Monday, April 19, 2010


I seem to be picking up a lot of books these days and then putting them down again and not really getting back to them. There has to be something there on the page that makes me want to return. Sometimes it's an interesting situation or a compelling narrative. Lee Child's books usually start with both, and keep me turning the pages mostly because I get swept up in the plot. If there's not much happening with plot, there's another point of entry: voice. But voice is tricky. There's no one surefire way to be successful in creating voice, and there are a lot of ways to go wrong. As a reader I find myself drawn less to stylistically flamboyant voices (Holden Caulfield, in fiction, or David Foster Wallace, in nonfiction: much as I do admire them, they feel in some ways contrived; artfully contrived, but contrived nonetheless) than to more understated voices that are more subtlely revelatory of character.

For example, one of the voices I have admired for many years is that of Robert Finch, a naturalist on Cape Cod whose work I ran across while I was living in Massachusetts. Here are the first two paragraphs from "Into the Maze," the first essay in his collection The Primal Place:

    One of the occupational hazards of living in a place like Cape Cod is not always knowing where you are. The sea fog that rolls in regularly over the mud flats and salt marshes is not entirely to blame for such chronic disorientation. Nor are the winter northeasterlies whose heavy surf and storm surges break through barrier beaches, destroy parking lots, silt up harbors, and claim waterfront property all that dislocate us.
    Change is the coin of this sandy realm, and as long as we are not too close to it, such change delights us. The seasons flow in their rhythmic variety, a little out of sync with the mainland due to the ocean's moderating influence — which pleases our sense of separateness. With them come in the streaming tides of shorebirds, migrating alewives and striped bass, pack ice in Cape Cod Bay, spring peepers in the bogs, gypsy moths in the oaks, and tourists in the motels and restaurants.
Now, I can well imagine that some readers would read thus far and no farther. But I find myself already won over, ready to read on, ready to spend more time listening to this measured and reasonable and thoughtful voice. There is a precision in the deployment of words, an evident pleasure being taken in the shaping and sequencing of the constituent components of each sentence, an attentiveness both to the natural world and to its representation in words, that I find encouraging: I'd like to read more of this.

I bring all this up because I just spent a whole lot of this past weekend listening to just such a voice, that of John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead. It's a book that has been around for a while. It's a book that I have heard good things about and held in my hands at the bookstore several times. But when I gathered, from reading the book jacket, that it was narrated by a Congregationalist preacher and consisted in some part at least of his reflections on the scriptures, I thought to myself that it was not really the sort of thing I was going to enjoy. (I should mention that my own experiences being raised as a Christian had rather too much to do with why I have spent my entire adult life as a Buddhist, and have been in no particular hurry to revisit the theological landscape of my upbringing.) But I recently got an email from my friend Nick recommending that I read Marylinne's new book of essays Absence of Mind. It turns out that that book is not available around here just yet, but I found a copy of Gilead on the shelf of my school library, so I opened it up to the first page and started to read and immediately got hooked on the voice.

John Ames, the narrator, is, it turns out, not just a preacher himself, but the son of a preacher, and the grandson of a preacher. He is, at the time the novel opens, 76 years old, and the father of a seven-year-old son. He has been diagnosed with heart disease, and is not expecting to live long, and has decided that he will take it upon himself to write an extended letter to his son, so that when the boy grows up he will some day be able to find out what sort of man his father was. The novel is that letter. It is written in the first person and addressed to the second person, the son, addressed as you throughout the book. There's a subtle and satisfying displacement at work here, because when I am as a reader find myself addressed as "you," I am in effect being asked to imagine myself as the grownup version of that boy, being given the opportunity to take the measure of the man, my father, who has labored on my behalf in the production of this narrative.

The great strength of the novel is in the character of John Ames. He's a thoroughly admirable man. That he is intelligent, thoughtful, self-effacing, compassionate, appreciative, and serious of purpose in a completely innocent way is evidenced by literally every word that comes out of his mouth. He is much concerned throughout the book with the attempt to understand, and to communicate what he does understand, about what his life has been, in the face of what can only be understood as deep mysteries. He's much concerned, for obvious reasons, about the whole business of fathers and sons: what motivates them, what they hope for in one another, how they fail one another:

    I believe I'll make an experiment with candor here. Now, I say this with all respect. My father was a man who acted from principle, as he said himself. He acted from faithfulness to the truth as he saw it. But something in the way he went about it made him disappointing from time to time, and not just to me. I say this despite all the attention he gave to me bringing me up, for which I am profoundly in his debt, though he himself might dispute that. God rest his soul, I know for a fact I disappointed him. It is a remarkable thing to consider. We meant well by each other, too.
    Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand, as the Lord says. I can't claim to understand that saying, as many times as I've heard it, and even preached on it. It simply states a deeply mysterious fact. You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there still might be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension. (7)
He is also a man much given to appreciative reflection, and he is often able to articulate his sense of the heartbreaking beauty of the world in language which is both sparse and eloquent:

I walked up to the church in the dark, as I said. There was a very bright moon. It's strange how you never quite get used to the world at night. I have seen moonlight strong enough to cast shadows any number of times. And the wind is the same wind, rustling the same leaves, night or day. When I was a young boy I used to get up before every dawn of the world to fetch water and firewood. It was a very different life then. I remember walking out into the dark and feeling as if the dark were a great, cool sea and the houses and sheds and the woods were all adrift in it, just about to ease off their moorings. I always felt like an intruder then, as I still do, as if the darkness had a claim on everything, one that I violated just by stepping out the door. This morning the world by moonlight seemed to be an immemorial acquaintance I had always meant to befriend. If there was ever a chance, it has passed. Strange to say, I feel a little that way about myself. (74)
The long and the short of it is that the book succeeds, even in the absence of what might ordinarily be thought of as plot, because of the authenticity and the authority of the voice. That's not to say that nothing happens in the book. Plenty does, some of it rendered as memory, some of it as action in present time, action which ultimately puts all of John Ames's hard-won wisdom to the test. But what I find most admirable in the voice is the character of the man as revealed by it. He is doing all that he can, in full recognition that it may never be enough:

I'm trying to make the best of our situation. That is, I'm trying to tell you things I might never have thought to tell you if I had brought you up myself, father and son, in the usual companionable way. When things are taking their ordinary course, it is hard to remember what matters. There are so many little things you would never think to tell anyone. And I believe they may be the things that mean most to you, and that even your own child would have to know in order to know you well at all. I remember that day in my childhood when I lay under the wagon with the other little children, watching them pull down the ruins of that Baptist church, and my father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch, and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn't. His hands and his face were black with ash — he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs — and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from inside his shirt, and he did break it, that's true, and gave half to me and ate the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then. There had been drought for a few years and times were hard. Though we didn't notice it much because times were hard for everybody. And I guess that must have been why no one minded the rain. There had been so little of it. One thing I do remember is how the women let their hair fall down and their skirts trail in the mud, even the old women, as if none of it mattered at all. And then the singing, which was very beautiful as I remember it, though I'm pretty sure it could not have been. It would just rise up with the sound of the rain. "Beneath the Cross of Jesus." All the lovely, sad old tunes. The bitterness of that morsel has meant other things to me as the years passed. I have had many occasions to reflect on it. (102-3)
This is a book that took me by surprise, and turned out to be, from start to finish, a more satisfying read than I had thought it would be.

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