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Everything’s Coming Up *Marilynne*

[5-minute read]
Robinson receives the National Humanities Medal from Obama in 2012.

Robinson receives the National Humanities Medal from Obama in 2012.

#ObamasFavoriteWriter is the most reductive, semi-dismissive and ‘Net-friendly way to capsulize her, so I won’t. (Um…)

Let’s start this way: Before 2016, I had never heard of Marilynne Robinson, or at least her name never stuck to my brain casing. Now, I have read all four of her novels, listened to a lecture and two interviews, and read and re-read her Paris Review discussion and one book of essays while ploughing through a second, which was my main accomplishment yesterday and the day before. I think about her work, and about her – where does such a person come from? – constantly. I find myself pestering everybody I like whom I consider might be even a remote candidate to read her. She’s a glorious read.

It started with Phyllis¹. She is a retired university prof who decided, as one of her several voluntary teach-ins, to start a book-club looking at great modern fiction with spiritual themes and underpinnings — as if such literature could actually be found in what often seems to be a doubtful, jaggedly ironic and chronically disillusioned age. Surprise! It can be! Phyllis knew where to look. And so, I got to be the token male among a dozen-and-a-half thoughtful, quietly eager book-types. We read Louise Erdrich and Bahiyyih Nakhjavani and the conversations were fun and light-shedding.

¹ Nobody names a daughter Phyllis anymore, yet once upon an old time it was a beautiful name suggestive of green leaves and ancient Greek loyalty and goddess-love. Not bad, Phyll!

But mostly, we careened off on a helpless Marilynne Robinson jag. We couldn’t stop. We didn’t include her 1980 first novel, Housekeeping, which brought her critical praise and a “writers’ writer” designation and a faculty position at the University of Iowa. (I went back and read that one on my own, after I’d finished her Iowa-based sort of a trilogy but not really.) Our little group pulled its chairs up in a circle and started talking about Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, which had stunned me and shaken the ground of American fiction at its 2004 publication – not that I noticed! (I show up late to some of the very best parties.)

Gilead came nearly a quarter-century after Housekeeping. I remember Frank McCourt’s reaction to questions about how late in his life his “overnight success” had come. (His 1996 memoir, Angela’s Ashes, was an international publishing sensation; he was well into his 60s when it came out.) “I was TEACHING,” he wrote, “that’s why it took so long!”² Robinson might give the same explanation, as she is a long-time faculty member of the legendary Iowa writers workshop. However, she has said in interviews that, not wanting to contribute shallow or derivative novels to the stream of American literature, she wanted to read. And think, as well as teach. And well she did, and does. She is a profound scholar: history, literature, religion, philosophy. Gilead, far from being a work that she laboured over for the intervening decades, came to her quite quickly in the voice of John Ames, a rural Iowa pastor.

² Ever grateful, I am, for McCourt’s lesser-known third book Teacher Man, an in-depth account of his locally legendary career as a high school English teacher in New York City. My review of Teacher Man has a special place, one of the few JHdotCOM pieces to run elsewhere before it ran here, and as a free-lance piece for which I Actually Got Paid.
The NY Times review is worth a read, if you're hungry.

The NY Times review is worth a read, if you’re hungry.

As I read Gilead, I kept asking myself, How is Robinson doing this? How can a novel about a Christian minister in a nowhere town even get published, let alone be this gripping and so smartly written? Simply put, it is a literary miracle, and our little group couldn’t stop, since neither could Ms. Robinson. She wrote Gilead – it is a tiny actual town in Iowa – as the letter that the aging Pastor Ames writes to his young son, the product of a strange, late and utterly unexpected marriage to a much younger woman. Ames wants to explain himself before he dies, so that the boy will, when he comes of age, know something of his departed father. As a novelistic result, so do we, as well as making other compelling acquaintances  of the imaginary kind: Ames’s young wife Lila, his lifelong friend and intellectual sparring partner Robert Boughton, and Boughton’s troubled and troublesome son Jack. Robinson couldn’t get enough of these characters either, to our good luck and delight.

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Better Read Than Never: John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

(10-minute read)
(If 10 minutes is disheartening, I just took a shorter look at a particular section of Self-Consciousness, the one addressed to his biracial grandchildren, in my He Said/She Said compendium of pithy quotations. It’s about growing up Black in America, by a loving White granddaddy.)

I haven’t been a huge John Updike fan, but he’s growing on me. Naturally, I read Rabbit Run,

My local library's edition.

