished.) The fearsome storms, disturbing creatures, and condemnatory tone of the Old Testament verses may put Lila off, the Reverend fears. “You know, I wouldn’t mind if you were reading Matthew, along with Ezekiel,” he tells her. “Just a suggestion.” ...

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I've begun reading this.  The tone and the contemplative style is just as refreshing as always.  But it's interesting how it is different from the first two, particularly in how the character's memories are really mixing up the linearity of the narrative.  That happened in Gilead to a certain extent, but it seems to be happening even more here.  And yet it doesn't detract from anything.  The way Robinson weaves past stories into present ones is masterful and feels relatively seamless.

 

It's also probably worth paying attention to the writing about Robinson which has been quite impressive recently.  She is being noticed far more than she was back when A&F started up it's Gilead thread, and the people who are writing about her are quite diverse.

 

For instance, Anne Helen Petersen from BuzzFeed Books, wrote earlier this month:

“... There’s been a lot of writing about Robinson in the weeks leading up to the release of Lila, the third in what could be called her “Iowa trilogy,” which traces life in the small town of Gilead from the perspective of a dying Congregationalist pastor (Gilead), his Presbyterian best friend (Home), and his young wife (Lila). They’re deceptively simple novels, offering voice to a small cast of characters in a tiny town, as they wrestle, without pomposity, with what can only be described as the most important questions of life. What does it mean to be good? To forgive? To die? And what might a life of striving toward those answers look like?

If that sounds like a slog through the worst of self-help or the most impenetrable of philosophy, that’s because there’s no suitable language for a text that manages to simultaneously function as a novel and a piece of profound meditation. The trilogy has been called one of the ‘unlikeliest’ in American literary history, but it’s also one of the most indescribable: an unapologetically religious, profoundly lyrical text that is the opposite of ‘preachy.’

... Robinson writes in a way that manages to seem at once spare and expansive. I can’t tell you whether her sentences are short or long, simply that they make my life and thoughts seem like they have a meter. It’s incredibly soothing and yet — remarkably, inexplicably — the opposite of soporific. Even as her characters wade through sorrow, there’s a sharpness to her work, an abundance, an alacrity. I want to swim through the deep lake of each chapter. It’s that immersive and, in its attention to the smallest details of the reflective mind, that otherworldly.

... Robinson’s spiritual upbringing did not pivot in high school, as mine did, to conform to the growing evangelism of the ’90s, replete with praise songs and “See You at the Pole” performances of belief. In this (and myriad other ways) I find myself jealous: that she followed a path that led deeper into the thickness of scripture and theology, whereas mine led to shame and alienation ...”

 

And then poet and former Archbishop Rowan Williams just wrote about, among other things, how Robinson is making use of the Old Testament in Lila:

... But her laborious biblical reading produces more unexpected moments of recognition. Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly chariot in which God rides, supported by four “living creatures” – a passage immensely important in the history of Jewish and Christian mysticism, and whose chaotic vocabulary and imagery still induce a frisson – prompts Lila to reflect on “the wildness of things” which she is tempted to forget as she is welcomed into Gilead’s placid religious consolations. The feverish language of the prophet, boiling over with incomprehensible apparitions, and qualifications or withdrawals of images (“as it were glowing metal”; “the likeness of a man . . . every one had four faces”), makes unexpected sense. “She had the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it.”

 

To Lila, the many-faced creatures of the vision “made as much sense as anything else. No sense at all. If you think about a human face, it can be something you don’t want to look at . . . It can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you can expect.”

 

It is partly this unconventional Bible study that keeps Lila engaged – baffled, lured, repelled – with the religious world represented by John Ames: in the stormy metaphors of Ezekiel and Job she recognises that she has been recognised, that her experience has had words found for it, even if (or especially when) those words are chaotic and bewildering. Her own distinctive voice – laconic, naive, suspicious, naked – is gradually inflected by these strange mythological idioms ...

