OCTOBER 16, 2014
IF WE HAVE willfully forgotten how frightening and wild are the female body and consciousness, Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Lila reminds us. The novel returns to the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, where Robinson’s two most recent novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008) are set, to tell the story of Lila Ames, a lonely itinerant who settles into the most unlikely of places: a geranium-filled white kitchen, married to the elderly Reverend John Ames. Readers of Robinson’s Gilead novels will recognize Lila from glimpses in the previous books, where she is most often seen tending flowers, walking down the street hand in hand with her son, and helping to smooth the agitation caused by the return of Jack Boughton, prodigal son of Ames’s lifelong best friend John Boughton.
Lila, however, not only extends the Gilead universe, but also brings readers back into the world of Robinson’s remarkable first novel, Housekeeping (1980), in which a young woman, under the influence of a transient aunt and her own irreparable grief, grows to reject not only traditional feminine domesticity, but domesticity of any kind. Housekeeping is the type of novel that I sometimes teach simply by having my students incant the language aloud. When we do so, we often cry, together, inevitably under the fluorescent lights in a bleak seminar room. The Gilead novels are a different sort. They not only draw on Calvinist theology but also actually feature theological disputation, and deal directly with American racial history and questions of patrimonial inheritance. To me, they have always seemed set somehow apart from the luminous feminine world that Robinson created in Housekeeping. Lila, however, closes the loop.
So when I tell you that Lila ends with a birth, if you are anything like me, your first read of this novel will be vaguely agitated. Not because it is unclear what will happen (this is no spoiler: we know from Gilead that there will be a child and that both he and Lila will live), but rather because across nearly 1,000 pages and over 30 years of reading Robinson, we have not yet encountered a depiction of pregnancy and parturition: the violent wrenching of the self apart from its most beloved. Here Robinson takes us to the paradoxical truth about giving birth: the act that is most socially domesticating is also the most profoundly wilding.
By bringing this female waywardness into the Gilead world, Robinson prompts us to return to the dualities that underpin Housekeeping — transience and home, domesticity and wildness, the ordinary and the strange, taking care and doing damage. Gilead and Home feature men who inhabit domesticity as a sort of faith and for whom faith serves an important sheltering function. The itinerant central women of Housekeeping and Lila press hard on the tender buttons of their benevolent theology: what becomes of those who live their lives outside of these structures?
In Gilead, Ames wonders “what birds did before there were telephone wires. It would have been much harder for them to roost in the sunlight, which is a thing they clearly enjoy doing.” In Lila, a lesson that Ames intuits but never fully articulates becomes clear: one shouldn’t mistake a brief and warmed rest from flight, for an animal’s natural state.
Reviewing a Robinson novel is hard, not least because all of her novels are intertwined, with characters and chronology constantly crossing, and with the same events remembered differently from different perspectives. And while I don’t worry about spoiling plot points, I do worry about revealing Robinson’s writerly moments of grace. There were many passages during Lila when I gasped aloud, pausing, finger keeping my place while I looked up at the other subway riders around me. Readers of her previous novels know that Robinson excels in these breath-stopping miniatures: droplets of water shaking off of a tree onto a happy couple, a young boy offering his father a honeysuckle blossom, chicken and dumplings made with love yet eaten with duty, leaves gathering in the corners of a sad house. I do not wish to wreck anyone’s own experience of grace in discovering these images for the first time.
The birth of Lila and Ames’s child (to whom Ames will address the loving letters that comprise Gilead) was one such moment for me. So I will restrain myself a bit to say just this: the birth scene ends with Lila nursing her newborn infant, whose conception changes — but does not assuage or dissipate — her loneliness. He is very small and quiet, and there is an attempt to baptize him quickly, a key spiritual issue in a novel so focused on the ins and outs of redemption. Yet Lila remains unmoved by any sense of theological urgency; she only wants to peel the holy-wet blankets off her child. When she turns him to her breast, we see it: a different kind of baptism.
As Lila turns on her side to nurse her son, under the watchful, benevolent, and worried eyes of Ames and Boughton, she cultivates a radical interiority — a quality that’s both central to her and to the novel’s interest. If the novel traces Lila’s journey from feral to domesticated, it also highlights the singular and frightening privacy that lies within her, exploring the way this woman tends and stokes a sort of stark social refusal.
The novel, practically speaking, works by crosscutting Lila’s memories of her brutal, pre-Gilead past with her unlikely domestic present. Conceptually, however, it is structured by Lila’s repeated assertions that Ames does not, and likely cannot, know her thoughts about her past. As Ames acknowledges in Gilead, people are always outside the mystery of one another: “In every important way we are such secrets from each other […].” Lila’s past is godless, and harsh, and yet full of a sort of love that seems incomprehensible in her new life.
Part of the novel traces Lila’s attempt to reconcile these two lives, but part of it (and, I confess, the part that speaks to me most) allows her to pick up her child and run toward the wildness. At the baby’s church baptism, Lila allows herself to grow back into that wildness she has otherwise pruned:
That’s what her heart was like sometimes, secret and bitter and scared. She had stolen the preacher’s child, and she laughed to think of it. Making him learn his verses and say his prayers would be like a joke, when they were off by themselves, getting by as they could […]. So you’re mine. Gilead has no claim on you, or John Ames either, or the graveyard that has no place for you anyway.
