Four years ago, Marilynne Robinson broke one of the longest creative silences in American fiction. Twenty-four years had elapsed since the publication of her ferocious first novel, the bone-hard, lake-cold, moon-lonely Housekeeping. People wondered if there would be a second. But Robinson is not one to let herself be rushed. Besides, new ideas were finding room in her imagination. When the second novel finally came–it was Gilead, as sweet-tempered a book as one can imagine–it was all but unrecognizable as the work of the same author. Now comes a third that manages to bridge the gulf between its predecessors. Home is set in the same Iowa town that gives Gilead its name, and amid the same circle of Protestant ministers’ families, but it tests that world of piety and stability by forcing it to come to terms with a sense of existential orphanhood as absolute as any that haunts Housekeeping.
Robinson’s first work, to my mind, is still her greatest. The novel unfolds as a single thought, impelled by a poetic intensity of language and vision. “Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle, breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time”; “Where the snow receded, they might see the ruins of a porcupine, teeth here, tail there.” The syntax is as pitiless as the sentiments. Each sentence seems scoured to rock by a thousand years of wind and rain, and the whole appears to emanate from a mind as large and impartial as nature itself. Robinson, who grew up amid the novel’s bleak north Idaho landscape and an equally austere Presbyterianism, has come to be known as a Christian writer. Gilead is the testament of a dying Congregational minister. The Death of Adam, which preceded it by six years, is a collection of polemics in depreciation of modern thought and defense of Calvinism. But Robinson has acknowledged that the spiritual intuitions of her childhood, her awareness “to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me,” had as yet no doctrinal form, that her “archaic self might have been nothing other than a latter-day pagan.” Whatever her personal practices by the time she wrote Housekeeping–Robinson turned 37 the year it came out–the novel still bespeaks the spirit of that tormented, pupal soul. The novel’s intimations of loneliness and loss, its sense of the undertow of transience that draws the living ineluctably down toward the dead, are too unconsoled to be denominated Christian.
The metaphysics at work in Housekeeping does indeed resemble a form of paganism–a gloomy, Northern paganism. Divinity is immanent in nature but perfectly indifferent to human fate. Life is but a shadow on the surface of the past, and when we die we don’t go up to a jubilant heaven but down to the dark to join “the dance of bones.” The social world, all gibbering aunts and meddlesome neighbors, is a kind of joke, a delusion of safety and permanence. Religion is no exception: “When the bells rang the lady would come out with a shawl over her head and she would pray, and the parrot would pray with her, the woman’s voice and the parrot’s voice, on and on.” The novel’s title is heavily ironic; there is no keeping of houses, or anything else. By the end, both the story and its narrator have slipped into a realm of allegory where the flimsy construct the rest of us call reality, or realism, is no more than a memory. The narrator’s name is Ruth Foster–the biblical exile, the home that is no home–and her final gesture enacts an escape from the human world and a dispersal into nature that are as unrepentant as they are terrifying.