Over the last decade, Marilynne Robinson has been at work on a project that is more than a little Faulknerian: a series of novels, taking place in 1950s Iowa and revolving around a narrow set of characters, that seeks to use narrative as a tool for meditation, for an apprehension of the world.
Her 2004 novel "Gilead," which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, takes the form of a communique from a Protestant pastor named John Ames to his young son; "Home" (2008) turns to Ames' lifelong friend the Rev. Robert Boughton and his relationship with a different sort of (prodigal) son. To call one the sequel of the other is to miss the point of what Robinson is doing, which is not so much to evoke experience sequentially as concurrently, and in so doing, to trace the incomprehensible largeness of even the most constrained lives.
Such a perspective also marks her new novel "Lila," which returns to Pastor Ames and his wife, Lila, a much younger woman who is also something of a prodigal. "And she turned and walked away," Robinson writes of her early in the novel, "instantly embarrassed to realize how strange she must look, hurrying off for no real reason into the dark of the evening. The lonely dark, where she could only expect to go crazier, in that shack where she still lived because it was hard for her to be with people. It would be truer to say hid than lived, since about the only comfort she had in it was being by herself."
That's gorgeous writing, an absolutely beautiful book, which is the first thing to note about "Lila." This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Robinson, a novelist who can make the most quotidian moments epic because of her ability to peel back the surfaces of ordinary lives.
The book begins by looking backward: to Lila's rescue (or theft) from a family that neglects her and her subsequent Dust Bowl era meandering with a loose tribe of drifters, who together form the outline of a family.
More than anyone, she relies on Doll, who took Lila as a child and raised her as her own. "They never spoke about it," Robinson notes, "not one word of it in all those years. … But she felt the thrill of the secret whenever she took Doll's hand and Doll gave her hand a little squeeze, whenever she lay down exhausted in the curve of Doll's body, with Doll's arm to pillow her head and the shawl to spread over her."
This, to me, is where Faulkner's influence asserts itself, in the blurring between inner and outer life, memory and experience, between different levels and stages of time. "Lila" is written in the third person, but it's a close third, never dropping its protagonist's point of view. Even more, it reflects (and honors) her oddly inarticulate coherence — growing up on the road, she is taciturn, without much schooling, although insightful and intelligent. Such an approach allows Robinson a certain access into Lila's history, without being untrue to her voice.
The basic action of the novel is simple: Lila, newly married and pregnant with Ames' baby, has to decide whether she will stay or go. It's a harder decision than we might think, for she has never been a stayer; she is wary as a skittish colt.
"I just don't go around trusting people. Don't see the need," she says to Ames, right before she tells him, "You ought to marry me" — a moment that deftly captures the conflict at the center of both character and novel, the desire to belong and the competing certainty that in a world so unpredictable, belonging is beyond our control.
At heart, of course, this is a spiritual conundrum — not to mention a central aspect of her husband's faith. That Lila does not quite share it is one of the novel's many victories, allowing Robinson to explore belief and its related questions with openness and grace.
Throughout the book, Ames argues with his old friend Boughton, who takes a hard line on salvation and the soul. Ames, on the other hand, is gentler, unwilling to see spirit outside the filter of daily life. "It's all a prayer," he says, late in the novel. "Family is a prayer. Wife is a prayer. Marriage is a prayer." But when Lila suggests that baptism too is a prayer, Ames takes issue; "No," he insists. "Baptism is what I'd call a fact."
The distinction is important, signaling the tension between faith as sensibility and faith as doctrine, which is emblematic of Robinson's intentions for the book. "If any scoundrel could be pulled into heaven," she writes, "just to make his mother happy, it couldn't be fair to punish scoundrels who happened to be orphans, or whose mothers didn't even like them, and who would probably have better excuses for the harm they did than the ones who had somebody caring about them. It couldn't be fair to punish people for trying to get by, people who were good by their own lights, when it took all the courage they had to be good."
For Robinson, the point is reconciliation, which has long been one of her essential themes. Who are we and how did we get here? What does any of this mean? "I believe in the grace of God," Ames says. "For me, that is where all these questions end." What he and this profound and deeply rendered novel have to offer, then, is not reconciliation in a sentimental sense but rather on the most vigorous terms imaginable, in a universe that remains opaque to us, where we must decide for ourselves with only questions to lead the way.