Spouse of the Holy

Lila: A Novel BY Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 272 pages. $26.

The cover of Lila: A Novel

The last three of Marilynne Robinson’s four novelsthe Pulitzer-winning Gilead, Home, and now Lila—apply a canonical sheen to a small Iowa town, a world of dying fathers, prodigal and miracle sons, fallen women, and homemade chicken and dumplings. In each book the same events—often the same conversations—are witnessed and recalled from various, luminously drawn perspectives, layering into a kind of applied sanctity the course of more or less ordinary life.

An essentially religious writer, Robinson stands quite alone in this “unreligious age,” as Iris Murdoch called it, in which we turn to art for an experience akin to prayer. With these novels, all of them wrought from theological concerns, Robinson has created a secular church of readers. Lila presents Robinson converts with a conversion narrative, describing in Christian terms the spiritual work her novels provide for readers of any or no religious calling. The novel centers on the title character, a onetime drifter with a difficult past who has moved to Gilead, Iowa, and married recurring Robinson character Reverend John Ames. Lila’s skepticism of the town’s deeply Christian ethos, epitomized by Ames’s mix of spiritual query and complacency, extends into her marriage and her own conversion to the faith.

Presbyterian-raised and a sometime Congregationalist deacon, Robinson, in her fiction, prefers candid allusion to allegory, a doctrinal transparency that itself grows transparent, absorbed into the psychological force of stories that unfold without resort to archetype, epiphany, or other blunt-force tools. When the novels sermonize, it tends to occur within the description of actual sermons; more often they subtly build scriptural touchstones and theological debate into her characters’ lives. Their struggles with connection, family, with their own natures and the nature of existence, reality, memory, consciousness—all are expressed as part of a spiritual conversation with no final answer.

Robinson’s considered lack of answers surely helps engage those readers weary of binary politics or beset by religious ideology. “Doctrine is not belief,” Reverend Ames writes to his young son Robby in Gilead, “it is only one way of talking about belief.” In telling Robby his story, beginning with the begats, Ames inexorably moves toward the mystery at the heart of life, that of God’s grace. “You never do know the actual nature even of your own experience,” he writes, remembering (or misremembering) taking communion from his own father’s hand.

Faced with this estrangement, Robinson’s characters digress, in search of meaning and moments of connection, seeking however they can “to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.” Love is one reply to this predicament—a senseless quantity, “the eternal breaking in on the temporal,” a parable of “an embracing, incomprehensible reality.” The same might be said of the novel, an attempt to bridge, through loving effort, the unbridgeable. Robinson’s genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction, evoking in her characters and her readers the paradox by which an individual, enlarged by the grace of God, or art, acquires selfhood in acquiring a sense of the world beyond the self—the sublime apprehension that other people exist.

Which is to say that Robinson’s animating theme—grace—is also central to her genius. Described as “a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials,” grace is evidenced in both the particular and the abstract: as laughter, a beloved face or voice, or as “playing catch in a hot street . . . leaping after a high throw and that wonderful collaboration of the whole body with itself”; but also in forgetting “all the tedious particulars,” in feeling the presence of a “mortal and immortal being.” “A character is really the sense of a character,” Robinson has written, and hers suggest, above the particulars, how the mysteries of grace persist in human beings, those wanting creatures who move Ames with their incandescence, the presence “shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else.”

Lila is more flame than wick, of feral upbringing, unsure of her real name or whether it matters. The novel begins with a kind of origin myth: One night, a drifter named Doll passes by a house with a small, miserable child shut out on the porch by her parents, like an unwanted pet. In an act of rescue or kidnapping, Doll wraps the child in a shawl and carries her off, soon naming her Lila. Through childhood and beyond, Doll mothers Lila under a banner of subsistence nihilism: Stay alive until you die. Little else matters, so “just do what you’re told and be quiet about it, that’s all anybody is ever going to want from you.”

