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The Inverted Wizard of Oz: Marilynne Robinson's Adventure in Kansas

posted Aug 26, 2014, 3:32 PM by Timothy Vienne   [ updated Aug 26, 2014, 4:12 PM ]
Robinson is a mesmerizing writer who finds the deepest meaning in the most ordinary settings, similar to the small town novels of Wendell Berry. In contrast to the classic Wizard of Oz, Robinson follows a character who never left Kansas and who intends to die in the same town in which he grew up. Robinson's novel Gilead is a collection of the reflections of this aging  pastor towards his seven-year old son. Having married late, the protagonist, John Ames, wants to impart any wisdom he can to his son before he dies. He moves from disconnected stories of his childhood to warnings about unsavory characters in town to profound theological reflections from his ministry.

The author is very well-read in both philosophy and theology, as a recent interview with the Paris Review discussed. For this reason, John Ames is in some sense also a representative of Robinson's attempt to marry an aesthetic theology to traditional Calvinist teachings. If that sounds like a mouthful, it is. Yet this kind of thinking produces subtle portraits of the beauty of life in a nondescript Kansas town:

"It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such an energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, it is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me." 

You could call this John Ames' (and Robinson's) belief in the divinity of the ordinary, that God's creation is evident in the subtle act of existence. Ames is often meditative and reflective, waking up to go to his church and pray through the hours of the night so that he can be there when the sun shines through the windows. Robinson is redeeming Midwest Christianity from its association with austerity, of a life-denying ethos. Ames loves his life to the hilt, even the few years he has left to spend with his young wife and son. He is ready to pass on to the grave, yet he sees God's hand in each day.

All of this happens in a literary voice which defies a lot of contemporary conventions, and is for that reason refreshing. Robinson has no taste for the adage, "show, don't tell." Her book is filled with reflections of any kind of topic, some of them very close and personal, others distant, such as Ames' account of what Calvin really meant in his theological opus The Institutes. Yet the unity of the book is in its constant probing of Ames' relationships to his wife and son. His concern and worry over what their lives will be after he dies animates what he writes in his letters. It is not the visceral reality of the story which moves it along, but rather the truth revealed about human struggles through one man's open-ended reflections.

My one question for Robinson is whether she injects so much of her theology into Ames that he becomes a bit of a mouthpiece for her. Ames is incredibly well-read for a small-town pastor, bringing in 19th and 20th century German theologians into his thinking and weaving together a clever re-interpretation of Christian doctrine. In addition, there could be some postmodern hijacking of what 1940s Midwestern Christianity looked like; Ames is circumspect about other people's faith and always avoids making any firm statements when he is confronted by unbelief. While this equivocation makes the book palatable to the modern American reader, it renders the character a bit of a reflection of today into the past than from the past into the present. For instance,

"In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as criticisms they are meant to answer." 

This sort of subjectivity is a characteristic of academic thought in the 1970s and later and has moved into contemporary culture. For the modern reader, saying that "truth and doubt are equivalent to each other" raises no eyebrows. But I doubt such an idea would have much currency in Kansas in the 30s.

Quibbles about history and philosophy aside, it is a profound book that leaves one wondering about the nature of existence and what it means to hold dear those who live around us. To participate in the tremendous beauty which we habitually ignore. And to take in a character so fleshed out his thinking is as transparent as crystal glass. Whatever else may be said, Gilead sure deserved its Pulitzer. As Dorothy ran away to another world to find the answers to her life, so Robinson runs in to the world of the present, in all its grit and glory.

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