Fiction in Review

Marilynne Robinson

Read together, these books seem almost collaborative, like an ideal of speaking conversation in which one of those present might propose a way of speaking–of how value exists, for example–and another might say, you are right, and yet we can turn the question again and see it differently.

They speculate variously on the good life, in the moral and even the spiritual sense of the phrase. Two novels, Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy (HarperCollins) and Ann Tyler's Saint Maybe (Knopf), present two poles in the ancient debate on the nature of sainthood. Tyler's hypothesis is severely Protestant. Her protagonist, Ian Bedloe, a young man just out of high school who secretly feels that an ill-considered remark of his has led to his brother's suicide, becomes convinced that he must be reconciled with God if he is to make his burden bearable. He happens on a storefront church called the Church of the Second Chance, which eschews every sacrament and imposes only the obligation to acknowledge wrongdoing and make diligent and practical efforts to set it right. When Ian confesses his guilt to the minister, he is told that he must rear his brother's orphaned stepchildren. He leaves college in his first semester and comes home to care for a baby and two sad and difficult older children, with the help of his elderly parents, who are puzzled, disappointed, and weary of such responsibilities. Ian sustains the tedium and difficulty of the life he has undertaken through the support of his church. Though he becomes a shy, quiet man, his occa- sional expressions of piety disturb people. He loses his girlfriend and alienates his fellow workers. In time he embarrasses the children he has adopted, because he has succeeded through his sacrifice in making them, against all odds, absolutely normal.

The aspiring nun in Mariette in Ecstasy is a beautiful young woman whose devoutness is rewarded with rapturous visions and with recurring wounds in her hands and feet and side. In spite of what are presented as unequivocal marks of divine favor, Mariette also experiences ostracism and rejection. The strategy of Tyler's book amounts to a virtual sanctification of ordinary life, since it offers an ethic of responsibility, as defined by one's immediate circumstances, as the essential enactment of belief. Hansen sets his drama of sainthood far outside the common experience of his readers. The story takes place in 1906, in a French-speaking community in northern New York. The structure of the book emphasizes the liturgical rhythms of silence, prayer, and work, with the seasons and all they permit or require in the way of farm labor subsumed to a larger, rather breathless atmosphere of obedience and veneration. From among these religious, Christ–temporarily, it seems–takes a bride, Mariette, who is exceptional for her intense contemplation of his suffering and for the abuse she inflicts on her own body. Hansen resists any temptation he may have felt to enter the contemporary conversation by suggesting why needless suffering should be presented as so powerfully ingratiating to God, or why self-mutilation should be the bride's part in a drama that draws explicitly on the gentle poetry of the Song of Songs. Mariette, through her ecstasies and her miseries, attains notably modest visionary gifts. She is able to report that Jesus is handsome. Unlike the generality of mystics, she fetches nothing back from her encounters with the divine that enhances our sense of what it is, or what we are. The novel neither questions Mariette's experience nor attempts any real engagement with it.

A kind of retrenchment is general among these books. This is nothing to regret. We have busied ourselves so long exploding assumptions that it is by now an interesting experiment to try reassembling them again in plausible forms. The effort is inevitably wary. Ethan Canin in his novel Blue River (Houghton Mifflin) proposes a model of the good man very like those to be found in Carolyn See's Making History and Ward Just's The Translator–an intelligent, private man, skilled at his work and devoted to his family. Canin's Edward Sellers is an ophthalmologist in California who takes pride in the comfort and apparent solidity of his life. His older brother shows up at his door, returned from ostracism of flight brought on by criminality of undetermined seriousness, possibly very grave. It is the kind of criminality that expresses dark compulsions rather than greed or cynicism, and it has frightened his decent family shunning him, and avoiding the mention, even the thought of him. Weary now and poor, with the strange attractiveness he once had all lived out of him, but disturbing as ever; he makes himself tensely at home, dandling his brother's children, eyeing his brother's wife.

