Saturday, April 29, 2006

Gilead and the artist as a god

It seems rather gauche to jump into yet another discussion of pointless TV topics with the news I've linked to below, so I thought a one-day (at least) moritorium might be in order, that we might talk about something SLIGHTLY more spiritually edifying. And this post on Gilead I've been ruminating over for the better part of two weeks seems like just the thing.

When I first got paid to write criticism (which, actually, wasn't all that long ago), it was as a book critic for an alternative weekly. While I preferred writing about film and television, an English degree in college had assured I knew a lot about literature and had read a lot of it.

Being a book critic, actually, was harder work than it looked like. Reading a good novel is a breeze, but reading a bad one is excruciating. Unlike a film or television episode, it seems to drag on and on, and if you can't force yourself to finish it quickly, it lurks, ever present, on the bedside table.

But, at the same time, there's nothing like finding yourself in a new world created wholly out of words. It gives you things to savor, to remember, to live by. Unfortunately, modern fiction gives us fewer and fewer of these worlds to get lost in every year. Where once literature was a middle-aged man's game, dominated by people who devoted their lives to their craft (and punctuated by the occasional young genius), the push now seems to be to skew younger and younger, to find genres that will lure in fickle twentysomethings.

All of this is prelude to say that Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is none of those things. It is a slow book, stately. It forces you to read it on its own terms, in its own rhythms. If you skimmed for plot, you wouldn't think much of it, but if you read to taste the language, you would find an experience almost unique in American letters.

Gilead, the story of an elderly preacher writing down his life story so that his very young son may have it when he grows older, is a novel of ideas, something which has largely fallen by the wayside in American literature. To be sure, there's a plot (actually, several plots, but I'll get to that), but the story is also filled with theological digressions, with ruminations on the beauty of life and the nature of God himself. The book is as much Robinson's reflection on the streak of white-hot Protestantism that runs through the Midwest (spurred, in large part, by abolitionists who moved there to prevent the territories from becoming slave states) as it is her reflection on the divine nature of living on the prairie, where nothing interrupts the eye.

It took Robinson two decades to write this book, and I can see why. The book doesn't seem to have been written by any writer alive. There are so many temptations for Robinson to chase this or that alluded to coincidence down a rabbit trail and utterly destroy the spell she's weaving, but she never does. I know that one particular plot point that seems to be suggested (I won't spoil it for you, but if you read the book, you'll know what I'm talking about) is one that would be difficult for any writer to avoid. But to spell it out would ruin everything. By keeping the whole affair in shadow, Robinson is able to suggest something very American: a higher power moving behind the scenes, pushing people together just when they need to come together (like Magnolia, only more subtle than the frogs). By not playing her hand, Robinson is able to very shrewdly suggest something that is always lurking at the edge of any work of art: the idea of the artist as a god.

Now, obviously, when I sit down to write a work of fiction, I don't believe that I'm literally creating a universe or anything, but for any artist, the characters they work with "become real," so to speak. The best characters are the ones that are so well developed that they develop something approaching "free will" (though, of course, the psychologist would say that this is just different facets of the personality working out various things). And when those characters have free will, they can say and do what they want, regardless of what I, the artist, want them to do. It's a neat, weird little reworking of any creation myth, carried out on a personal scale.

Of course, all humans play at controlling the universe. We are, at all times, trying to control each other in one way or another, whether we are entirely innocent in that desire or duplicitous. When we dream of the way things "should" play out, we are playing at creating our own universe, where we are the god, where we can create a perfect situation.

But that's limited godcraft, as it were. As God found out in the Garden of Eden (and as all parents find out when the kids hit, oh, about 14), free will is necessary, but it's a monster.

I remember vividly the first time I realized the power that my creations as an artist could hold over me. In high school, I was working on the teen soap drama that has occupied my mind since the seventh grade (I don't actively think about it at all times, but a part of my brain is always trying to put together the pieces I don't quite have figured out yet). As I was writing along, I decided to strike one of the characters down. I was going to have him kill himself as an expression of my own weird adolescent angst, which I couldn't fully articulate. Something about this act didn't feel right to me, and I knew it, but I continued down that path.

But then something interesting happened. I realized, intellectually and emotionally, that this would never stand. One of the other characters, a warm, open-hearted girl, was bothering me about it. And then she sacrificed herself to save him (within the story framework, which involved a complicated setup, similar to the play Everyman, which, I swear, I hadn't read at the time, or the film A Matter of Life and Death, which I also had no idea of). The dynamics were pure, high-school-level "my life is sooooooo hard" operetta, but my cruelty had spawned something in one of my characters that caused her to rise up against me (again, the psychologist would explain this as my better natures winning out). I was, to put it mildly, stunned.

Of course, if you've never written a work of fiction, you probably think I'm a crazy person. And that's fine, because an element of madness populates all art (and all science, but I digress). But the beautiful thing about all of this is that once you figure out how to let your characters wander about and do their own thing, art becomes less about the work of being an artist and more about the process of discovery. It becomes about fleshing out a world, about learning which paths to pursue, about giving full room to buried desires and shames.

And that brings me back to Gilead.

The main plot, of course, centers around the minister and his attempts to account for the vicious feelings he has that surround an event that happened years ago. And I have no doubt that this was the plot that Robinson discovered first, perhaps on her first attempt at the novel. It's very much the throughline of the piece. It carries us through the digressions and the sermons and the descriptions. But it also takes us to another, buried, secondary plot.

Gilead seems to be a weird title for a book about a man, since it refers to a small town in Iowa. But we come to realize that the town, in many ways, is the protagonist of the novel just as much as the preacher is. Founded by abolitionists as a "safehouse" of sorts for John Brown and other freedom fighters, Gilead has slowly been on the decline ever since. The final passages seem to indicate that the town will fall into decay and simply cease to exist at some point (the book is set in the 1950s), and the gradual march of technology (exemplified by the television) into the town is hastening that process.

And, eventually, we as readers make the connection that the man is dying, but the town is dying with him. Not because he's supremely important, but because both of them have served their purpose. All things must pass, and the best that we can hope for is a little grace on the way out.

And the preacher's passing seems to signify the end of a whole era. With him, it seems, the age of churches based on solemn discussions of theology and faith is drawing to a close (again, exemplified by a new, "flashy" church to be built in place of the shabby one the pioneers set in place). The preacher never tells us that this will happen, but we, as readers, know that the world of mega-churches and the American version of God as ATM machine is just around the corner (along with tele-evangelists, whom Robinson manages, somehow, to get a dig in at).

Gilead is another work I could pontificate on at length, but what I'm most struck by is how Robinson allows herself to discover her world at a leisurely pace, thereby forcing us to read at a more leisurely pace. And we are rewarded for that, richly rewarded.

No comments: