Gilead Pages 1-50

Curtis– I guess a good place to start is with the general idea of the book.  It is written as a letter from an elderly father to his seven year old son.  Writing a journal for my daughter is an idea I have been toying with, I know Josh has thought the same for his son, and I can only imagine how great it would be to have a book like this from past generations in my own family.  I also think that this medium, a letter from father to son, makes the novel that much more powerful, which is not to detract from the writing at all.

A couple of my favorite lines from the section:

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 might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.

There was more to it, of course.  For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, as I was often enough.

I am also inclined to overuse the word “old,” which actually has less to do with age, as it seems to me, than it does with familiarity.  It sets a thing apart as something regarded with a modest, habitual affection.  Sometimes it suggests haplessness or vulnerability.  I say “old Boughton,” I say “this shabby old town” and I mean that they are very near my heart.

Lastly, I appreciate the varying facets of life in the ministry that the book portrays.  I think that the narrator tells the story of an extremely real man, a pastor that struggles with loneliness and understanding why bad things happen, with issues of war (pg 41-42) and justice, atheism and the presupposed contradiction between faith and science.  I often think that we as Christians tend to dehumanize our church leaders, and by that I mean set them above the rest of us.  Despite the fact that we are often reminded of the shortcomings of public religious leaders we still forget that they are people just like the rest of us, who love a good joke just as much as anyone else (pg 5).

Josh – I’m a sucker for epistolary novels, and I wonder why there aren’t more of them. Probably because it seems like a lazy way to write, that heavy exposition would take the place of action and create a novel where everything was told rather than shown. If that’s the truth, it makes Gilead all the more remarkable. Even more so because its narrator is dying and admits to using the letter as a way to leave something to his son vital to understanding his life. And it really does feel like a letter of immense scope, complete with digressive asides and narratives-within-narratives.

One of the incredible things (which I’m not sure should feel as incredible as it does) is that this totally convincing voice, the voice of a dying father, has been conjured by a female writer. It’s incredible not because it’s unlikely or somehow unbelievable that a woman could write a man this convincingly (writing in the voices of people with whom you have nothing in common is, after all, kind of what fiction writing is about), but that the mastery would feel so total, and that Marilynne Robinson would have the confidence to immerse herself into this character and ensure the Truth of his experiences.

The writing itself is as good as I’ve ever read (this is my second time through the book, and I’ve also read Robinson’s first novel [she has three], Housekeeping, which is just as well-written, although I favor Gilead). I assure you that this is not hyperbole. In the first fifty pages, I bet there were thirty to forty lines that literally stopped me in my tracks. I find myself smiling at the book constantly while I read, shaking my head the way a young guitarist might when they hear Eric Clapton’s solo on “Crossroads” for the first time. ‘Wow,’ I think, ‘what would it feel like to write a sentence that good, let alone a book filled with them?’

Along those lines, here are a few I picked out (I underlined all the ones Curt already pointed out; like I said, there are dozens of these):

“I don’t know why solitude would be a balm for loneliness, but that is how it always was for me in those days….”

Boughton takes a very dim view of [Feuerbach], because he unsettled the faith of many people, but I take issue as much with those people as with Feuerbach. It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled. That has been the fashion for the last hundred years or so.”

“When the Lord says you must ‘become as one of these little ones,’ I take him to mean you must be stripped of all the accretions of smugness and pretense and triviality. ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb,” and so on.”

I’ll end by saying that the theme that Robinson sets up in the first fifty pages that gets into my bones most is Ames’ (the narrator) concern with this world, which exists, of course in seeming opposition to the world into which he will step after death. He embodies the thoughts that I have always been ashamed of, namely that I love the world and have difficulty imagining an existence where I don’t feel sad to see it go. Heaven is, in many ways, unimaginable, and so the fact that I can’t wrap my head around this is unsurprising. Maybe it’s best put that Ames has learned to look for the divine woven into the material world. He finds a good deal of it there, and I think that’s worth considering.

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Categories: Outside of A Dog

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