Lila anticipates her life after her husband’s death with something like bubbling-up laughter, a full eruption of the body. In Gilead, Ames apologizes to his son for being unable to leave him or his mother a monetary inheritance — they will be completely on their own after his death. In Lila, we glimpse Lila’s vision of this particular sort of afterlife, when she and her child would be “off by themselves, getting by as they could.” Both Ames and Lila fear this future, but Lila only insofar as she fears she and the child belong there.
Lila’s loneliness is constitutive and nearly inborn. The novel begins with a scene at the source of her alienation — a young girl sitting on a rural cabin’s stoop in the cold, neglected, possibly forgotten. While told in the third-person, the prose that represents Lila’s understanding of her life runs like a stream, something akin to a Jamesian, Maisie-like uncomprehending: “Lila knew it couldn’t have been the way she remembered it, as if she were carried along in the wind, and there were arms around her to let her know she was safe.” The “wind” and the arms belong to Doll, another drifter who steals Lila away from the family that has failed to look after her. Doll, who carries her across a cold, dark field, trying to find a place in which to bring this feral creature to some kind of life, the two of them “[a] cow and her calf.” Doll, whose name Lila takes because she has no other. “Lila Dahl,” a kindly teacher misunderstands, when Lila claims her name is “Lila Doll.”
When she carries her away, Doll wraps a shawl around the small child, its warmth manifesting the secret that they will enjoy together. She was a stolen child! “They never spoke about any of it, not one word in all those years […]. They did keep that shawl, though, till it was worn soft as cobwebs.”
Doll’s legacy to Lila is this shawl, but also a knife — a mean thing, “like a snake,” and Lila continually thinks back on Doll, vengeful, dangerous, sharpening it. If the shawl is the safety Doll offered, the knife tells us of the violent severing that was part and parcel of Lila’s life. Doll is the textured, family warmth that Lila fits herself into, but she is also a violent woman. She actually wields her knife against people, both deserving and not.
Lila returns again and again to this knife, worrying over whether to keep it or discard it, noticing when Ames absent-mindedly uses it — blasphemy! — to pare his apples. During an interlude in a St. Louis brothel (which I will only say here in parentheses that I found to be a weak spot in the novel’s freshness), Lila willingly gives the madam the knife, abjectly handing over not only her own power to get out of this dismal situation, but also her “family” history. But the knife refuses to get lost, and Lila carries it with her, ambivalently, into her new life. In Gilead, Ames jokes that he is writing his “begats” (how he came to be). Lila’s treasuring of this knife must surely be her “bygones” (how she/it/all will come to go).
At this point, you may be dubious when I tell you that this novel is a love story. Oh, but it is. Never before has a baptism scene on the banks of a river, catfish flopping in the grass nearby, been so romantic: Ames offering Lila a clean white handkerchief afterward to carry and become stained with the berries they pick and eat together.
Lila and Ames surprise one another by loving almost instinctively: Lila, the hardened solitary, sinking her head onto his shoulder before they’ve hardly even had a conversation; Ames, a different kind of solitary, whose loneliness has become a comfort. They are both haunted by loved ones now long dead (Ames’s young wife having died decades before giving birth to a daughter who also died in the struggle), and are thus equally exiled far outside of one another’s experiences of loss and grief, which is to say, deeply connected by the impossibility of fully knowing one another.
Love surges through this book. Lila longs for Doll, even as she sinks into Ames. She turns away from Ames as she imagines her future with her beloved child. Ames finds loving comfort in his best friend Boughton, who in turn longs for a son who has abandoned him. Ames grieves for the world he loves so much in Gilead, “more beauty than our eyes can bear.” In Lila, love has no end, it wraps around everything and plunges into the heart.
The name Ames could be said to come from the French root amie, or “beloved” or “friend.” Or it may derive from the Hebrew meaning, “carried.” I know these meanings because I named my first son Ames, after the good Reverend himself. The second son I named Owen, or “young fighter.” These names I consider in the terms of the shawl and the knife, the way that care and hurt come together, a reminder that the wildest things often resemble the tamest.
Throughout the novel, Lila worries over a passage from Ezekiel:
And as for thy nativity, in the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, […] thou wast cast out in the open field […] And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live […].
Ames explains the poetics of this passage to her — how it depicts God in the role of a human father, picking up the abandoned child (which is humanity in whole), in its horrible blood and flesh, and breathing life into it. But Lila can never fully accept Ames’s exegesis of this passage — his assertion that “it’s figurative of course” — because her experience as one of the abhorred was material and manifest, and because she anticipates her own childbearing experience. As women know, weltering is no parable; humans come into the world in violence and blood. Lila imagines her relationship to a newborn child and how she might be “Frightened for it, just the sight of so much yearning reddening a little body, darkening its face almost blue” but then realizes, “Maybe that was weltering.”
Lila and Ames know that she and the child will be on their own after he dies, and relatively soon, too. Lila isn’t worried about the hard times that are coming in the same way that Ames is, but rather, how easily she might slip back into the loneliness:
The problem is, she thought, that if someday she opened the front door and there, where the flower gardens and the fence and the gate ought to be, was that old life, the raggedy meadows and pastures and the cornfields and the orchards, she might just set the child on her hip and walk out into it.
Until then, Lila wraps the shawl around her child, orphaned of her body — “no ties to the world at all, just that knot on his belly” — and they give a good performance of domesticated animals. But the knife is always there, reminder of cords cut, and ties to be broken.