Thursday, May 5, 2016

An Appreciation of Lila

(Recently, WOVI, Oviedo's little-known local TV station, interviewed Roy Starling, a frequent contributor to, winner of the town's prestigious Best-Intentioned Blog with a Single-Digit Following Award (BIBSDFA). The interview, printed below in its entirety, was part of the station's weekly "Whatcha Readin'?" series.) 

WOVI: Mr. Starling, could you tell us what was special about a book you've recently read?

Starling: Call me Doc. Just last week I finished Marilynne Robinson's Lila, and it reminded me of a paradox that dawned on me while I was rereading Moby-Dick, and I'd like to express that paradox using Melvillian English: 

Whoever created me, whether she be mischievous Nature or an underpaid elf in God's toy shop, blessed and cursed me with a meager variant of the Cassandra complex, blessing me with the ability to appreciate literary masterpieces -- or at least with the illusion of such -- but cursing me with maddening tone deafness when I attempt to sing their praises.

Robinson's (I'd rather call her "Mrs. Robinson," but every time I do, I can't help but follow it with "Jesus loves you more than you will know") achievements in Lila* far, far exceed my ability to articulate them, but even so, as I read the book, I felt nourished, I felt wonder and awe, and when I finished the last sentence and regretfully set the book aside, I felt gratitude.

So I hope Robinson will forgive me now as -- despite my good intentions -- I oversimplify her jewel of a novel in an effort to praise it.

My dear friend Marilynne Robinson
Many of her characters, including Lila and her penniless, rootless clan, are essentially untouched by society and civilization, unknown, unwashed, unwanted, Darwinian in their struggle for survival -- with little hope of that and none for anything beyond -- entrenched in the pit of  Maslow's hierarchy of needs; they live in degradation and shame, finding temporary relief occasionally in thankless hard labor; and as is often the case in abject poverty, their desperation deprives them of the luxury of morality. 

Robinson takes these dwellers of the lower depths** and juxtaposes them, through the embodiment of the Reverend John Ames, with the mystery, esoteric poetry, mysticism, eschatology, spirituality and maddening paradoxes of the Christian faith.

I find this a courageous move by an author who is herself a believer. She makes it easy for readers (and her characters) to ask "What did God ever do for these people? How can God's creatures, first, sink to the level of thieving, whoring, stealing and killing and, second, then be punished in eternity for doing these things? Does He not care or is He the universe's great underachiever? Is He in any way present in His creation?"

Perhaps I'll give concrete, irrefutable answers to all of these questions in a later WOVI interview, but Robinson gives none, and God love her for that (if there is a God, of course). 

She allows the mystery (or Mystery) to remain a mystery, but not so obscured from her characters that they lose hope. And that mystery is something the Reverend Ames cannot live without even though he is something of a 20th-century Abraham, stubbornly hanging on to this mystery as his reason for being, regardless of what it asks of or takes from him.

(Readers of Robinson's Gilead will already know that Ames, though not without his flaws, is what my friend Randy Greenwald calls a "Man of Decency," an almost extinct literary archetype sorely needed as the Reprehensible Red-Headed Reprobate's epoch begins in earnest.)

(The last part of that sentence is mine, not Randy's.)
As for Lila, all the words we use to solve or name or invoke the mystery are news to her. She really is a practically illiterate nobody with nothing from nowhere, rescued and stolen as a sickly child by another lonesome nobody, named Doll, who does so with a motive she can't name, moved maybe even against her will to love one of "the least of these My sisters."

The abyss between Lila and her kind and Ames's God is exemplified by the part of the bible she first chooses to read and copy as practice for her penmanship: the Book of Ezekiel which, in my old field of study, is classified as apocalyptic literature, meaning it is revelatory, typically using obscure, extravagant, impenetrable symbolism to reveal 
the end of something, and often implying the beginning of something else. In short, it appears to be written by someone on LSD.
How William Blake imagined Ezekiel

Lila goes from this firestorm of faces and wings and wheels within wheels to the Book of Job, which in my field is called a theodicy, literature that attempts to defend God's goodness in a world of wickedness and catastrophes, i.e., the one we see every day on the news.

To an "outsider" (Jim from Huck Finn comes to mind), the restoration at the end is inadequate, no more comforting than Job's comfortless comforters.*+
These are not great starter passages for someone attempting to understand, let alone feel at home with, Christian belief.

So one of the novel's many beauties is that Robinson closes the gap between humans as organisms seeking only survival and -- I lack the language for this -- transcendence or grace, and she does it without cheating, euphemizing, trickery, special effects, deus ex machina or proselytizing.

It turns out there is balm in Gilead . . . but it's not for sale.

I leave this for her readers to experience at first hand, but would like to point out one of Robinson's particularly fine gifts: She is more subtle and more successful in creating sacramental imagery in her descriptions of wind, rivers, trees, and clouds, etc., than anyone else I've read, including the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor. 

By sacramental, I mean, in the words of Caroline Gordon, revealing in everyday reality "something of infinite reality."
Blake's "The Comforters of Job."

In this sense, Robinson mimics the medieval poets who simultaneously saw nature and the Divine, e.g., they saw the sun and the Son in the same glance. Robinson's nature imagery, made poetic by its fidelity, attracts the reader, makes her want to observe actual nature more carefully, to appreciate it, to in some sense live in it. 

She doesn't just describe the trees we see every day. She describes what we would see if we looked carefully, meditatively.

Lila's origin story (which is basically what the novel is) brought to mind Viktor Frankl's description of some of his fellow prisoners in concentration camps becoming "worthy of their suffering" by tapping into a "spiritual freedom" that gave their wretched lives purpose and meaning. Lila and Doll are indeed worthy of their suffering.

And it made me recall the generous, expansive revelations of Julian of Norwich and her recurring assertion that "all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," even in a world, like Lila's, like ours, of unspeakable depravity, ignorance, suffering and death. As Ames puts it, "Life on earth is difficult and grave, and marvelous."

WOVI: In other words, you recommend it.

Doc: Yes. In other words, if you don't read it, you're crazy.

WOVI: Anything else?

Doc: Yes. Come by again some time and tell me what you think about the book's last line.

Lila is a sequel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. She is the young wife of the narrator, the Reverend John Ames, a very old minister who is penning a combination autobiography and book of wisdom to leave to his son.

** Much like the characters in Kurosawa's film The Lower Depths, based on Maxim Gorky's play of the same name.

*+ This is certainly an outsider's view: Carl Jung's Answer to Job.


  1. In a follow-up interview with Randy Greenwald (the second-place finisher in the BIBSDFA competition) WOVI reporters were informed that though the part of the sentence NOT attributed to Mr. ("don't call me 'Rev.'") Greenwald would however happily be embraced by him.

    1. Well, "Doc" didn't want to assume. Also, if you really apply yourself, you could win the BIBSDFA some day.

  2. Me no read much no more. Me like Blake lots. And lots. With that out of the way: Once again, Roy, fine work. Can I stream WOVI on my Atari?

  3. You try. No exist, but still fun to try.

  4. Okay, once again you've moved a book up higher on my must-read-next list. BTW, I think, despite your protestations to the contrary, that you've been singularly blessed in the singing-praises-for-praise-worthy books department. You could make a stone weep, Doc.