Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 6

I have a policy against reviewing books I don’t finish, but I have a double commitment to comment on Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. I chose it as part of the summer challenge hosted by Cathy746books, and it’s a Pulitzer winner.

Gilead is beautifully written, but with a soporific twist. This book has knocked me out in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The language is slow and drowsy, full of hemming/hawing, clarifications, and soft language. It’s a non-habit-forming sleep aid. So there’s that (worth a full .5 in the book’s final rating). It’s written as a series of letters from the aging Reverend John Ames to his young son. As the Reverend is in his seventies, and his son is around seven, these letters are the primary way his son will remember him. In terms of father/son sentiment, the book is solid. It’s conversational and packed with paternal affection, but there’s so much to say and no good way to organize it:

Your mother told you I’m writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you? I, John Ames, was born in the Year of Our Lord 1880 in the state of Kansas, the son of John Ames and Martha Turner Ames, grandson of John Ames and Margaret Todd Ames. At this writing I have lived seventy-six years, seventy-four of them here in Gilead, Iowa, excepting study at the college and at seminary.
And what else should I tell you? (9)

What else indeed? I waited for a cohesive image to appear from the range of anecdotes and musings, but kept nodding off. It’s a lame excuse, but I only have a few days left of vacation and this isn’t how I want to spend them. The life lessons and wisdom imparted by Reverend Ames read as trite instead of deep and hard won. There’s also an unpleasant pattern to a number of his stories which flattens them out even more:

Step One: Tell a story from youth that, on the surface, goes nowhere—for example, a baseball game:

I was pretty excited. But nothing happened in that game, or so I thought then. No runs, no hits, no errors. In the fifth inning a thunderstorm that had been lying along the horizon the whole afternoon just sort of sauntered over and put a stop to it all. I remember the groan that went up from the crowd when the heavy rain began. I was only about ten years old, and I was relieved, but it was a terrible frustration to my grandfather. One more terrible frustration for the poor old devil. [list of people who referred to his grandfather in this way and a reassurance that his grandfather was a good preacher] (46)

Step Two: Get a little more ephemeral:

That day he had brought a little bag of licorice, which really did surprise me. Whenever he put his fingers into it, it rattled with the trembling of his hand, and the sound was just like the sound of fire. I noticed this at the time, and it seemed natural to me. I also more or less assumed that the thunder and the lightning that day were Creation tipping its hat to him, as if to say, Glad to see you here in the stands, Reverend. Or maybe it said, Why, Reverend, what in this grieving world are you doing here at a sporting event. [hint at his grandfather’s interesting past and talk of his eventual move to Kansas] (46-47)

Step Three: Get straight-up philosophical, then get confused:

I read somewhere that a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist. I can’t quite see the meaning of a statement so purely hypothetical as this, though I may simply lack the understanding. But it does remind me of that afternoon when nothing flew through the air, no one slid or drifted or tagged, when there was no waltz at all so to speak. It seems to me that the storm had put an end to it, as if it were a fire to be put out, an eruption into this world of an alarming kind of nullity. “There was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” It seems a little like that as I remember it, though it went on a good deal longer than half an hour. Null. That word has real power. My grandfather had nowhere to spend his courage, no way to feel it in himself. That was a great pity. (47)

Step Four: Admit to rambling, then double down:

As I write I am aware that my memory has made much of very little. There was that old man my grandfather sitting beside me in his ashy coat, trembling just because he did, sharing out the frugal pleasures of his licorice, maybe with Kansas somehow transforming itself from memory to intention in his mind that very afternoon. [further description of that day, of baseball in general, then a couple lines about his brief stint as a pitcher] (47-48)

I need to stop now. I’m getting sleepy…

A lot of people LOVE this book. They say that once you understand the basic story, you can pick it up and reread (savor?) key pieces to bask in the lyrical writing. But while the writing is lyrical, it’s weak. It’s chock full of filler words, “just,” “sort of,” “it seems to me,” which makes it flightier and more dreamy. I made it halfway and found little to grab hold of and get excited about. Oh, and it won the Pulitzer so it can’t be complete rubbish. Right?

Overall: 2.0 (I was going to give it a 1.5, but it gets points as a sleep aid, remember.)

Translation: Eh, go ahead and read it. It won the Pulitzer and there’s a string of satisfied readers on Amazon and across the Internet. It might just be me.


5 thoughts on “Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson”

  1. Oh dear! This is on my GAN quest list! What have I done? The very idea of a child thinking “I also more or less assumed that the thunder and the lightning that day were Creation tipping its hat to him” brings me out in a rash! And I sleep too much already…

    1. I can’t wait for your review!

      I feel like a quitter, but I’m relieved to no longer have this book in my queue.

      I’ve never been fond of overly mature kids in fiction. I know they can be perceptive and frame things in unique, insightful ways, but I rolled my eyes at Creation’s hat tip moment. When kids speak this way, or when adults attribute such things to themselves as children, it rings false. Reverend Ames feels authentic otherwise, which makes this passage seem an even bigger misstep.

      Speaking of very mature children, I have so many thoughts about Ender’s Game…

      1. I haven’t read Ender’s Game though I’ve been being pushed towards it by a couple of people recently. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

  2. I’m starting this book again now because I really want to try again – I felt the same way you did and far from enthusiastic when I put it down, completed but feeling dissatisfied a fair few years ago ??? but am now going to have another go at this, add Home and wind up with Lila. I was thinking it had to be me – now you’re putting a doubt in my mind …..

    1. I spoke to another person who was frustrated with Gilead and she said Lila was much more readable. I plan to try that one (not any time soon though).

      I hope Gilead treats you better the second time through. Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

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