 

Anyone else started or finished it yet?

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I was able to listen to audio versions of Gilead, Home and Lila in the span of about 15 days. I'd read Gilead and Home before, but it had been 10 years for one and six for the other and I remember Home them both quite differently. (I had even forgotten that the big reveal at the end of Gilead even happens in that chronicle and remembered it only as one of the Rashomon-like new perspectives provided in Home. Clearly that is way off.)

 

One thing I was confronted by with Lila was how little I considered her character when first reading Gilead. She has such a story that led her to that town and church.

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I finished reading this over the weekend.  I loved it and I'd enjoy discussing it more after others here have had a chance to read it.

 

In the meantime, Christian recently posted John Piper's review over at Facebook.  It's a frustrating review, because of how influential Piper still can be in many reformed and evangelical circles and after reading the book, I'm convinced he is misinterpreting it and reading more into it than is really there.  I didn't know how popular Piper really was until I moved to the east coast.  Living in the D.C. area for about 8 years, I heard him quoted and cited as an authority in numerous churches (sort of in the same way that John MacArthur is in many churches on the west coast).  What I find troubling is there already seems to be a reaction against Marilynne Robinson within some conservative circles.  And, as a conservative myself, the worst part of it is that when I've talked to others who had actually heard of Robinson, they were already dismissing her based upon this reaction without having yet read a single book she's written.

 

I also don't mean to turn this thread into another thread debating the existence or orthodoxy of hell.  If something in this thread sparks more of that debate, that's fine, but let's remember to move that over to here (or even here) and keep this thread to discussing what Robinson herself actually wrote.

 

This isn’t to say that Piper does not praise Robinson’s writing.  He even states what he appreciates about the novel in five points (like a sermon).  In fact, this is why he frames his disagreement with her more as “disappointment” with her for how he understands her theology as not being identical to his.

Piper takes issue with an excerpt (and labels it under the heading “Wrathless Grace and Empty Hell”) where John Ames is trying to explain what he thinks to Lila:

“I do want to say one more thing. Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way. (101)”

I don’t understand why Piper does not see a distinction between believing in the doctrine of hell and cautioning against presuming that a person you know is going to hell.  Robinson is suggesting, through her story, that presuming that someone you know is going to hell could be a sin.  This is not something new in her writing and it shouldn’t come as a surprise if anyone who remembers Jack’s questions in the other books about his own damnation if he happened to not be one of the “elect.”

Piper then writes:

“... This leads him, on page 142, and Lila, on page 258, to pronounce about their unbelieving friends waking up in heaven because, ‘the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I’m sure he is’ (142).

John Ames’s words are no longer questions in the face of mystery. They are convictions. Strong ones: ‘Thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin.’ ‘Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption.’ One is not even allowed to think that someone ‘might’ perish ...”


Do we really need to think that someone is going to be damned in order to believe in the real possibility of damnation?  Maybe I (and Robinson) are trying to have it both ways, but Robinson tells the story in a way that makes Lila worry and wrestle with the idea of a loved one she knew, who never heard the Gospel or at least who never understood it, being damned.  I don’t know how this is something that everyone wouldn’t identify with.  We all have loved ones who we cannot imagine not being given grace and salvation.  Why does cautioning against presuming that anyone is going to hell, and relying on and trusting in divine grace, have to be a rejection of hell?  Piper seems to think that it is.

While it’s not a perfect comparison, the entire objection that Piper makes against how Robinson has Ames and Lila think through the idea of hell reminds me of a story that William F. Buckley told in his autobiography, Nearer, My God.  Buckley wrote about a Jesuit priest that he respected:

“He had been approached some weeks earlier, he told us, by a devout elderly woman who asked him whether dogs would be admitted into Heaven. No, he had replied, there was no scriptural authority for animals getting into Heaven.  ‘In that case,’ the lady had said to him, ‘I can never be happy in Heaven.  I can only be happy if Brownie is also there.’  ‘I told her’ - Fr. Sharkey spoke with mesmerizing authority - ‘that if that were the case - that she could not be happy without Brownie - why then Brownie would in fact go to Heaven.  Because what is absolutely certain is that, in Heaven, you will be happy.’  That answer, I am sure, sophisticated readers of Esquire dismissed, however indulgently, as jesuitical.  Yes.  But I have never found the fault in the syllogism.”

