Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Book #15: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

After reading Gilead a few weeks back, I wanted to read Robinson's first novel, which was originally published in 1981. This book is equally languid, but after settling into a slow, dreamy pace for the majority of the book, draws to a far more breathtaking conclusion. The story deals with a family living in a cold, bleak Western snip of a town located on the edge of a great lake. The protagonist, Ruth, is a young woman describing her coming-of-age, but she starts by telling about her family's past, which culminated with her and her sister in the care of their grandmother, then their batty great-aunts, then their somewhat unhinged aunt. The house their grandfather built looms large throughout the story, and indeed, by the end, the housekeeping that has seemed like a metaphor for the growth of Ruth and her sister has transformed before our eyes into a far richer metaphor for something else entirely. To say what would rob the reader of one of the pleasures of the novel.

The primary pleasure of the novel is the language, however. Robinson writes prose with a poet's ear. Both of her novels are like meringue from the finest of restaurants, the plot subtly unfolding behind the creamy lightness of the language. Unlike my dirty habit of growing impatient with the way that prose impedes the plot in some books, with Housekeeping I found myself drinking in every sentence carefully, even as Ruth's life becomes unmoored and the sense of real danger rears its head towards the end of the novel.

However, it is the richness of her voice itself that leads me to wonder if there is an intentional disconnect between Ruth's internal voice and the world around her. She's obviously bored and uninterested in the world on one hand, but on the other hand, she tells her story like, well, like a poet. Robinson may be intending to imply that such poetry lurks in the heads of many who show such disinterest in the world, but I don't think that's it: Ruth's similarly disinterested aunt is written in such a way that it seems extremely unlikely that she would describe the world with even a fraction as much taste as Ruth. Ruth's own sister seems unaware of Ruth's prodigious language gifts, and I suspect that, in fact, no mention is made of them because Ruth's true voice -- if she were real, that is -- has been completely subsumed by Robinson's voice. In other words, I could buy this subtle and rich voice when it belonged to the educated, philosophically-minded preacher of Gilead. From Ruth, especially as it becomes clear that she is telling the story with some distance from it, it seems as glaringly wrong as George Bush suddenly spouting silver-tongued Shakespearean speech. (Not that Ruth is as amoral or dangerous as Bush, but she shows a disinterest in the world that reminds me of other "intellectually incurious" people.)

Despite my misgivings about Ruth's voice (and, mind you, a book written with verisimilitude to how I imagine an incurious person would write -- and is intellectual prejudice wrong? -- would be a hell of a boring book), this is a magnificent story, as rich and lovely as any in contemporary fiction. I'm glad I read Gilead first, because the rush of action towards the end of Housekeeping would have led me to expect more of the same from the later book, and it works better without such expectations.


Anonymous 11:46 AM, May 19, 2005  

You are an amazing reading machine!!

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