Thou wast cast out in the open field… in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live (Ezekiel 16:4-6). Such is the drama of the God who gives his life to sinful men and women, that he comes to us as we wander in the welter and waste of our own unaccountable sorrows, and he tells us: Live.
Ezekiel’s cryptic prophecy resounds through Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Lila like a funeral bell, tolling in slow, measured peals the tragedy and glory of human existence: that we must pass through death to get to life. Ezekiel rings its changes through the pages of Robinson’s work, rather like Job does through Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Just as Malick explores how God’s answer from the whirlwind—Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?—is only the beginning of the divine transformation of suffering and not its end, so Robinson relentlessly pursues the irreducible tragedy of Ezekiel—why was the child cast out? what of those children who are never raised up?—through the twisting pathways by which grace finds its way to the human heart.
Lila is Robinson’s third visit to the 1950s small-town Iowa milieu she first introduced in Gilead (2004), a stunning novel told from the perspective of the Abrahamic John Ames, a dying Congregationalist pastor who married and had a son in his late sixties, as he writes a final journal-cum-testament to the child whose life he is about to leave. Home (2008) narrates the same events from different perspectives, using the parable of the prodigal son as a leitmotif for exploring the terrible trial of forgiveness.
In the two previous novels, Ames’ wife Lila is hidden in plain sight, appearing overtly or implicitly on almost every page of Gilead and frequently being a source of succor and rest in Home, yet remaining enigmatically silent throughout. She has only a handful of lines in each novel, yet the mysterious power of her presence pervades the drama. The reader—and the characters themselves—know almost nothing about her beyond her sudden appearance at Ames’ church one rainy day, her unlearned wisdom, and her indefinable air of long familiarity with trouble.
Lila lifts the veil on this unaccountable woman’s history, told through a third-person narration that sticks close to Lila’s consciousness, jumping back and forth through her life with the unstructured rhythm of reminiscence. The opening twenty-five pages flash like lightning through Lila’s near-death from neglect as a toddler, her rescue by a drifting charwoman named Doll, her childhood wandering through fields and farms with a band of laborers, the opening months of her marriage with Ames, and her discovery of her pregnancy. These masterful pages come nearer to perfection than anything I have read in years, and I found myself unable to continue the novel before reading them through three times; if the novel does not always deliver on the fire and beauty they promise, they nonetheless set the tone for the rest of the work.
And what a tone it is. Lila’s story is one of birth and re-birth, from the moment she is cast out at her own birth, to her re-birth when Doll takes her in her arms and carries her away, to her baptism at Ames’ hand, to her marriage with him, to her conception of Robbie. As Lila’s mind wanders through the long silences of the empty preacher’s house during her pregnancy, it becomes apparent that Robbie is not the only human being whom the Lord is knitting together in a creating womb: Lila herself is being made a final time, not as a child who is to be cast out, nor as a lonely reprobate, but as a daughter of the one who has said to her: Live.
The tone of the work, then, is a haunting mixture of elegy and praise, as the old life dies and a new one comes to birth. Yet Robinson refuses to turn Lila into a simplistic conversion story, with the dark days of atheism and sin giving way unproblematically to the bright light of being a preacher’s wife. Lila’s past life has been a heady mixture of earthy beauty, hopeless abandonment, sacrificial love, and inexplicable tragedy, a strong drink in which the bitter dregs are inseparable from the sweet wine. This cup of suffering must be purified, not merely emptied, so that its bitterness and its sweetness can give strength to the new person who is coming into existence. The resulting complex emotional register of the book testifies to the honesty and power of Robinson’s achievement: that she is able to let the reader experience how conversion involves mourning over both the past and the present, letting memory and anticipation purify each other, allowing grace to weave the old and the new into a rebirth into the same old world, now revealed as beautifully unknown.
Though thou art in thy blood, live. The word of God descends; an ear hears it; a person is changed. Live. But then what? Lila takes is dynamic core from this question: what happens after grace bursts into a life? The curtains do not fall on a perfect world the moment someone converts, any more than a newlywed couple rides off into the sunset to live happily ever after. The real drama of conversion is the now what, the gradual process by which the grace that has suddenly burst into a person’s life slowly becomes that person’s sole guide. Conversion is like lightning cast in molasses: all at once and marvelously slow.
Perhaps this is why Lila is so unusually paced; the most dramatic events rush past quickly, and simple conversations and silences stretch on, unexpectedly circling back into reflections on the great dramas only to flee from them again. The narration—like Lila herself—cannot bear to dwell on the most terrible and beautiful aspects of Lila’s life, but must catch brief, sidelong glances of them, as if casually discovering them in the midst of the ordinariness of daily life. For some—for Lila—the drama of conversion is like taming a wild animal; she must be coaxed to come of her own will, first only by quick glances and distant approaches, and only slowly, ever so slowly, is she able to turn away from the mistrust that has been her long companion to accept that a life of love might be possible.
Trust is a trial; love is a trial. And neither can be perfected in a single moment, requiring instead the steady constancy of human existence, with all its failures, mediocrities, and occasional moments of shining splendor—a constancy for which Lila’s life has left her ill-prepared. Grace does not create a fairyland; much of the novel is wrapped up in her silent struggle to decide whether or not to trust John Ames, and Ames’ struggle to trust her. They both know she wants to stay, but they both know she may leave at any time, flying away in the same sudden way she arrived. She is in fact like a strange bird Ames describes having once flown into his home during a storm: “It left a blessing in the house,” he explains. “The wildness of it. Bringing the wind inside.” The wildness is Lila; the wildness is love; the wildness is the Holy Spirit. The question that shapes the novel and their lives, then, is what will become of this wildness now that it has been brought inside.
The novel is completed by one more plaintive harmonic line: the randomness of grace. Lila, cast out and lifted up like the babe in Ezekiel’s prophecy, finds herself married to “a fine old man,” with a house filled with prayer and the oddness of God’s mercy. But all those she met in her wandering years, ordinary people who lived, struggled, and died without ever being covered by the Lord’s cloak, without being told, Live—what of them? They, too, weltered in their blood; where was their salvation? Robinson carries herself with superb dexterity here, nimbly drawing in the complexities of providence, grace, free will, predestination, ignorance, and human fallenness through fragmentary discussions between Ames and Boughton, his old Presbyterian minister friend, and Ames and Lila, circling around the question again and again, worrying at it like a sore tooth that will not be ignored and will not get better.
In fact, Ames and Lila groping with the answer to this question, each in their own way but still together, epitomizes the novel: the struggle to trust another human being, to love and let one’s life be shaped and determined by that love, with all the randomness and particularity that involves, points mysteriously to and receives its full meaning from that perfect mystery of the divine love, which can ultimately only be known from within. And it is only love, Lila helps us to see, that can begins to make sense of the question, the divine love that says, “Oh, here you are! Your dear weariness and ugliness as beautiful as light!” Though thou art in thy blood, live.
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 2014
Hardcover; 261 pages.
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