The value of an exceptional novel lies in its ability to embed itself in your memory long after you have finished reading it. Its value is measured in how often you find yourself thinking in the voices of the characters, or thinking through the ideas, or remembering its images. A great novel has its after-image in other books, films, people, and events. A truly great novel has a spectral presence that will follow you for days, weeks, months, even years.
In reading and re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s Lila I have entered into the lives of her characters, and part of me feels ashamed to talk about them, fearing that I will be a mere gossip, failing to capture the essence of their lives, which has been so beautifully rendered in Robinson’s sparse and elegant prose. That Robinson writes her novels empathically, as an exploration of character, is something which she has discussed in her collection of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books. In the opening essay, ‘Freedom of Thought’, she writes about her fiction in terms both modern (“self-awareness”) and old (“soul”),
When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to stimulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire- a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. (p. 7)
Lila is Robinson’s third book set in the town of Gilead, Iowa. The novel is set before the events of either Gilead or Home, and allows Robinson to explore characters that have been encountered before from an earlier time and from a different perspective: the perspective of the outsider, Lila, who comes to the town, and has plans to continue on from it, in the itinerant way she has come to live her life. In this first blog in our series I will focus on the opening of the novel, and examine the way in which Robinson draws out for the reader “integrative work“ of Lila’s mind, allowing us to enter in, to dwell there for a time, in both her present and in her memories of her past.
Lila opens with a heart-rending scene of a lonely, rejected, and ill-abused child, sitting alone on the stoop of a house. Not even the cats will tolerate her, scratching her arms, “the harder she held on to it,” (p. 3) and hiding under the house, where she is too afraid to venture. She sits and waits for something to happen, and it does, in the form of Doll, a character whose presence will haunt the novel, a ghost of the past. Indeed we do not discover until the following page that this nameless, unloved child is Lila, the narrator. It is her memory of her childhood she is describing, and she sees it much more positively than the reader does, “Lila would never tell anyone about that time. She knew it would sound very sad, and it wasn’t, really. Doll had taken her up in her arms and wrapped her shawl around her.” (p. 4) This image of the miserable child who is taken up in the arms of someone who is not their own kin in an act of kindness and grace is one that Robinson will return to throughout the novel. However, it is no rose-coloured fairy tale that Robinson is telling, but a story of how suffering and grace can co-exist in the one life, in the one mind, and how both contribute to the identity of Lila.
The link between our memory and our identity has been widely studied, not just in literary departments, but also by cultural theorists, historians, psychologists, and neuroscientists. The notion that we are indelibly shaped by our past, not just our own past, but our shared cultural past, which is often mediated (an idea known as ‘prosthetic memory’), and that we are specifically shaped not by the facts of the past but by our memory of it, has come to be regarded as somewhat irrefutable. That there is yet another novel exploring this very idea is unsurprising given that this seems to be the concern of many authors across a wide range of literary genres at present. However, Robinson seeks to explore this seemingly worn-out path of literature from a different vantage point, specifically the impact of grace on memory and identity.
In one of their earliest conversations Lila asks the Reverend John Ames about her life, about “why things happen the way they do.” (p. 29) She is attempting to not just make sense of her life, but of herself, and his answer in the first instance is to tell her of the sorrows of his life. Robinson is revealing here the power of stories, of narratives, to help us answer those questions. However, there is more to it, and the Reverend Ames (and Robinson, I guess) gives a clear, if didactic response, “’I think you are asking me these questions because of some hard things that have happened, the things you won’t talk about. If you did tell me about them, I could probably not say more than that life is a very deep mystery, and that finally the grace of God is all that can resolve it. And the grace of God is also a very deep mystery.’” (p. 31) Later he writes her a letter that expands upon this, drawing upon the image of our relationship with God as of a father and child, and reflecting on the life of Christ, who in experiencing humanity and in suffering with and for us, reveals a God who knows us intimately.
The Bible teaches us that we cannot know the mind of God (Job 11:7, Romans 11:33-36), as Robinson shows, the human mind is full of mystery, too. But that we can experience God’s loving kindness, through each other and ultimately through his Son, is something that should, and does, have a powerful impact on our identity.