Miracles Leave No Trace: A Review of ‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

“Miracles leave no trace.  He had decided, hearing his father preach on the subject, that they happened once as a sort of commentary on the blandness and inadequacy of the reality they break in on, and then vanish, leaving a world behind that refutes the very idea that such a thing could have happened.”

Jack is the protagonist of the fourth book in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series – if series it can be called.   I question the word because I am not sure if it is one the author would have considered or wanted.  All these books can be read individually,  although they are connected by family stories and by underlying philosophical questions. 

The first book Gilead is an epistolary novel narrated in the unique voice of Presbyterian Minister Reverend John Ames and set in a fictional Iowan town.  The text of Gilead is framed as a letter from Ames to his young son, a child born to him late in life.    Wise and kind, Ames’ letters are his legacy to the child – a legacy of grace in all senses of the word, of familial love and sometimes quiet humour.    

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

“For a dying man I feel pretty good and that is a blessing.  Of course, your mother knows about it.  She said if I feel good maybe the Doctor is wrong.  But at my age there is a limit to how wrong he can be.”

Gilead was followed by the second book Lila – the story of how Reverend Ames meets and marries a younger woman.  Lila  has lived a hard, itinerant life and has arrived in Gilead purely by chance, accepting a lift from a stranger from St. Louis.     At the time she meets Ames, Lila has set up home in an abandoned shack.

The term vagrant carries a perjorative meaning because society has imbued it with such.   It shows everywhere in our treatment of homeless people,  of Romany folk,  of anyone who isn’t apparently towing the line.  This is a state of being that is examined in Robinson’s new novel as Jack too is a character who is often homeless and jobless, although as I read I felt the author was asking less what it means to be an outsider, so much as compassionately recognising the outsider in all of us.

In an interview posted on Goodreads in 2017 Marilynne Robinson says of Lila: “there is a way in which her destitution has made her purely soul… .” 

 

Now Jack has his own story.      If you asked him, Jack would no doubt tell you that he is the black sheep of the Boughton family, the itinerant one, the tormented one. Being the son of one preacher and named for another is as good way as any to develop problems with your own identity, your own faith.

“I don’t know how one boy could have caused so much disappointment without giving anyone any grounds for hope, ” says Reverend Ames of Jack … “the lost sheep, the lost coin.”

When we first meet Jack, it is the early 1950s.  He is a bit of a drinker, a bit of a down and out,  of no fixed abode, jobless mostly, he’s even done a spell in prison.  He is a man on the brink of despair who carries round the address of his own tombstone in his pocket.   He calls himself the Prince of Darkness.

“- a bum, a grifter. A draft dodger was what he was.  Even that was a lie, no matter who had dampened his brown with it. Also his manners and the words he used and the immutable habits of his mind.  Sweet Jesus, there was no bottom to it, nothing he could say about himself finally.  He was acquainted with despair.”

But there is a way in which Jack too is purely soul.  He quotes Milton and Whitman with ease,  is a haunter of libraries and bookshops.     Many characters in the book may judge him for all the things that have gone wrong in his life, but the reader does not. Jack punishes himself in ways even the most vengeful god probably wouldn’t manage – and he is kind to stray cats.

Now a man in his forties, Jack  is drifting aimlessly around St. Louis when he meets Della the daughter of an important black family and herself the child of a preacher. The two fall in love.  Given the time and the place this is illegal.  For any suspicion of cohabitation,  they risk not only condemnation from both sides of the divide, but prison. 

This fraught but somehow beautiful relationship kicks off in the unlikely setting of a cemetery at midnight with a discussion about predestination. He believes in it being of Presbyterian stock.  She doesn’t being Methodist.

Well she said, this is all very interesting.  But don’t quote Scripture ironically.  It makes me very uneasy when you do that.”

“I am the Prince of Darkness.”

“No you’re a talkative man with holes in his socks.”

It is not in the nature of truly bad people to think themselves truly bad.  Methinks Jack protests too much about his dubious nature. Far from being duplicitous or evil, he suffers it seemed to me through being overly honest.  He loves Della but he cannot be with Della, it is unthinkable what would happen to him. It is more unthinkable what would happen to her, a teacher and daughter of a respected family.   

And it doesn’t matter how many ministers Jack goes to for advice, he will never find one of any creed or colour to bless this particular union.  Those whom God hath joined…let no man put asunder.  But it’s hard to be married to someone when it is not legal for you to sit together on a bus. 

“The cosmic disorder. The disorder of things. There were no books with these titles, so far as he could discover, and he had looked.” 

Jack and Della’s story is a romantic story and can be read simply as a tale of love against the odds.  But it is inevitably a complex story concerning as it does motives and choices which once made, cannot be unmade, dashed familial hopes, the burdening of the next generation.  What is the emotional and societal cost of personal transformation?  What, as Jack asks, is the difference between faith and presumption.

Prohibitions against interracial marriage may be a thing of the past. But history has a way of coming round again in some form or another and there are and have been – and will continue to be – many other times and other situations in which people are not free to be with whoever they choose, or to love whoever they love.  Because there is culture, there is prescription there is prejudice, there is law which has arisen out of culture, prescription and prejudice. 

Many critics will claim for this or that book that it contains an examination of what it means to be human – but perhaps Robinson comes closer than most in a genuine philosophical search for an answer.

***

My thanks to Farrar, Straus & Giroux and NetGalley for this review copy.

#NonFicNovember week 4/5: Sublime writing and representations of the sublime in writing

Leann from Shelf Aware is our host this week where we are exploring our nonfiction favorites.

