Reviewed by Adam Fleming Petty
One of the biggest titles rolling out of the publishing industry this season is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It is big in every way: more than 600 pages that detail an epic battle between two factions of immortals, along with tales of the Iraq War, the feverish infighting of literary Britain, and a young girl’s coming-of-age.
And that’s not even the whole story. In a profile for New York magazine by Kathryn Schulz, Mitchell reveals that he has designs to write an ‘über-book,’ with every novel that he has already written and will write in the future all taking place in the same universe, enfolding characters reincarnated across millennia, godlike figures from an ancient past, and the next stage of human evolution, 250 million years in the future. It makes the Pixar Theory look like a rerun of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Marilynne Robinson is the last author you’d expect to deploy such fantastical tropes. History as it’s actually unfolded holds more interest for her than any counterfactuality. Her thoughts on immortality are essentially religious, and thus essentially mysterious. But I couldn’t help but think of Mitchell while reading Lila, her new novel, the concluding volume for what has become the Iowa Trilogy. Robinson has made a small Midwestern town in the mid-20th century as multifaceted, as full of potentiality, as any parallel universe.
The arc of Robinson’s career is well known. Her out-of-nowhere first novel, Housekeeping, was published in 1980, and might well have disappeared if Anatole Broyard hadn’t given it a rave review in The New York Times. She was one of the most promising novelists of that decade; she was also seemingly uninterested in fulfilling that promise. She spent the next twenty years writing essays and polemics, resulting in two books of nonfiction, Mother Country and The Death of Adam. Most wrote off the possibility of seeing another novel from her. When Gilead appeared, in 2004, it was doubly miraculous: first, that it actually existed; second, that it was this good.
At the time, I was a student at Calvin College (as in John Calvin), located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My friends and I drank cheap beer while discussing theology, politics, literature, and Tom Waits. For us, Gilead wasn’t just a great novel—it was our great novel. Here were the concerns of our daily lives, arguing about God under the vast Midwestern sky, transubstantiated into great art.
I’d imagine that many readers shared our devotion even if their circumstances and backgrounds were different. And I’d also imagine that many readers shared our reservations when, four years later, Robinson published a sequel, Home. Gilead was a novel that seemed nearly holy; the thought of a sequel seemed disrespectful, if not blasphemous—as if Robinson were a televangelist asking her followers to display their faith by picking up the phone, credit card at the ready.
Robinson had larger aims, of course, and one of them was interrogating the devotion that Gilead inspired. Most paeans to the book mention John Ames baptizing kittens as a child. What often gets left out is the knotty history of race that the novel dramatizes, culminating in the figure of Jack Boughton, prodigal son of Gilead, having a relationship with a black woman in St. Louis and fathering a biracial child. In his thoughts and actions on this matter, John Ames is less than a saint, evincing the attitudes that wouldn’t be unusual for an elderly man in the 1950s to possess. Some readers glossed over this aspect of Ames, wanting to go straight for the holy without first going through the human. Sometimes I think that Robinson wrote Home, detailing the story of Jack and his family, to remind her many readers of this fact.
Home seemed to explore the world of Gilead as thoroughly as possible, following much of the story and chronology of the first book from a different perspective, as if testing out Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in novel form. When I first heard that Robinson was going to make a trilogy out of the story of two old pastors, I wondered if there was anything left.
Lila depicts the life of John Ames’ wife, the woman who appeared in his church one Sunday morning like a miracle come to life. She plays an important role in the minster’s life, to be sure, but in the previous books, she’s more of a presence than a character. I couldn’t even remember what her name was, to be honest.
This minor character is now front and center, a move that brings to mind Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the story of Hamlet as told from the perspective of two walk-on characters. In that play, Hamlet’s two friends found themselves the protagonists of a parallel story, with little to no memory of who they were before they appeared in the tale of the Sad Dane. Similarly, Lila deals with the gaps, absences and lacunae of the titular character.
We learn that Lila, as a very young child, was kidnapped by a drifter, a woman named Doll. “Kidnapped” may be accurate in word more than spirit: Doll believes that she rescued Lila from a neglectful family, and Lila comes to see Doll as her only family. The two of them make their way across the back roads of the country during the Depression, although there are almost none of the usual signifiers of that era. Lila and Doll live a life of poverty that is spiritual more than historical. When Lila is a young woman, Doll gets involved in a fight, killing a man. She is arrested and put in jail, at which point Lila starts to wander the Middle West on her own.
It’s a setup straight out of Housekeeping. Indeed, part of the pleasure of Lila is watching the more heterodox sensibility of Housekeeping commune, and even clash, with the piousness of John Ames’ Iowa.
When Lila appears in Ames’ church, she doesn’t feel miraculous. She has, in fact, escaped from a brothel. She moves into an abandoned shack on the outskirts of Gilead, and begins a thoroughly tentative courtship with the minister, who, at first, simply wants to make sure she’s alright. Soon they are married, and, seeing as this is before television, they spend their evenings at the dining room table, discussing theology.
Ames finds himself returning to the topic of the elect and the unelect, the baptized and the unbaptized, with the only answer he feels qualified to give being that such matters are fully comprehensible only to God, and humans should respect such mystery. Lila, however, can’t help but wonder if Doll and the people she met in her former life wouldn’t be counted among the unelect. It is not incorrect to say that Lila is a domestic drama about predestination.
The resolution of this drama comes at the end of the book, in a scene I won’t spoil. Technically, I suppose, it’s already been spoiled, as it recounts a scene from Gilead, told from Lila’s perspective. But the tone is so different that it might as well be new, demonstrating in miniature the accomplishment of the Iowa Trilogy as a whole: that those closest to us are often the most mysterious—and the most holy.
Adam Fleming Petty’s work has appeared in The Millions, The Cultural Society, and The Christian Courier. He lives with his wife and daughter in Indianapolis, and is at work on a novel. Find him on Twitter at @flamingpetty.