This month, Marilynne Robinson will publish Gilead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 247 pages), her second novel, 23 years after publishing her first. That book, Housekeeping, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won the PEN/Hemingway Award. It is a mainstay of book clubs and lists of the best novels of the 20th century. The anticipation of Robinson's follow-up has been urgent, loud and public. In 2001 even her pastor weighed in. "She seems not to be applying herself to using that gift as much as I hope she would," the Rev. Bruce Fischer told a local newspaper.
The interval had nothing to do with indolence and everything to do with rigor, and Robinson, 60, says she feels little need to apologize for it. "I have always been doing things that felt very necessary from the point of view of the integrity of my work," she says, with only the slightest hint of irritation. "So other people will just have to look out for themselves."
Those "necessary" things were prompted by the dishonesty and vacuity she sensed in virtually every level of public discourse. "I actually became struck by the fact that people very routinely talk about major writers, historical figures, episodes in history on the basis of what are very, very banal clichés," says Robinson, who lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and has taught at the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop since 1991. "My impatience with that became so marked that I felt as if I couldn't say anything true until I had essentially re-educated myself." Which she did by reviewing virtually the entire Western canon.
Many of the authors she read, like Karl Barth (The Epistle to the Romans), pop up on the reading list of the Rev. John Ames, Gilead's narrator. Gilead is a lyrical and meditative story told in the form of a letter the ailing Ames, 76, a third-generation pastor in a small Iowa town, writes in 1956 to his young son. The letter lays out the family's history, including the exploits of his grandfather, an irascible firebrand who went west from Maine after having a vision of Christ urging him to help free the slaves. The "old man" encouraged young men of his congregation into the Civil War and, in service to the abolitionist cause, abetted John Brown and quite possibly committed murder. His son, the narrator's father, also fought in the war, and subsequently became an ardent pacifist.
Unlike his forebears, Ames has barely left the town of Gilead, feeling that to do so would be to abandon the hope that has gone into its creation as a bulwark against slavery. "There must have been a hundred little towns like it," writes Robinson, "set up in the heat of an old urgency that is all forgotten now, and their littleness and their shabbiness, which was the measure of the courage and passion that went into the making of them, now just look awkward and provincial and ridiculous."
Gilead is an unshowy but potently contemplative book. The apparently exemplary Ames is plagued by the feeling that he has failed to live up to his calling. Robinson, who is a devout Congregationalist, describes the struggle with compassion and knowingness, reflecting what she says is a tendency to become deeply absorbed in the lives of her characters. In considering when she will write her third novel, she says, "I hope it's not another 23 years." But even if it is, she's not explaining herself to anyone. --By Michele Orecklin