Images of stability and comfort exist in American writing to be rebuked, if not undermined or exploded. It is no mistake to recognize in Edward Sellers a sort of doppelgänger, a denied self, therefore the potential destroyer of every defense his brother has reared against the world. In a time less chastened than this one it might well have been the course of the narrative to demonstrate how fragile a structure a good life can be, “fragile” being taken as a synonym for “false” or “hypocritical” so long as soundness was assumed to be more or less commonplace. Instead this narrator and narrative espouse a deep tact, demanding no assurances, no answers.

Once the outsider with a shadowy past and violence among his options was the classic American hero. Now strangers and outsiders are figures of terror. Their decline is only relative, of course, since the estimation in which we hold one another seems to have fallen across the board. Blue River undertakes an interesting revision. Too knowing to make any judgment, except perhaps that it is better to be governed by generosity than by fear, it allows the brother his mystery. If the bad brother in this novel suggests uncontrollable energies that mine away all security and well-being, the good brother achieves an order of goodness relatively immune to destruction because it is unencumbered by attempts at self-defense.

In Carolyn See's Making History (Houghton Mifflin), apparent goodness is also presented as an unperfected form of actual goodness. A great part of the wit and also the tenderness of the novel comes from the respect with which it treats everything it touches, including the departed spirit of an unintelligent suburban youth, which has entered eternity unchanged and discovered the universe to be structured around golden arches. In effect, the novel seems to imply that there is a place in the ultimate order for anything that is experienced as benign or innocent. Making History in fact proposes a virtual scheme of salvation. It attempts to resolve appalling losses by suggesting that the universe honors and embraces our vernacular selves: we are not strangers in it after all.

The narrative drifts from viewpoint to viewpoint as, given its nature, it has every right to do. It stays longest with Jerry Bridges, a California investment broker, a man who lacks words to express his feelings, and so expresses them in the kind of routine generosity and loyalty expected o men of his type. When presented with such a character, we usually leam that his virtues are merely apparent, or that they are inadequate by some defensible standard, or that they are a kind of entrapment brought on by fearfulness or lack of imagination. Instead, See invests her businessman-stoic with a powerful interior life. Though he scarcely allows himself to think of it, he is deeply in love with his teenage stepdaughter, who, he knows long before her mother does, is a proud and estimable creature. He controls his feelings so strictly that the girl feels slighted by him. Read aright, the distance he maintains is protective and cherishing, though it opens itself to more conventional interpretations.

The novel claims a larger moral and temporal space for its action than realism would grant it, yet it does not distance itself from the fetishes and mythologies that structure and clutter contemporary life.

His wife believes she has married him for the comfort he provides, though she makes the usual judgments about his wordless steadiness and his preoccupation. Unbeknown to her, Jerry is consumed by a vivid, unspecific purpose to create a utopia somewhere in the Pacific, in a place not yet wearied or embittered by history. He believes such a thing could be created by intelligent investment. Consistently with the method of the novel, this ambition is respected, even entered into as a fantasy of some aesthetic interest.

The novel claims a larger moral and temporal space for its action than realism would grant it, yet it does not distance itself from the fetishes and mythologies that structure and clutter contemporary life. This yields, among other things, a Pier One religious eclecticism, which is put to the test of mitigating real disaster. The idea the book offers is that, from the most baffled or hidden experiences, the oddest expressions, of love or generosity, a universe can be inferred, tender of us, accommodated to our hopes. Like Ethan Canin, Carolyn See has replaced our wonted judgmentalism with a great-hearted doubt, a reasonable doubt, which defers to the possibility of innocence.

Norman Rush's Mating (Knopf) is a latterday utopian novel, centered around an isolated village in the deserts of Botswana. The language of the novel is brilliant, funny, utterly wised-up. It is compounded of pun and allusions and fragments of conceptual systems to which some usefulness or plausibility might still cling, and it is sociable and warm and therefore implicitly value-laden despite all.

