Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Notes on re-reading Home

After re-reading Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead, I have meanwhile also re-read her Home, the second novel of what has, with the publication this year of Lila, turned out to be a trilogy of sorts. And I'm reminded of a few other points. First, before even beginning to re-read Home, I remembered the sinking feeling I'd had when I began reading it the first time. Gilead, as noted, takes the form of an elderly preacher's notebook, intended to be read by his now seven year-old son when he is an adult; thus it is a document that as such seems to justify its own existence. Home, on the other hand, is a third person narrative primarily from the point of view of one of the barely mentioned characters in Gilead. Gilead is open, whereas Home appeared at first glance to be . . . just another novel. Having now finished my re-read of it as well, the novel definitely overcomes my initial apprehension, though I can see how it would be taken, still, for just another novel, albeit a very good one. But I think it's more than that.

Though I don't plan a major treatment here, I find it useful to think of these books in the terms used by Josipovici in his essay "The Bible Open and Closed", which can be found in his collection, The Singer on the Shore (and which I previously wrote about here). He says in that essay that
we in our culture have a problem with narrative. What does it mean? we ask. What is the guy trying to say? And if the book in question is a sacred text the problems grow even more acute. For then it is even more important to understand clearly what it is saying, since our very lives may depend upon it. We need to feel we are dealing with a text that is closed, in the sense that its meaning can be clearly understood and translated into other terms; yet the Bible, like all narratives, but, as I hope to show, even more than most, is open, that is, it resists translation into other terms and asks not so much to be understood as lived with, however puzzling and ambiguous it may seem.
It is perhaps fortuitous for my purposes here that Robinson's novels are deeply concerned with religious life and even the Bible (which facts seem to put too many people off of reading, or appreciating, them), so we might well ask, what is she trying to say, what does it all mean? While Home might come across as a conventional "realist" novel, it seems to me that the narrative remains very much open. It occurs to me that this is a milder version of the argument advanced by Ethan in his recent post, discussing Agota Kristof's great sequence of novels alongside Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. The first books in each of those trilogies (The Notebook and Annihilation, respectively) are
both open wounds. But though both trilogies depart from their notebooks for a kind of "broader view" once the first volume is done with, they do so in dramatically different ways; and where in the remainder of her trilogy Kristof insists on keeping the wound open (not least by bringing out the implications of the verb "present" in my previous sentence), VanderMeer seems almost frantic in his rush to patch the wound up — without regard for what "the condition for a cure" might be.
I'm not sure it would have occurred to me to use the word wound to describe Gilead, but certainly it is open. And with Home, at any rate, Robinson does not seem to be "frantically rushing to patch the wound up" (not least because her books have appeared over the course of ten years, rather than all in the same year, as with VanderMeer's), or to especially be filling in the blanks of that openness. Home intersects with Gilead at an angle, and remains off-kilter from it, as far as our childish desire to have more information about certain events goes. Or maybe I'm just trying to rationalize liking a novel that is really more conservative than I want to admit.

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