While Buckley was only half-joking there, Robinson’s characters in Lila are very serious because they are thinking about people they love.  In spite of Robinson’s upbringing in and admiration for reformed theologians like Calvin and Jonathan Edwards (who she recently wrote an essay on which Piper also criticizes), she seems to me to be rejecting a few Calvinist sensibilities.  And I certainly do not find that disappointing, even while Robinson has also encouraged me to read both more Calvin and more Edwards than I otherwise would have.

Piper writes:

“This is all very disappointing. Personally and theologically. Personally, because John Ames had become a very helpful friend to me. Yes, he had a higher tolerance for mystery on some points than I do, but I admired him. I believe that I am a better husband today because of meeting John Ames, and watching him love his wife. So when he turns from mystery to pontificating, with no greater authority than his own instincts, on how hell and grace don’t mix, I feel like I am losing a friend. He called my belief a ‘grave sin’ and a ‘great presumption.’ This strains a relationship.

And, just as sad, he says that if we hold the orthodox view of hell, we cannot live the way we should. In other words, the reason I am a better husband is that I am being drawn into a sphere where hell has no place.

Which leads to the theological sadness of Robinson’s assertions ...”


I respect Piper and from what I’ve read of Piper, I do not think he is incapable of understanding nuance or fine theological distinctions.  But I think he is missing something important here.  That, or his view of the doctrine of hell is different from that of most other Christian theologians I have read.  I do not find anything unorthodox with how Robinson has her characters wrestle with these things or with the conclusions she allows them to come to.

I then find Piper’s conclusion incredibly frustrating:

“If our choice were between whether Edwards ‘too readily’ held on to the doctrine of hell, or whether Marilynne Robinson too readily, and sadly, turned John Ames into a kind, old liberal, I would choose the patiently-wrought grandeur of Edwards’s vision. But, of course, this is not the choice. The choice is: Has God spoken reliably in the Bible?”

It is sentences like these that is causing a vast number of even strongly conservative believers to turn away from modern church leaders like Piper.

 

Every question does not come down to whether the Bible is infallible and inspired.  I, for one, happen to believe that it is.  Moreover, I have read nothing in Robinson’s books that leads me even to suspect that she does not believe the same.  But the “doctrine of hell” has room for more nuance and less absolute thinking than Piper is willing to give it.  C.S. Lewis was willing to allow for a more tempered view.  And I find the view that Robinson shows Ames and Lila reaching in this novel to be a very humble one.

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I love Robinson's novels so deeply that any criticisms feel like a personal attack. Still, Piper's piece is a reminder of why, ten years after I stopped attending church regularly, I'm happy to spend my Sunday mornings reading great novels, watching great films, and doing anything other than parsing verses. That Piper would, in essence, reject a friendship--one that apparently meant a great deal to him and improved his marriage!--because John Ames falls a bit to the left of him on a fine theological point is the kind of behavior that would only make sense to someone who has wasted too much of his life debating fine theological points. This, of course, is exactly the saving grace that Lila brings to Ames's cloistered life.

Edited by Darren H

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To be frank, without recalling or perhaps ever knowing the particulars that motivated it, you make your decision to stop going to church sound an awful lot like Piper's rejection of Ames and Robinson's novels.  Both seem like rash and somewhat immature responses to a personal grievance with the end result of leaving a fellowship that is  imperfect and yet breathed upon by God.  I can't pretend to understand what your church experience was like, but if you think the majority of us who go to church-- who feel that it is a place where the Divine is encountered-- are just "parsing verses," then I think you missed the point big-time, Piper-style.

