Robinson’s Revelatory Prose

Like previous critics, Michelle Orange emphasizes the role of grace in Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Lila:

Robinson’s genius is for making indistinguishable the highest ends of faith and fiction, evoking in her characters and her readers the paradox by which an individual, enlarged by the grace of God, or art, acquires selfhood in acquiring a sense of the world beyond the self—the sublime apprehension that other people exist.

Which is to say that Robinson’s animating theme—grace—is also central to her genius. Described as “a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials,” grace is evidenced in both the particular and the abstract: as laughter, a beloved face or voice, or as “playing catch in a hot street . . . leaping after a high throw and that wonderful collaboration of the whole body with itself”; but also in forgetting “all the tedious particulars,” in feeling the presence of a “mortal and immortal being.” “A character is really the sense of a character,” Robinson has written, and hers suggest, above the particulars, how the mysteries of grace persist in human beings, those wanting creatures who move Ames with their incandescence, the presence “shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else.”

Wyatt Mason focuses on how Robinson’s characters approach self-understanding:

She documents how Lila’s mind changes, not owing to the efforts of some external force but out of a righteous need of her own: to understand her husband, to speak his language, to forge a language of her own that will be spoken with, to, and for him and for them.

One of the book’s most telling passages involves watching Lila’s mind as she sits in her house, pregnant, reading the Book of Job, registering the lines and considering them. The act of reading the Bible as high drama may seem unlikely, but through it, Robinson has managed to portray how a mind with no religiosity might meet a book Robinson loves fiercely and, in its pages, find a road to a self that learns a new language: her own language. As it turns out, there is extraordinary drama in the story of how we learn to speak to ourselves.

In a recent interview, Robinson addressed this connection between faith and language:

As you write, do you draw on language found in your faith? What are the strengths of religious language, or what are the limitations of language when it comes to talking about faith and belief?

Language is limited in its nature. It’s like consciousness itself. It’s defective, and you can push at it. You can make it do things you wouldn’t have known it can do. One of the things that is a benefit to me is that, because I have been interested in a particular theology, it makes a coherent language. It’s internally self-referential, in a way. This could be true of anyone who is deeply acquainted with any tradition. This particular tradition was very verbal, so you have a very rich literature that pushes the articulation of certain basic ideas.

We have anxiety about differences. We are different, anyway, so we might as well calm down about it. But one of the things that we have to do is understand that within the system that is anyone’s difference is incredibly enabling. It means people before me have pondered the response to death. People before me have pondered the reality of time in different dialects. This is beautiful. This is not a thing to be anxious about. For my own Calvinistic purposes, I would like to see the tradition that I speak from re-animated, fleshed out. It’s human, it’s experience. Only religion fully realizes the arc of human life, and so much beautiful thought has gone into this over our eons of time.

Recent Dish on Lila here.