Ever since a friend gave me a tattered copy of Housekeeping, I’ve been a fan of Marilynne Robinson. All of her work, fiction and nonfiction, is driven by a singular intelligence and bolstered by a sober brand of faith I can only envy. Her collection of essays, The Death of Adam, is the best, which is to say the only, defense of Calvinism I have ever read. Her latest novel, Home, reflects an equally cerebral, but more restrained preoccupation with religious convention, and with faith and its limits.
In Home, Robinson rewrites the trope of the redeemed prodigal. When Jack returns home seeking forgiveness from God, from his father, and to a lesser extent from his sister Glory, redemption is not the result. Jack mourns his transgressions but has no recourse with which to atone them. He is born with a deviant disposition and is destined, first to flee the consequences of youthful transgression, and failing that, to blind himself, through drink, to the suffering he has inflicted. Really, the story has as much the feel of a Greek tragedy as a biblical allegory. We mourn Jack as we mourn Sophocles’ Oedipus, not because we admire or feel tenderly toward him, but because we fear that we, too, will ever be trapped in the choices and patterns of life that shaped our pasts.
By rewriting the trope of the prodigal in this way, Robinson refuses to limit the human experience to an easily digestible morality tale. She resists presenting religion as a palliative, and as a result reveals the greater mystery of a faith, which can neither be adopted nor discarded by will, or by logic--a mystery that fills that void between human understanding and divine grace. Robinson is not dismissive of Jack’s efforts, or his pain. His fate does not denote a wasted or a useless life. After all, he leaves behind a son with a chance of happiness. Instead, when Jack dies Robinson allows us the freedom to mourn his moral failings, and by extension, our own. Through Jack we are asked to recognize that unhappy and irredeemable men are, after all, still men and, however anguished, still deserving of love. What more, Robinson asks, can we reasonably expect of salvation?
San Francisco Litquake
is just around the corner, and if I wasn't slated to give birth smack dab in the middle of the festivities I'd hop on a train over the bay to relish these must see literary events.
Oct 9 6:00, Hotel Rex 562 Sutter St.Austen à Go-Go: The Enduring Appeal of Jane Austen
, featuring: Karen Joy Fowler, Sandy Lerner, Kirke Mechem, Elizabeth Newark
Oct 12 6:00, Verdi Club, 2424 Mariposa Street Making the Skeleton Dance:
Emceed by Litquake co-founder Jane Ganahl
the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto’s Elizabeth Bernstein,
featuring: Anita Amirrezvani, Adrienne Arieff, Tiffany Baker, Lucille Lang Day, Bronwen Hruska, Deborah Michel, Janis Cooke Newman, Holly Lynn Payne, Elizabeth Weil
Oct 13 6:00, Forest Books, 3080 16th St. Who Dunnit? Mysteries
featuring: Cara Black, Tony Broadbent, Paul Goldstein, Kelli Stanley, and Barry Willdorf
Oct 13, 7:15, Carte Blanche Gallery, 973 Valencia St. Squaw Valley Community of Writers
featuring: Colleen Morton Busch, Andrew Foster Altschul, Seré Prince Halverson, Thad Nodine, Renée Thompson
And if you need something to wet your whistle before
the festivities begin, try Tacos and Tequila--A North Bay Literary Festival on September 23rd
featuring: Michelle Richmond, Vikram Chandra, Jacqueline Winspear, Peter Orner and Alejandro Murguía
(This one's at a private house so click on this link
to find details)
“You wait for the first bloom like you wait for a baby to come. Sometimes you wait four years and it opens and it isn’t what you expected, maybe your heart wants to break, but you love it. You never say, ‘that one is prettier.’ You just love them.”
Amado Vazquez speaking of raising rare orchids in Joan Didion’s The White Album
Finishing a novel feels much the same. Except that unlike an orchid or an infant, you can edit a novel! Thank God for that.
Photo: Damon Tighe
I'm crawling out of my writing cave to attend to the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley! Should be great fun. This year I'll be reading in the published alumni series and I have only fond memories of my time as a workshop participant. Good people, good food, good books. (And really, what else do you need?) http://squawvalleywriters.org/writers_ws.htm
Back safe from my travels! Thank you to everyone who made the tour such a fantastic experience. For an album of trip photos feel free to visit my facebook page. And check out the nice little mention Crown of Dust received in The New York Times.
Crown of Dust
had made the Historical Novel Society's
Editor's Choice list. Very exciting!