Week 5 is upon us and I’m just getting to Week 4.  Story of my life. Apologies for the brief post.

Week 4 is:

We’ve talked about how you pick nonfiction books in previous years, but this week I’m excited to talk about what makes a book you’ve read one of your favorites. Is the topic pretty much all that matters? Are there particular ways a story can be told or particular writing styles that you love? Do you look for a light, humorous approach or do you prefer a more serious tone? Let us know what qualities make you add a nonfiction book to your list of favorites

I definitely don’t do light and humorous in my reading. Maybe I should. I’m not sure if I’ve ever laughed enough, or if any of us laugh much at the moment.

I Iook for inspirational lives, with the substance of that inspiration made real in some way.    The style of writing is very important– it doesn’t matter how amazing someone is its still difficult to read long, rambling and off focus thoughts. Nor is it enough to make a lot of money and get famous although that’s great and wouldn’t we all love it.  Some who achieve are wonders, those are the stories that interest me.  Some who achieve this got lucky and someone ghost wrote them into a shallow form of importance.  Not interested in those.   I don’t like hype or the next big thing.

I’m partial to a bit of lyricism. I’m also interested to know what drives us to read about other people’s lives: sometimes I think I’m looking for a key, the hermeneutic secret.  If such exists, it is not to be found within the pages of a book. But knowledge, yes.  Wisdom even?  Maybe.  Right from wrong? Hopefully.

One of my all time favourite books is by Katherine Swift – The Morville Hours (Bloomsbury, 2009).  I’ve probably talked about this book before and will talk about it again  because it’s sublime.   A beautiful combination of history, topography, philosophy, religion and life writing.  The author was a rare-book librarian at Oxford and then Trinity College,  Dublin before moving to Shropshire turning to full time gardening and writing.

Swift2

The book is structured around chapters named after the Hours of the Divine Office: Vigils, Prime, Terce, Sext, None,  which were an essential part of her mother’s Catholic faith.

The passing of time – how it has perplexed us, fascinated us, and terrified us every since man walked upon the earth. Few are better than Swift at evoking a response to what it means to be a part of the history of something, a house, a faith, a love.

Of carvings of Mathew, Mark, Luke & John in her local church she says they have presided over four hundred years of the village:

“What secret glances, what lovers’ trysts, what hopes and fears, faded now into dust! What spring mornings, what early frosts, what mothers’ tears – writing it all down, their pens scratching away into the night.”

It’s taking Swift forever to write her next book (those time consuming gardens!)and some of us are waiting impatiently.

Continuing the theme of  philosophy and mysticism:Rumi

Rumi’s Secret: The Life of the Sufi Poet of Love by Brad Gooch (HarperCollins, 2017) describes the life of Rumi, poet and Sufi mystic and his complex relationship with Shams of Tabriz who was reputed to be Rumi’s teacher and the source of much of his poetry.   Gooch is interesting on the tensions that inevitably arose between these two men from their interdependency and ultimately the sense of betrayal felt by Rumi when Shams left.

1000 years after he lived we are still comforted by this man’s words.

There’s a wonderful story that Gooch tells about Rumi.

“When his daughter Maleke  complained of the stinginess of her husband, Rumi told her a story of a rich man so miserly he wouldn’t open his door for fear the hinges would wear out.”

Only a few words yet It perfectly highlights how we imprison and make ourselves miserable with our obsession with the material.

The connection between poetry and spirituality is a massive interest of mine. It was going to be the subject of my Ph.D before it wasn’t.

 

 

Last season’s dust sheets or Jimmy Choos

There has not yet been a generation of computer literate ghosts to worry about their image on social media.

common female blue butterfly
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

How will manifestations of ghostliness be dealt with in literary fashion as we move further into the 21st century and is there anyone left to care?

I am fascinated by how and when spirits will modernize. What will happen to the ghost in the machine, given that self development is unlikely in the beyond. Not for these modern ghosts the task of operating as Dickensian warning signs;  no dreary chain rattling or informing the living of their error of their ways.  The new ghosts will surely want to trend on twitter.      Maybe they will copy humanity and become abusive, distributing fake news. Who knows.  Maybe they will just go because humanity will no longer have the element of any spiritual belief that sustains the realm of the other.

I have experienced apparitions of a sort the film industry became bored with decades ago; you know the  watch out, ghost! sort of ghost  with misty bits and drifty bits and stormy bits.    In short, a coughing, banging about, whispering cliché.  Hark!  Is that the sound of paying customers yawning!   We are bored ghost.  Away with thee and thy foleying nonsense.   There are more lethal darknesses upon us.

What is the mystery that brings prose writers and poets back to the hinterlands of dream and being? The hope of standing on the pinafores of giants and creating some Brontë-esque masterpiece for without the realm of the psychological many of our great works could not exist. Jane Eyre to quote the most obvious example.

Yet increasingly the realm of the unknown is being beaten around its metaphorical head by tub thumping 21st century bureaucracies and an educational system that penalises young people; that teaches them not to dream of anything other than being fed into the maw of a capitalist system they increasingly see as irrelevant to their future.   Because the future of our young people is inextricably linked to climate change and its potential disasters.  As usual, politicians are light years behind on this thinking. The children are way ahead as we have seen in the last couple of weeks.

The literary ghost is still a manifestation of spirit rather than a collection of undeleted files left lying around in the ether.   Let us celebrate this.   Despite the cliché of knocking and whispering and sounds of the audience yawning,  I kind of hope he stays that way.     But maybe he or she doesn’t want our hope. Like Greta Thunberg – the young Swedish climate activist –  the ghosts want us to panic.