‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson – Unforgiven

 

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson (2020) – 309 pages

In the first three novels in this Marilynne Robinson series (‘Gilead’, ‘Home’, and ‘Lila’), we see Jack Broughton from a distance. His close relatives in Iowa see him as the prodigal son who could not restrain himself from misbehaving. However the new novel, as the title suggests, is written almost entirely from Jack’s point of view. In ‘Jack’, we see him close up in St. Louis, and Jack is a mess. He can’t keep a job, drinks alcohol heavily, and spent a couple of years in prison. Jack is unrelentingly obsessed with his own failures as a person, in religious terms his perdition. We are told over and over about Jack’s view of himself as a sinner and reprobate. Jack’s main goal in life is to make himself harmless to other people.

It was really all about shame.”

The novel gets quite repetitive in Jack punishing himself. Jack is so self-absorbed or self-centered in his own failures and transgressions, you would think there is hardly room for anyone else in his life, but the novel ‘Jack’ is also a romance. In the first quarter of the novel, Jack spends a chaste night locked in a St. Louis cemetery with a young black woman, Della Miles. Jack is in his late thirties; Della is in her early twenties. They share a religious background, both of their fathers being Protestant ministers. They also share a sustaining interest in poetry and literature.

This lugubrious opening overnight scene in the cemetery could have been drastically shortened with no loss to the story. The focus is always on Jack and the supposedly monstrous sins he has committed. We find out very little about what Della Miles thinks about herself.

The time is the 1950s. St. Louis still has anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and even for a white man and black woman to be seen together walking the streets causes a furor. Jack knows that by continuing to associate with this respectable young black woman, he will only drag her down, but he can’t help himself. Jack realizes he is doing harm to Della just by being with her.

In nautical terms, the novel ‘Jack’ is not a speedboat nor a sociable cruise ship but instead a lumbering cargo ship with a heavy load. But we readers who have followed Marilynne Robinson’s serious novels throughout her career expect and want something with substance. Robinson does not disappoint in that way. ‘Jack’, like all of her previous novels, has gravitas. However I have to downgrade it because it is so self-centered on Jack himself and gets terribly repetitive.

‘Jack’ is a dark heavy read, but if you have read and been moved by the other three novels in the series as I have, I’m sure you will want to read ‘Jack’ anyhow.

 

Grade:    B-

 

 

8 responses to this post.

  1. LOL I’m not rushing out the door to pick up this one. It makes me wonder why she wanted to write a novel about a self-indulgent male in the first place.

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    • HI Lisa,
      ‘Jack’ is definitely not a stand alone novel. If you haven’t read the first three, you shouldn’t want to read ‘Jack’. I have read the first three, but still I was almost ready to give up on ‘Jack’ after about 100 pages. I suppose it was my early religious training that caused me to appreciate the first three novels so much, but I’m pretty much an agnostic now. I know some readers liked ‘Jack’ a lot, but some didn’t.

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  2. I’ve read Gilead, but didn’t get on with it well. It wasn’t so much the religious stuff though I found that redious, but the whole concept of a character trying to control the behaviour of others from beyond the grave. I reckon we have a lifetime to influence others for good or for ill, and when the Grim Reaper beckons, it’s time to move over!
    BTW I revisited my review of Housekeeping because of this review, and my, there’s a fun conversation there!

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    • I notice that I am one of the many, many commenters on Housekeeping. It seems there is a big divide among readers, those who are drawn to Robinson’s work like me and those who aren’t like you. I must admit that I really liked the first three novels of this series, but ‘Jack’ just did not do it for me because of the reasons I mention above.

      I do want you to name about three of the writers you most admire. That would help me to understand your position.

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  3. Ooh… that’s hard, only three…
    Well (today, it would be different last week and different again tomorrow) heavily influenced by the fact that I’m working on my next lot of Reviews from the Archive i.e. pre-blog reviews from my journals) — and this lot are all Nobel prize winners, I’m going to choose Patrick White, Jose Saramago, Sinclair Lewis and Patrick Modiano. Oops, that’s four, and tsk tsk, they’re all male writers. (I’ve read 11 of the 16 female Nobel prize winners, but the only ones I like are Pearl Buck, Toni Morrison and Nadine Gordimer, but good as they are, they are not among my favourite writers that I choose to read again and again.)

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    • I agree with you that Patrick White and Jose Saramago are outstanding. Sinclair Lewis is certainly a fine writer, but I wouldn’t quite put him in the outstanding category. So far I haven’t been too impressed with Patrick Modiano. Other male writers I would put in the outstanding category are Graham Greene and William Trevor.
      Female writers I would put in the outstanding category are Dawn Powell, Elizabeth Taylor, Alice Munro, and Muriel Spark.
      But as you say this can change every day. 🙂

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  4. I’ve read two of the previous MR novels and found them impressive but not particularly memorable. Slow moving, but in a good way – like late H James, without the syntactical complexity. Deeply serious, as suggested – not such a bad thing in these days of fake news and cynicism. I’d second the choice of E Taylor as a favourite author; the only Modiano I read didn’t register well with me – cold and cerebral, I found, in a way that Robinson isn’t. She manages cerebral and…something else, but not cold. Human, perhaps.

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    • Hi Tredynas Days,
      I would never have come up with the connection between Marilynne Robinson and Henry James, and to be honest I still don’t 🙂 I do appreciate Robinson’s seriousness, just not in this novel.

      Yes, just about everything Elizabeth Taylor wrote was wonderful. Too bad she was stuck with a name that was associated with a more famous movie star.

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