Marilynne Robinson writes loneliness better than any writer I know. Is loneliness the right word? It feels inadequate somehow. I’ll try again: Robinson writes what it means to feel the devastating singularity of one’s own existence in a void not even dust can touch.
But if Robinson were to put it in terms as inflated as those I’ve just used, her novels wouldn’t stand out the way they do. What makes her take on loneliness unique is the way she can thread a camel through a needle. She imbues loneliness with all the cosmic, existential dread that poetry and philosophy can muster but narrows its scope to one character’s hello and another’s goodbye, between an I and a you.
It’s on page one of her first novel, Gilead: the I, the you, the despairing distances between.
“I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you‘ve had with me and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I‘m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I‘ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you‘re a grown man when you read this–it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then–I‘ll have been gone a long time. I‘ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I‘ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things.”
“I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself”: what one must keep to oneself is everything, not just once we’ve become bone-stuff, but every day, even in the company of those who know us best. That’s the essential refrain, and ultimately the terrible genius, of Robinson’s stories.
On 243 of the chapterless Lila, this:
“You. What a strange word that is. She thought, I have never laid eyes on you. I am waiting for you. The old man prays for you. He almost can’t believe he as you to pray for. Both of us think about you the whole day. If I die bearing you, or if you die when you are born, I will still be thinking, Who are you? and there will be only one answer out of all the people in the world, all fate people there have ever been or will ever be.”
Lila confides here in her unborn child. The “old man” is the father, a local preacher. And the story that has led to this hard-won revelation is a story that tells us how to read “you” and “I” not as agents of a sentimental bond but as a coming-to-terms (the term “you,” the term “I”) with the ways in which being born, once it happens, brings into existence a copy of existence, which is to say, one more shoreless gulf among endless gulfs.
Lila, an abandoned child (or stolen, depending on the reader’s allegiances to certain characters), is picked up by Doll, a vagrant who doesn’t so much raise Lila as she does live alongside Lila, tramping job to job with a band of itinerant workers and struggling through situations one might expect, given the circumstances. Danger’s a given. It’s not the surprise. And it’s not the crisis. Trust is the surprise and the crisis.
Trust isn’t a virtue of a life eked out by scarcity and scavenge. Not even Lila’s marriage to a seemingly trustworthy minister can restore what isn’t there to restore. Which is the virtue of this novel. Robinson knows that restoration, when it comes to loneliness, isn’t always possible. Most of the time, it’s not even relevant, despite the fact that western literature, American literature particularly, obsesses over restoration. Case in point: Lila reads the book of Ezekiel and, in the latter pages of the novel, Job. She reads prophecies about the restoration of those who are lost, stories about the restoration of lost families, lost loved ones. You can see how these stories might appeal to Lila. And, at the same time, you can see how inadequate they are to the task.
And I think that’s the point—if not Robinson’s point, then the story’s point, the point of Lila.
What I mean is that Robinson’s books are steeped in protestant theology, especially the American South’s christ-haunted version of it. But if christianity, or spirituality of any kind, were presented in Robinson’s work as the bridge between that unbridgeable “you” and “I,” the stories wouldn’t matter to many people who weren’t of the author’s religious persuasion. They would come across as shortsighted, feeble, and worse: too easy.
We each have our own limits on these matters, and there are definitely moments, for me, when the story’s biblical predilections feel too heavy-handed. But the saving grace, as it were, is that Robinson offers no saving grace. It would be, for instance, pushing the analogy too far to interpret Lila as Job. She understands, deep down, that she’ll be waiting a long time for her losses to be recouped if that’s the kind of prayer that’s asked of her. But she doesn’t pray for that. In fact, the closest she comes to prayer is the ongoing communion she holds with the you-and-I within herself. That’s not as mystical as it sounds. I mean she speaks to her unborn child, which is a statement no discerning reader needs to have unpacked.
For the sake of that you-and-I, Lila risks rejection, however unlikely, by her new husband; she risks disappointment in motherhood; she risks ridicule by the community and the church. And I think Robinson means something even more specific by this risk. What Lila is really doing is what Robinson is doing: she’s giving loneliness a narrative, fraught with its own risks. Why does that matter? Because narrative invites an audience: a reader, a listener, a viewer. It gives one’s vague loneliness shape, shape enough to be seen.
The preacher wants to know Lila’s story. Hence the final sentence of the book: “Someday she would tell him what she knew.” Maybe she never will tell the whole story. But it’s enough to know someone else might care to hear it. Which is, I think, the story’s definition of faith—faith not as hope, not as trust, not as a path to restoration but as the quiet courage it takes to stand near someone else and care, regardless of whether or not that other shape of loneliness ever knows you do.