Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Transcendent Reading Experience

This last Friday, a couple friends and I went to an outdoor concert inspired by the Indianapolis Symphony. A three-piece string ensemble called Time for Three played as the sun sank down behind the stage. At one point during the concert, as the strings vibrated across the small hills where we sat, I turned and watched the shadows of small children race down a hill as the sun moved in blues and pinks and oranges behind them. It was a beautiful moment, and sitting there on a blanket with two of my closest companions, listening to music and watching nature unfold, I felt extremely lucky to be alive. Life would be meaningless if it weren’t for these kinds of small strokes of time – these little moments of transcendence. I could honestly say that night that if I died the next morning, I wouldn’t regret having ever lived any second of my life, not if it all culminated in such moments of extreme bliss.

It is fitting, then, that at such a realization of transcendent happiness, I was reading a book about that exact idea: dying without regret at living, making sense of life in its tiniest moments and gestures. The novel Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, really helped me make sense of that moment at the concert. It’s a book that explores the ideas of grace and dying and life and love without ever trying to make a big statement or change the world. In fact, it’s probably one of the quietest novels I’ve ever read. Not only that, but it was probably the most beautiful book I have ever encountered.

When Robinson’s book came out several years ago, it won many awards and made headlines. Robinson had written one highly-acclaimed novel 20 years before (Housekeeping, which I also read and liked), and this was her first work of fiction since then. I thought the book sounded a little dull. I knew it was about a dying preacher in a small town writing a letter to his small son, and I wanted nothing to do with any of it: the religion, the deathbed-confessional-thing, the soft writing. At the time, I was into postmodernism and wordplay. But since then, I’ve grown older and wiser. I appreciate one slight, beautifully wrought sentence to a witty rejoinder; I prefer a paragraph describing what it feels like to baptize an infant to a clever meta-commentary. After six years of maturing as a reader and 22 years of living as a human being, I was finally ready to really conquer Gilead.

The book is very simple. The narrator, the Reverend John Ames, 76 years old, knows he is dying of a heart condition. So he sets down a diary of sorts for his small son, so that the boy might understand the father and family he’d never know Meanwhile, during the coarse of the diary’s writing, John Ames’s best friend’s son comes to visit. This man, Jack, bothers Ames quite a bit, and the second half of the book explores their strangled relationship and eventual reconciliation. It’s a book about fathers and sons, about heaven and earth and how those two things are often one. It is a book about a life coming to a beautiful and poignant end.

In my opinion, Gilead is nothing short of a miracle. It’s absolutely incredible – from its meandering but purposeful form, to its delicate and careful prose, to its struggling and beloved characters – this is a book meant to be taken in slowly and purposefully. The writing is lovely: simple, direct, and meaningful. I was often surprised by the way Robinson’s style moved and flowed. At one moment, I’d be reading a delightful description of a tree, and at the next, the narrator would make a devastating proclamation about life or death in a single sentence. The religious persuasion of the characters never gets in the way; in the end, this is not at all a book about Christianity. It’s about the total sum of grace in our lives. It’s a book about life itself being a transcendent experience separate from heavenly reward. With Gilead, Robinson composed one of the most emotionally moving reading experiences of my life.

Tears flowed freely down my cheeks for the last twenty pages of Gilead. When I finally closed the book, I had to sit and stare out the window for several moments, trying to understand what I had just encountered. The book is a beautiful work of art, and it is one of my favorite books I have ever read. I cannot recommend Gilead highly enough.

As a bonus, here’s one lovely passage from the book:
There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us. Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true. “He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.

Book Mentioned: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

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