11.08 Gilead

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
November 2008 Meeting

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  1. Sarah

     /  December 14, 2008

    This was a book which did not have much immediate appeal for me. I started, stopped, and stayed stopped.

    Until there was no more time, and then I had to read the whole thing in a day. As the book flashed past in a blur all I took from it was a handful of imperfect impressions. In spite of this cavalier treatment the book did have an impact, largely self-referential, which I was reluctant to examine too closely…

    The fact of the matter is, that although I agree with Moira that we might wish to choose to spend varying amounts of time on a book, sometimes said book dictates otherwise. Gilead has pursued me relentlessly and, ultimately, I decided that the only way to silence the book was to procure a copy and start again.

    Re-reading prevented an embarrassing fall into folly. Initially setting out with the intent of refuting the presence of religion, even a long history of arguing that black is white could be of no assistance here. Preposterous!

    Wondering why I would want to assert a fact so patently untrue brought me right back to the thoughts previously repressed. In haste, or at leisure, I cannot read this book without reflecting on my own religion, or lack of it. And the crux of the matter was to pinpoint how the child who insisted on confirmation in the face of parental reservation became the cynical, strategic sometimes-believer of the present day. It sometimes seems that religion invariably goes hand in hand with guilt, and my reflections have not been happy ones. And although I acknowledge that religious concerns are largely self-inflicted, still…

    However, on a second reading, there was some sense to be had too.

    Firstly struck by John Ames’ pattern of speech, always proper, and somehow quaint and endearing, I was also interested by several recurring phrases ‘it is a remarkable thing to consider’ and the words ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful’ (used with a true sense of wonder.) I thought it uplifting that a man at the end of his life could still find it in him to be awed by his god’s creation; a telling commentary on his strong spirituality.

    Unable to deny the religious content, I would still argue that it is transcended by this same spirituality. I would be inclined to define religion as the structure used to give spirituality a quantifiable form, and throughout the book this structure is… not precisely questioned, but neither is it portrayed as anything more than a tool.

    This is noticeable in the very civilised interactions between the numerous denominations. I particularly liked the part where the congregation sing to the strains of music from the distant Methodist church.

    I also found it strongly symbolised in the person of John Ames ‘shabby’ old church. He clings to the physical reality of his church, whilst accepting that the existing structure could admit of improvement. I thought this reflected his view on his religious creed, which he often finds inadequate for purpose.

    This, I believe, is why John is fascinated by Feuerbach. In his opinion Feuerbach is a spiritual man, perhaps enviably unfettered by religion. I also found it illuminating that John quotes that ‘a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot itself be said to exist.’ This could be related to God’s existence deriving directly from man’s belief, but John cannot comprehend this on a fundamental level because his unshakeable faith prevents it.

    This is not to suggest that John Ames is arrogant in his belief. On the contrary. John constantly questions his faith, his motivation, his honesty. He is self-deprecating and unsure of his own worth. For my part, I was wholly convinced of John’s worth.

    Having made every effort to understand the theology I was still left with questions. The one that really troubles me is the absence of the Holy Father and Son. In a book redolent with myriad and varied father-son relationships, and bursting at the seams with christianity, why is there no mention of this father and son combination? I felt sure this was significant, but was totally unable to draw a conclusion.

    I don’t know how it does it, but Gilead seems to have an uncanny ability to interact with the reader at a very personal level. I found it so, and Moira writes very movingly of her personal experiences viewed through the medium of this book. I cannot say that I have encountered such a book before, and I am not at all sure that I would wish to do so again…

