Marilynne Robinson, “Housekeeping” (1980) – This novel answers a question I didn’t know I had, lingering in my mind: “what would a serious literary novel look like if it were written by someone who could check all of these boxes at once: white, American, sincerely believing Protestant, writing after the 1960s?” I think some part of me, before looking in to Marilynne Robinson, basically assumed no one fit the bill. Serious WASP novelist, pre-sixties? Plenty. Serious contemporary PoC American Protestantism? Sure. Contemporary white American Protestants that don’t really believe it but like the community and do-gooding? Still kicking, here in Boston, original HQ of the kind of thing, especially, and probably some of them write novels. Serious contemporary American Protestants?Well, yes, though recent events call into question the sincerity of their belief versus their tribal affiliations… In any event, they don’t write “serious” novels (I’m racking my brain to think of them writing good “unserious,” i.e. genre, novels either… James Ellroy, I guess, but he’s the definition of a “special case”). They don’t do rigorous abstract thought. That’s why the right fills its jurist and serious functionary seats with Jews, Catholics, Mormons, and if the Trump movement continues, whackjobs from the Internet.
Look, I know, I get it. I shouldn’t focus on that. I should focus on the unpretentious spare beauty of the language, the meticulous but unostentatious concern for the worlds made by women, and the simple-yet-thorough humanity of the characters. Well, among other things, those attributes are probably among the reasons why I never thought to read any Marilynne Robinson before now. It’s not that I’m against them. It’s just that those things are prized by creative writing students. I have taken one writing course in my life and it was spring semester, 2005. Robinson doesn’t seem to get involved in controversies or other stuff that might grab a non-writing-student’s attention (well, she gets praised by Oprah, but that’s not a good vector for my attention either). She’s respected in such a way that she never became a punching bag, ala Jonathan Franzen or (her former student) David Foster Wallace, so I didn’t get to know about her that way. I knew her name for a while, and would see her stuff in bookstores. I knew people in writing circles who talked her up, big time. Eventually I edited a review of her latest book for San Antonio Review, and figured maybe I should have a look. Here we are.
“Housekeeping” is the story of a kid named Ruth, living some time in the mid-twentieth century in a town called Fingerbone somewhere in the mountain west. One day, her mother drops her and her older sister Lucille off at Grandma’s house and drives her car off of a cliff into the deep mountain lake nearby. Previously, this lake had claimed a whole train full of people, including grandpa, slipping off the railroad bridge into the deep. It’s a scary lake. Grandma is old, tired, strong, respectable, and befuddled by life, what with its lake-taken loved ones and sudden responsibilities for children. She dies and some eccentric great aunts take over the house. Also thrown by their new responsibilities, the great aunts fly the coop when the girls’ aunt Sylvia returns to Fingerbone to take over the titular task of keeping house with the kids. Sylvia is an eccentric who lived for years as a drifter. She does whacky stuff like eat dinner in the dark and collect random shit. Ruth is basically down but as Lucille grows older and gets into adolescence, she is not. By and by, the law takes an interest in the supposed neglect of Ruth, and Ruth and Sylvia flee into the night.
Robinson’s prose is, indeed, quite fine. I especially enjoyed a passage where Ruth talks about the sort of not-asleep not-awake state you can get into if you stare into deep dark long enough. Robinson is good with sensate stuff like that. There’s a little bit of “the ands” — unnecessary usage of the conjunction “and” in lists instead of commas to, I don’t know, give emphasis or something, you see it all the time and it bugs me — but for all I know, she invented that tic and passed it down to her workshop epigones. She makes differences in terms of house cleaning and the like between the women who make up the story stand out and not in some obvious symbolic way. As for the simple humanity bit… well, I guess that’s where we get back to how I began. Her version of humanity is hard for me to recognize. Not that that makes it wrong, or false, or that I’m going to start bitching about how I “can’t relate to the characters,” that obnoxious cliche of readers who treat literature like a consumer experience. I felt I could relate to the characters.
Where I had trouble was connecting to the philosophical stuff Robinson put in Ruth’s mouth. I’ll give just one example- she has Ruth say “[F]or need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and it’s shadow.” And a bunch more in that vein- no more feel the need for someone to touch your hair as to feel it. In what world is that the case? Whose experience is that? Is that what it’s like to be one of the serene middle aged ladies at a UU church? I’m not trying to be rude or dismissive here. That’s just utterly foreign to me- not just to me, but to more or less everything I’ve read. It’s actually kind of wild. But it also makes me arch an eyebrow. What the hell is literature for in a world where desire and satisfaction are the same? What’s the point? A bit like asking what’s the point of being good if our fates are predestined, like Robinson’s homeboy (not being flip here, she has written extensively praising) John Calvin…
How much did any of the doings in the book interest me? How much do straying bourgeois wives interest me? Not much but I enjoyed “Madame Bovary.” “Housekeeping” held some interest for me but less- Flaubert is pointed, mean, and Robinson isn’t, not here anyway. So I amused myself in two ways. First, I played “find the contemporary workshop lit tropes.” Robinson reigned over the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for some time, and stuff from here crops up in “that kind” of fiction over and over again, from the NYT bestsellers list to your writer friends google docs. Siblings with a spooky bond? Check. The woods as source of meaning, Walden redux? Check. The “ands?” Check.
Second, I cooked up a scenario where Robinson is a satrap. I’ve noticed that in the publishing world, sometimes an author is basically crowned king of their community, the spokesman (gendered term used advisedly) who’s on call to represent their ethnos and advance their protégés, stymie rivals, etc. Junot Diaz was that guy for Dominican and to an extent Latino writers; Sherman Alexie played that role for Native American literature for a while. I think of these as “satraps,” the term for governors of what used to be independent kingdoms absorbed by the Persian empire. Both Diaz and Alexie ran afoul of abuse scandals clearly abetted by being treated like little dependent kings and both probably held back the literature of their respective communities (Diaz was quite spiteful towards Carmen Maria Machado, a much more talented writer). I think the white publishing industry would have loved for Ta-Nehisi Coates to be their African-American satrap, but he doesn’t seem interested and that literary space is (and always has been) too big and diverse to manage that way. I found myself thinking, what if there’s hundreds of good white Protestant writers — they’d have to be evangelicals, there’s not enough juice in “mainline” Protestantism anymore — and we just put Robinson out there as their symbolic figurehead so we don’t have to confront their energy, like how Diaz’s literary machismo was probably threatened by Machado’s perspective? Is Marilynne Robinson fake news?? Well, no, that’s silly. She’s just a decent writer I don’t relate to much. Don’t worry- I’ll give “Gilead” a try, one of these days. ***’