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Russ, As someone who is currently attending church (irregularly at present only because I am figuring out a move to a different city) but who has also taken years at a time off from attending church, I can directly testify to the fact that deciding not to attend church does not have to be motivated by a personal grievance or by a dissatisfaction with the people at church.  I have other believing friends who do not attend regularly because they have found what is taught objectionable, intellectually or morally.  (And that is not even to mention those of my friends who are struggling with belief itself.)

Moreover, there have been times when I have avoided church for my own spiritual health, because of the ways in which attending encourage some of my own vices in how I relate to and interact with other believers.  I admit that it is entirely possible that, during some of these times, I was being either selfish or self-centered.  But I have committed to attending some churches in the past where going there on Sunday morning was often a trial - oppressive, embarrassing, and/or inevitably resulting in my feeling like I had done something wrong.

Acknowledging the fellowship, community, opportunities and rich rewards that a church can offer, I think there is something to be said for keeping away from it during certain times in one’s life.  Sometimes, especially if the church teaching has proven to be harmful, there isn’t always an opportunity to change it.  And there have been many Sundays when I would have been better off reading someone like Marilynne Robinson rather than awkwardly hanging around a worship service or sermon.

Also, this is a particularly relevant topic that actually does kind of work in this thread, because in Robinson’s novel, a young Lila is first told to stay away from church.  This is a story where her character questions what church is for, and in her developing relationship with Ames, it is interesting how we see what he is doing as a pastor through her eyes.  Much of what he does and teaches does appear to be so outside the reality of how so many people live, that the story asks the reader (as Lila asks Ames) what much of it is really for - and why much of it is, in fact, worthwhile.  I should have said earlier that Piper's focus by no means makes for the main theme of Lila as a novel.  The difference between the lives of Lila and her husband is another of the major themes, and the difference is a revealing one which does not side against either.

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At this point, I should know better than to post a strong opinion around here in fewer than 500 words. Otherwise, too much is lost in translation. But honestly it takes me two hours to write 500 words these days, and it would take 10,000 to do any justice to the last ten years of my life.

 

I think there's a good deal of truth in your criticism of me, Russ, and I'm working through those issues, believe me. For what it's worth, I certainly don't believe parsing verses is all there is to church (and I hope I've demonstrated that at least a few times in all the years we've known each other), but parsing verses--the way I was raised to define my identity, my faith, my relationships, my eternity by staking out positions on a litany of theological issues--is certainly the aspect of my churched experience that feels most alien (traumatic, even) to me now. Piper struck a nerve, obviously.

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For what it's worth, I was church-less for several years, between roughly 1995 and 2003 -- I did attend various churches sporadically, but I wouldn't have called any of them my "home" -- but I always saw that as a temporary thing, as a thing that needed to be remedied. I'm not really sure how possible it is to be a Christian without *some* sort of participation in the sacraments, and you can't participate in the sacraments outside of community. It might sound like I'm saying this now because I'm Orthodox, but I grew up Mennonite, and even within the theology of that church -- a theology that denied the very sacramentality of the sacraments, insisting that communion and baptism were nothing more than "symbols" of our devotion to Christ -- the point was still made that Jesus commanded us to eat his body, drink his blood, and be baptized in his name, and that those who would call themselves his followers need to obey him on those points. All to say, I don't quite track with the characterization of Sunday worship as a time for "teaching", let alone "parsing verses". Yes, the readings and the homily are an important part of the service, but they are not the focal point of it.

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Well, I go to church regularly AND finished the book. tongue.png  What I do not have is TIME to write about it...

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I couldn't find a general Marilynne Robinson thread, so here is what I would have posted there:

Fun to see Robinson celebrated among the "icons" section of the new Time magazine "100 Most Influential People."  Never mind that DiCaprio and Inarritu are also included among the icons, which makes this section anticlimactic overall. :)

Edited by Brian D

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