Posts Tagged ‘Marilynne Robinson’

‘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-



‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson – The Old Preacher and the Feral Female

‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson    (2014) – 261 pages

616Eizn12dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_No writer has been more successful at imparting her Christian values to the literary world than Marilynne Robinson.  In her novels she has shown us the good side of Christianity, the side that helped set up the Underground Railroad which aided black slaves escaping into the north to freedom.  Even her Christianity of today is a positive force for good, not the smarmy TV Christianity that sickens and corrupts.

When ‘Lila’ begins, the four year old girl Lila is locked out of her house by her parents on a cold night.  Fortunately a woman named Doll saw what was happening and stole Lila away from her family.  Doll has to travel by foot all over Missouri to find temporary jobs, and she takes Lila everywhere she goes.  The only permanent possession they have is a big knife that Doll keeps for protection.  Lila grows up loving her makeshift mother.

Most of the novel ‘Lila’ is an interior monologue by the grown-up Lila looking back on her early years.  Her fortunes have drastically changed since her childhood as she is now living in Iowa, married to local minister John Ames, and expecting a child of her own.  The novel explains how all these changes came about.

‘Lila’ is the third novel in Robinson’s Gilead series, the other two being ‘Gilead’ and ‘Home’.  I found both of the first two books tremendously moving.   ‘Lila’ did not have quite the impact on me of these first two novels.

For one thing, the story is told in a reverie, and sometimes events seem a little murky and not as vivid as they could be.  Still there are sentences here that memorably evoke nature along the roads and rivers of Missouri.

 “The river smelled like any river, fishy and mossy and shadowy, and the smell seemed stronger in the dark, with the chink and plosh of all the small life.”

 Perhaps the weakest part of ‘Lila’ for me was the character Reverend John Ames.  Too many times he seemed little more than a beatific nonentity.  When Lila shows up at his church one day, he decides immediately that she will be his future wife despite their thirty-plus years’ difference in age.  What his congregation thinks of this June/December romance is not discussed.  Nearly all his time in the novel is taken up with quoting biblical passages, praying, and sermonizing. Take page 223 in ‘Lila’.  This entire page is taken up with one of Reverend Ames’s sermons.  I suppose if you delight in listening to sermons this will be wonderful, but for people who don’t it makes the novel drag.  If you got rid of the sermonizing sludge, you would probably have a fine little 125 page novel here.  The Reverend should have been given some controversial church issue to struggle with so he would have been a more interesting meaningful character.

But the center of ‘Lila’ is Lila herself.  Despite or maybe because she has dealt with rough circumstances throughout her life, she has emerged a strong self-reliant person.  Because of her,  ‘Lila’ may be one of those novels I will have to think about for awhile before I fully recognize its worth.

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