The narrator is vigorously self-interested, but without cynicism. She is an anthropology graduate student stymied by the collapse of her thesis topic. In Africa she makes the acquaintance of Nelson Denoone, a great star in her field, who is rumored to have created an experimental society of women no outsider is allowed to visit. She locates it, and crosses the Kalahari alone with two fractious mules to pursue a relationship with Denoone–and also, of course, to take a look at his experiment.

The female utopia turns out to be very modest and mild in its aspirations. It is populated by African women somehow displaced or cast out from other lives, whom Denoone has made the exclusive owners of property, and, within the limits of his design, the governors of the community. In the manner of reasonable people anywhere, these women both appreciate his benevolent intentions and work patiently to undermine them.

The tale is full of ironies. Denoone hopes to mend the consequences of the disruption of traditional societies by creating a community that departs from tradition absolutely. There are in fact two inevitabilities contending here. One is that Westerners, as the great social experiments crash to the ground, will put their hopes in new experiments, modified to embrace the views of the moment. The other is that certain primary impulses will assert themselves despite any obstacle, and no matter how deeply they are implicated in the history of grief and disruption.

Rush's narrator, a woman of great energy, candor, and resourcefulness, deploys her strengths to attach herself to Denoone. However self-effacing, however well-meaning, he is still a white man presuming to determine the conditions of life of African women. All this hints broadly at entrapment, suggesting at the same time that some of the worst consequences of the patterns we do not escape can perhaps be mitigated, though the book is no more than fair to this possibility. It allows for the possibility of good intentions, never assuming they will entail good results.

Paule Marshall's Daughters (Atheneum) has at its center another male character attempting to improve life in a black society badgered by history and by forces and influences too great to be resisted. Primus Mackenzie devotes his life to politics in a Caribbean island country called Triunion, gradually losing hope and idealism in the struggle to achieve some melioration of life there. He and his American wife have one child, a daughter, whose success is urgently important to both of them. The girl is both flattered and overwhelmed by the attention of her powerful father, and at the same time alienated from traditionalist island culture by her mother, who sends her to America to learn the expectations developing among activist women and blacks.

In the formal sense blacks govern Triunion. Yet the outcome of an election can be determined by the mere arrival of an American naval vessel, which is taken to indicate more than friendly interest in its results. Investors can impose vulgar intentions, defeating earnest schemes of development by the sheer force of money.

The American characters, Ursa and her mother, are the ones who feel most outraged by these intrusions of American influence, while they themselves shock local sensibilities with their foreigners' assertiveness. Meanwhile Ursa and her friends in New York are successful by the usual standards, and their lives are grim in familiar ways, anxious and work-dominated, abraded by special doubts about the social impact of the work they do and the attitudes of others toward them. Lowell Carruthers, the lover whose relationship with Ursa is like a sad marriage, wears a virtual scar of worry on his brow, and talks to her endlessly about his fears.

In Triunion children are born in great numbers into poverty that sometimes makes strays of them. Ursa's mother bore only one child, after many miscarriages. Ursa will not have a child, because she cannot form a tolerable relationship with its father. Like Mating, Daughters ponders the thought that the relations of women and men may be at the heart of every problem. Neither book does more with the suggestion than to make an engaging demonstration of its plausibility.

If the world of Daughters feels injured, caught between backwardness and disruption, both imposed on it, Western Europe feels very much the same way in Ward Just's The Translator (Houghton MiMin). The title character is a German who has lived many years in Paris with his American wife, comfortable in the shabby quiet of the postwar era. It is as if the American protectorate, or occupation, had created an erasure, a suspension of history, through which Europe, at the manageable cost of ceasing to be powerful, had become innocent. The Translator is set in the near-present, at the time of the dissolution of East Germany, and it suggests that history is reasserting itself like a monster thawing out of an ice floe.

Sydney van Damm is an East German by birth who experienced the war as a child. Fascinated by a detective film and a sympathetic encounter with GIs, he developed his talent for language into a mastery of American English that causes him to be mistaken for an American, though he never travels to the United States. Since coming to Paris immediately after the war he has enjoyed the friendship and patronage of an American named Junko Poole, a man of great charm and doubtful character, either an intelligence agent or someone exploiting the effect of the rumor.