From the website:
For each quarterly issue of the Historical Novels Review, the editors will select a small number of titles they feel exemplify the best in historical fiction. These novels, which come highly recommended from our reviewers, have been designated as Editors' Choice titles.
CROWN OF DUST
Mary Volmer, Soho, 2011, $24.00/C$29.50, hb, 274pp, 9781569478615 / Harper, 2006, £6.99, pb, 448pp, 9780007205776
The tiny mining town of Motherlode isn’t just another place to try one’s luck in Gold Rush California. It’s also a place to escape. Emaline, proprietress of the town’s only inn, knows most of the secrets. The only woman in Motherlode, she’s lover, mother, and confidante to the miners who drift through. The newest, Alex, is different from the other rough-and-ready miners. Emaline takes Alex under her wing, not knowing that the quiet, reclusive “boy” is really a young girl fleeing from her past. Alex carries her secrets tucked beneath her shapeless clothes, alongside the gold nugget she accidentally found one day. A gold nugget that brings unwanted attention to both Alex and Motherlode. As Emaline struggles to hold tight to the town she’s built, Alex struggles to hold tight to her new identity, that of a person strong enough to stop running and stand on her own two feet.
This is beautifully and unabashedly a character-driven novel. Through Alex and Emaline, we feel what it is to be a woman in the rough-and-ready man’s world of the Gold Rush. So alive are the miners that they threaten to swagger right off the page, knees caked with red dust, picks over their shoulders. In such a leisurely novel, details are savored and back stories are trickled in teasingly. But it never drags. Despite the simplicity of the prose and the starkness of the setting, the author has crafted a gorgeous debut, and I look forward to future novels. -- Jessica Brockmole
“Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done a hundred sketches of peasants sewing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, “The Sower,” the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying and sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves, for one that was better and more universal.”
Pretty Cool! -- MV
Once upon a time Noah asked God to create a website and facebook page in order to market GOD. And God was like, “Market myself? Forget it, man. I AM.”
Here I am, human, infinitely more limited than an omnipotent being, and still paralyzed by the thought of trying to define myself for an on-line audience. Instead of getting to work, I do what I always do when faced with tasks that are foreign or mildly distasteful to me: I begin over-thinking. (Can you hear the existential crisis speeding round the corner?)
But who am I? Am I just one me? And if I am, as I have always suspected, a crazy collection of manifestations, no one of which fits comfortablyfor more than an hour at time, then which “I” do I put forth as the definitive edition? Which I do I want the world to think I am? And am I then stuck with the I that I create? Is the I that I create, and the I that I am, really the same person after all? And who is that?
But then I think to myself, hold on, self! Wait just a minute! Who I am isn’t really the question, is it? The real question is, am I cool, smart, attractive, experienced, witty enough to represent the book I’ve written. I’d buy and read my book. But would I buy my book from me? Or not from me, me, but from the me I find on my blog, twitter account, facebook page, website? Because let me tell you that that confident, mildly attractive, carefully benign individual is not me. No really.
Yes, I know. Just write. Of course I know because that’s what I tell my students to do. Don’t worry about it! Just write and rewrite and the universe will unfold as it should. Hypocrite! I know. But that too is a part of who I am.
I’m not a violent person, but given the chance I’d hang the men who invented the Internet and the leaf blower. Subtract these two things from my life and my days would be a marvel of efficient, peaceful productivity.
Instead the World Wide Web sounds its siren call the moment my mind butts up against a sticking point. One little click and I’m caressed by endlessly seductive distractions. No need to toil Odysseus. Join us. Stay a while. Stay longer.
By the time I stop clicking through Yahoo’s top ten destinations for a mid-winter get-away, ten years have passed and I’m still staring at the same paragraph I clicked away from, staring so hard and so long that after another ten years the words might order themselves like hard working ants back into whole thoughts.
But wouldn’t you know it. The moment thoughts start to form the leaf blower man flicks his switch. Goodbye ants. Goodbye thought.
Seriously, how is the leaf blower an improvement over the rake? I get the Internet. It has its uses. But even the leaf blower man must prefer a rake to that roaring contraption strapped to his back. There aren’t leaves enough to justify that sound. What harm are those leaves doing anyway? If they are such a nuisance, then, (forgive me mom….you know I don’t really mean it!), but cut down the tree: a crash, bang, one-shot-job with a chainsaw. Imagine how much fuel we’d save in the long run, and any depletion in ozone would be surely be balanced by considerable loss of noise pollution.
Then, you see, then I could get back to work. Then I would be able finish this paragraph, line, scene, story... *Cartoon Above:
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