This woman walks into a town in Iowa. She meets a pastor-man, old enough to be her father, maybe even her grandfather. The woman is a bit unkempt. She sleeps in a cabin. Bathes in a river. When the pastor-man lends her his sweater one day, for warmth, she takes it home with her to the cabin and sleeps with it as a pillow. Later, after they’re married, she tells him about her stealing it, “I done it because it had your smell on it.”
This is the courtship of Reverend John Ames and Lila Dahl in Marilynne Robinson’s book Lila, published in 2015. It follows Gilead and Home. The conflict—though I can’t speak to it entirely; I’m only halfway through the book—centers around the uncommon connection of youth and old age, worldly wisdom and godly intelligence.
The story compels me—as it has compelled many other readers—by its originality, its beauty, its radical truths. These two people live torn, shadowed lives. And yet the book reeks light! Their characters shine with the honesty of their actions. Is the book “boring,” so to speak? Ah. This is a dangerous question. Because I have often let the book sit by my bed. Left it unopened. Left the cover curled back. Just left it. I did this with other books too. Even H is for Hawk. Even The Hobbit. But the author’s words stay there on the page. Waiting. Forgiving me for my negligence. Offering an eternal invitation to explore a place, a group of people, a new idea.
Of course Lila is not boring. Much of the book takes place in Lila’s head. Not, though we may secretly wish it, in Lila’s bed. (Though there are brief glimpses.) The book is not boring. What goes unsaid holds more power than any screaming sex scene.
But have you ever thought about how an author connects with his or her reader? What do we want in a book? War, dragons, love affairs, new worlds? Why do we read what we read?
I know people who write zombie fiction. And others who write plays. Others who write ghost fiction. But the moment a reader’s eyes hit the words in front of them, if no images appear and no story lingers, the author’s failed. Sort of.
The author’s job is to create. The audience or reader must do the work of listening, applying, persevering through the ups and downs of the words. Kind of like the Bible, if you think about it: sometimes it’s dull. Leviticus, for instance. Ecclesiastes, ugh. Depressing. But there is a point. Revelation does come at the end.
Compared to the mass of literary fiction most recently to come from publishing houses, Lila (and Gilead and Home) are odd for their religious themes, written unashamedly and without reserve.
Without doubt, Robinson has won the eyes of non-Christian Americans and the respect of a readership self-declared as “non-theists,” despite the nature of her books to be theological in theme, if not distinct subject.
Robinson “almost converts me to theism,” said Breena Clarke, fiction writer and faculty member of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing. I sat in on a seminar she gave on Gilead. The seminar came on the heels of the 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. In President Obama’s response to the shooting, he used Robinson’s words, speaking to what she called “that reservoir of goodness, beyond and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.” In other words, there does exist a place of ultimate purity within us. We have access to it. Obama was making a call to co-goodness. A co-acceptance between all of us that we are capable of grace.
Sitting there in a stuffy room, looking at Breena wipe sweat off her face and say such a thing—that she was tempted to believe in a god, but still, she didn’t—I was disheartened. I wished that a writer of fiction could compel a non-believer to belief, that the purity of goodness within a story could move a person to faith. Not that the faith would make sense. But there had been a clear moment of ecstatically peaceful realization, a voice that came to a person, saying God exists. Jesus was and is real. There has to be a source for this goodness.
Was it Robinson’s purpose to “witness” in her books? Or was she merely telling a story she needed to tell? Did she want to write broken people who tried to do good, but often failed? People who had their faults, their inner disturbances, the difficult personalities that many people might say, “should not be what Christians act like”?
Yes. I believe she did. I believe she just wrote what she saw in her mind’s eye. Lila was the story that came to her. And now that I’m deeper into the story and invested in the characters, I feel their desires and avoidances more. I want to know them. Any writing, anywhere, compels us with story. With a beginning and an end. Lila just happens to have characters who believe the beginning and end is in God.
Robinson never preaches. No. But she reminds me of these ideas: that God delights most in the moments when we humble ourselves and acknowledge his presence, his love, his perfect forgiveness. And he even delights in our imperfections.
I’ll grant that, too often, I give up on pursuits—on finishing books, fulfilling work duties, building relationships, writing what I need to write. Perhaps you’ve given up on something as well. But God calls us to action, despite our nature to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of failure. I worry about failure, a lot. The thought of it numbs me.
We will inevitably fail. But this is human. All humans are bound by this same failing nature. It’s why we need Christ, need God, need the source of ultimate goodness, the originator of originality. The one we can’t see.