  2. moirabbc

     /  December 4, 2008

    I feel the same as Richard about this book. I accept that we all have different amounts of time we are able or wish to devote to reading and we don’t want to do hard labour uncovering the meaning of every book we read. However,if the message is handed to us on a plate, I don’t think there would be much point in having a meeting to discuss it.
    The great contradictions in the ‘sick heart’ of America was one of the big themes for me. The founding fathers of the USA were creatures of the Enlightenment and shared the ideals of the leaders of the French Revolution. Yet the country was founded on the wealth created by slavery. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence insisted on the separation of Church and State and yet evangelical fundamentalist Christianity has always been a powerful lobby in the US. Jefferson was a polymath – an accomplished architect and President of the Philosophical Society but recently we have had Ronnie Reagan and George W elected to the highest office.
    The country has some of the best scientists and writers, yet there is a vitriolic anti-intellectual current there. I believe this is yet another bad influence we have imported across the Atlantic.
    I agree with Michele that the idea of the dying John Ames writing a letter to his son was very moving. A few years ago I was facing the real possibility of my own imminent demise when my son was 12 years old. After a very difficult year of treatment when I was fretting about him, a wise friend suggested I write a letter telling him all the things I would want him to know for when he is able to receive this knowledge. Because of many recurrence scares, I have not done this and got into a silly superstitious feeling that writing this letter would somehow ‘tempt Providence.’ Even the most rational people can be reduced to a talisman-toter if the anxiety stakes are high enough.
    John Ames does so much more in his letter than express his religious beliefs. This book was very close to my heart- perhaps too close. Maybe instead of writing this blog, I should be getting on with a very important letter.

  3. richardbbc

     /  November 25, 2008

    I found a lot to enjoy in this novel. If it seemed slow and meandering, nostalgic and sentimental, I eventually decided these were aspects of John Ames’s character and his narrative rather than faults with the novel. He started out counting his blessings and exploring the tensions that exist between fathers and sons but what became impressive about the book was the way he slowly and unwittingly revealed his own insecurities, low self-esteem, social ineptness and utter inertia in the face of life’s difficulties while still coming across as a warm and sincere man. The theology didn’t bother me, mainly because it struck me as a vehicle for Marilynne Robinson’s wider concerns, such as her interest in the shifting meanings of particular words and also her fascination with the disparity between how we interpret people and who or what they really are – John Ames did have trouble ‘reading’ Jack Boughton. One of the novel’s particular strengths was the way it in turn expected the reader to do their own interpreting of the narrative without the author being there to give a guiding hand. While I can be guilty of reading too much into a book, I have always enjoyed novels where I have to do some of the work to uncover its meaning and of this kind few, I think, have been as good as this one.

  4. hilaryfbbc

     /  November 22, 2008

    After the excitement and razamatazz (?spelling) of US politics recently, the quietness of this book was disappointing. I felt it was a well crafted story, a good blend of the personal with the political – even though I find the ‘diary of a dying man’ concept a bit artificial. If I was the son reading it I suspect I would want to know loads of other stuff about my father than his theological hang-ups. The narrator had to be religious I suppose to bring out this family and community’s struggles with acceptance / morality – and make the ‘forgiveness’ scene so touching (or is it a Hollywood moment too much?).
    For the fact-seeker, a Google of ‘Gilead, Iowa’ takes you to Wikipedia’s very helpful article.

  5. michelebbc

     /  November 22, 2008

    Well maybe if I had been at the meeting I would have enjoyed this book more in hindsight like Malcolm. I’ve just finished it and must admit I speed read most of the last third. I had the feeling that were some gems of ideas in there that I missed but it was just such a struggle to keep focused because of the style. Its a lovely idea using the letters from a dying father to his son and there were some touching descriptions of the present compared to distant memories, but it just lacked some thread for me. Something to keep my interest. It was more like a series of short stories and the friends son redemption thing was just too weak.

  6. malcolmbbc

     /  November 21, 2008

    Oh no, Michelle’s not finished the book, which means I shouldn’t reveal the ending! Suffice it to say that the final quarter or so finally puts some of the preceeding rambling into a context. Up to you whether you feel it makes it all worthwhile or not!

    After the meeting, it occurred to me that this was a good example of a book where I had enjoyed the discussion a lot more than the book itself. Or to put it another way, I definitely felt that I’d got more from the book after the chat, than I would if I’d just read it alone and gone on to the next book in line.

    To expand. If I love or hate the chosen book my views are perhaps a bit too rigid for the meeting. I’ve chosen my “side” and I’m ready to defend it!

    This was a book where I could admire the writing, could see what was being done, liked some of the stories. But also found the endless religious references rather unrewarding (due to my ignorance) and wondered whether it all had to be QUITE so slow.

    Its always interesting to hear others’ views, but I perhaps enjoyed this one more from my position on the fence! Thanks all.

  7. michelebbc

     /  November 21, 2008

    I missed the meeting for this one and am still struggling along with it. Enjoying some bits, but find the meandering style sends me off to sleep!
    I’m interested to hear what everyone else thought?


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