Rolling between the title character’s present and her preceding decades of roaming, Lila parallels a coming into selfhood with an equally ambivalent coming into faith. Alone in her mid-thirties, with Doll gone, Lila washes from St. Louis into the town of Gilead, then into the church of Reverend Ames, whose sermons provoke in her a mixture of yearning and incredulity. The culture of community worship especially strikes Lila as a kind of collusion:

Let us pray, and they all did pray. Let us join in hymn number no matter what, and they all sang. . . . There was no need for any of it. The days came and went on their own, without any praying about it. . . . It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America—they had to call it something.

The murky status of Lila’s soul marks her with God’s grace, a sign most evident in her face, which she covers habitually. Ames marvels at the human face, especially Lila’s, “the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.” Lila finds horror in that same idea: “[A face] can be something you want to hide, because it pretty well shows where you’ve been and what you can expect. And anybody at all can see it, but you can’t. It just floats there in front of you. It might as well be your soul, for all you can do to protect it.”

More than Sunday worship, Lila is persuaded to believe by her private engagement with the Bible. Ezekiel especially captures Lila’s imagination. Her apprehension of the nature and uses of myth appears at once to connect her to and free her from herself: That Ezekiel’s winged chimera should appear in “the likeness of a man” resonates with one who has “the likeness of a woman, with hands but no face at all, since she never let herself see it. She had the likeness of a life, because she was all alone in it. She lived in the likeness of a house, with walls and a roof and a door that kept nothing in and nothing out.”

Throughout Lila and its predecessors, Robinson elucidates the struggle to reconcile likeness and original; temporal and eternal; memory and reality; physical and ephemeral; flame and wick—a struggle as productive as it is without ultimate hope. “Near as I can tell,” Lila replies to Ames’s rehearsal of a dense, Calvin-shaded sermon, “you were wanting to reconcile things by saying they can’t be reconciled.”

This is Ames’s song, and it echoes in Lila, who values means over meaning, who grew up with Doll’s refrain, “Don’t matter.” But Ames’s acceptance of the irreconcilable is held within—is defined by—a larger belief system, one that allows for the possibility of grace. Lila’s history, with its gradual acknowledgment that some things do matter, or at least that she wants them to, reveals a woman poised for such an allowance. For a while Lila finds distraction at the movies, which serve as her church, “everybody in there dreaming one dream together.” If they prove inadequate, such experiences introduce Lila to her own hunger for love and story, desires that carry her outside of herself and into Gilead, where, compelled by Ames and his stories but skeptical of their claims on her, particularly where doctrine leaves her beloved Doll, she keeps one foot firmly out the door.

Desire. A bold word, perhaps, in Gilead, a world of worry, reverie, and exquisitely fraught interactions. The beauty of Robinson’s prose suggests an author continually threading with spun platinum the world’s finest needle. The satisfaction, the relief of it, is immense. But all that beauty may begin to hang on the reader, like a pristine garment despoiled by the faintest stain, such that eventually all the reader—the very base and perverse, Graham Greene–loving reader—cares to do is twist herself in the muck. “Somebody,” I said, midway through Lila, turning, wide-eyed, to the man with whom I had spent an otherwise chaste week in a primly Christian maritime village, reading Robinson’s novels in quick succession, “needs to fuck somebody.”

Instead, Ames and Lila “comfort” each other, in two sentences that form Lila and its predecessors’ almost impossibly discreet reckoning with sexuality, a considerable feat given Lila’s apparent history as a prostitute, which Ames absorbs without question. In writing otherwise vigorously involved in the nature of the physical world, specifically the connection of its wonders to a divine source, such effacement grows conspicuous. It also creates a rare gap in the author’s endeavor to make numinous in her characters the whole of life.

But then Robinson’s world is a likeness, rooted in the original but never fully reconciled to it. Standing in rejection of contemporary realism’s command of irony and the revealing detail, Robinson’s vision is “wholly realist,” as she has written of her transcendentalist forebears, “in acknowledging the great truth of the centrality of human consciousness.” In this vision, and in this return to Gilead—a world that exists only when imagined, and then indisputably—“creed falls away and consciousness has the character of revelation.” Her Lila is such a creation, possessed of a face much mentioned but only vaguely described and, by the novel’s end, intimately known.

Michelle Orange is the author of the essay collection This Is Running for Your Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013).