Sydney has a long, agreeable marriage with Angela, a woman from Maine, who returns home from time to time only out of duty to her father, toward whom she is chill with injury–he was too overcome by the death of her brother to attend to her needs sufficiently, and besides, he is in financial trouble. We are apparently to feel that there is fault on the side of the father, a New England Brahmin in extreme old age who reacts to her resentments in a way that refreshes one's awareness of the humane aspects of emotional detachment.

Sydney and Angela have a young son who is developmentally disabled and uncontrollable, and unhappy in the institution where he lives. His mother dreams of buying a farm in Normandy where she can care for him. She returns to Maine to obtain the money she needs and learns that her inheritance has been lost. Junko Poole, the American friend, steps in with an offer of money in exchange for Sydney's help in a shadowy business involving new trade opportunities brought about by the opening of the East–that is, involving weapons. One wonders why neither Sydney nor his wife thought of a cheaper way of living in the country- side than buying a farm. In the event, Sydney returns to his childhood home, where his life comes violently full circle.

Our common preconceptions travel ahead of us to colonize and domesticate future experience so that we are never truly disowned or estranged–our twin waits on the shore where we must be shipwrecked.

The tone of the novel is grave in the manner of public utterance. It seems to invite interpretive statement: The calm of Europe in the post-War era was compounded of myth and stalemate, both now dissolving; the marriage of Germany and the United States has failed to produce viable offspring; the decline of old money and old power in America has left its clients in the hands of manipulators and opportunists. In the political world of Daughters, those who have lost hope and idealism can be displaced by those who have not yet lost them. Even if the process is cruel, it allows for the possibility that the best work of each generation will be saved. In The Translator, the good life is an entirely passive condition. It exists in the shadow and at the sufferance of forces characterized only as insidious and amoral. It takes its innocence from the fact that it is so far excluded from any true awareness of the workings of the world as to be excluded from all responsibility. The endless, affectionless dependency of Angela and therefore her husband and child on a father who is in every way failing is perhaps a telling image of our present condition.

Angela Carter's Wise Children (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a comic meditation on the self-replicating, one might say the procreative, energies of culture. Her novel is a family history of several generations of actors, some legitimate in both senses, and some in neither, including the narrator, a toiler in bit parts and variety acts, now retired. The novel adopts in an off-hand way plot devices from Shakespearean comedy, as if they were part of the normal course of things, not only among people whose language of behavior has been formed by reenacting his plays and whose passage through life is marked by suitability for always maturer roles. The voice of the narrator, Dora Chance, is a wry mix of high spirits and low expectations, earthy and working-class and full of allusions to Shakespeare. The humor and incongruity of effect recall Shakespeare.

The book sets about to recreate the grand inclusiveness of high comedy, thereby suggesting what a deep misapprehension lies behind the use of Shakespeare as shibboleth. In her childhood Dora is taken to Hollywood to play a sprite in a film of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The production is gaudily solemn, ill-considered, distracted, full of the gaffes that normally draw down ridicule. Here, however, the set becomes the scene of a marriage en masse, as if the comic spirit has made a numinous assertion of its presence in these improbable circumstances.

Wise Children is about the boundary-less community of shared culture. It is a meditation on the benign aspects of the fact that our common preconceptions travel ahead of us to colonize and domesticate future experience so that we are never truly disowned or estranged–our twin waits on the shore where we must be shipwrecked. It is a hypothesis that floats between what may be true and what must be hoped, so as to persuade that the vitality of art as it exists in the world may be drawn from art as it exists ideally. High comedy is its subject, its form, and its object. Wise Children is funny in its particulars, providential in its care for the fates of all its considerable population, and luminous, as if near a horizon beyond which gods enjoy the feasts and marriages we play at. It is a strikingly rich piece of work.

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is an American novelist and essayist and has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005.
Originally published:
April 1, 1992


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