My local library’s edition.

the first of what became the “Rabbit” tetralogy following the life course of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For me, it was pretty much required reading, since the protagonist had been a high school hoops star and basketball profoundly colours his youthful experience. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about Harry. Despite periodic and ephemeral resolutions, I never did get to the subsequent novels. I will. The closer in age that I get to Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter, the more Mr. Angstrom seems like a character I should know better.

The second Updike novel I read, The Centaur, really was required reading: to keep my brain alive during a period of professional drudgery, I took some Lit courses at the University of Ottawa. Unsurprisingly, Updike appeared on the American Novel course, though the choice of The Centaur was less obvious. Perhaps because I read and re-read and wrote about it¹, I love and know that novel better than the one about the basketball hero-turned-typically-jaded-American. My affection and enduring memory of the thing might have had to do, too, with the father-son tension and the high school cum mythological dream-park setting; sonsRUs, certainly, and I still haven’t finally left the halls of eternal adolescence. I coach high school hoops still, after all.

¹ It’s academic stuff, but not terribly unreadable. However, I have placed electronic drones around the text in case some undergraduate thinks to plagiarize. You will be shocked, assimilated, and outed to the Weenyverse, if you do. Reading the essay won’t hurt, though. Reading the NOVEL would be downright healthy.

But recently, not long after seeing the great and gracious radio voice of the superb literary interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, embodied on an Ottawa stage, I heard her 1996 interview with the famously media-shy Updike. (He died in 2009, at 76.) Wachtel interviews are always extended, thoughtful, generous expositions of the minds and hearts of many of the greatest writers we’ve had. John Updike was no exception, though I was mildly surprised to find what a humble, gracious and thoroughly engaging voice his was.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Perhaps I’d been swayed by some of the backlash against the privilege of the white male Authorial Voice of the mid-20th century. One of the nastiest was the dismissal of Updike as merely “a penis with a thesaurus”, but a pervasive view is that, though a big-seller among literary fiction-writers, he was over-rated simply because the voices of women – especially women of colour – had been suppressed. Time will tell, I suppose, but this cuts two ways. As unpopular as it may be to say it, there must be certain much-praised contemporary writers who benefit from the opposite current: the explosion of interest in and production by the previously under-published and under-privileged, those other voices from other cultural rooms that we now (wonderfully) get to hear more from. Some of these, I suspect, will have their ecstatic reviews and audience responses tempered by the sifting hands of critical hindsight. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To return to Updike, his was a voice that I was moved and inspired to hear, and hear more. He didn’t do many interviews, certainly not such revealing, appealing and lengthy ones as he had with Ms. Wachtel. I was moved particularly by a thread of their conversation in which he shyly but eloquently offered that he had always been interested in unnoticed little corners of life: odd bits of geography, obscure perspectives, his childhood view from under the kitchen table. (The ego-mad writer in me, inevitably I suppose, thought Hey, I got me some corners. But then, who doesn’t?) It was a gentle, humble, profound, a personally revelatory reverie, and I also felt that it was part of Wachtel’s genius that got him to speaking about it. I thought I heard a little wonder in his voice, that he’d been nudged to notice a slightly new perception of his own work.

That could’ve been sheer imagination, but it was one of several minor heart-quakes that urged me to read more Updike, especially his 1989 Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. It goes to odd corners. It is no standard autobiography,

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Sunday School Picnic (non-Super Bowl edition)

Let’s talk about toxic religion!

 ***

Ask the people in Peshawar. (Though they might have a different answer than you’d think.) Ask in Paris. Ask anybody qui est Charlie. We could ask those affected by the Boko Haram militias spreading like a cancer from northeastern Nigeria, I suppose, if they were still alive, or if we cared about folks so unlike us and so far away. Even in boring old Canada, 2014 brought us faithful killings and rumours of more. What to do when religion goes murderous? (Spare a thought for doctors killed by Christian fundamentalists at abortion clinics, or women abused on Super Bowl Sunday. Beware the deadly fruit of any sort of fanaticism, any belief gone sour, whether it invokes God or racial superiority or football fever.)

You may have heard of “lone wolf” acts of terror in Canada, men allegedly inspired in the name of their Islamic leanings to kill peace-time soldiers who weren’t looking. (Ah, courage.) In the news recently were reports that Muslim Imams here in Ottawa were concerned at the spike of interest in Islam in the wake of the shootings at the national War Memorial and in Parliament itself. Muslim community leaders wondered aloud about some process of slowing down the new-found ardour they were seeing, and they questioned its source. How depressing! People are so desperate for a thing they can stand up for, I thought, they’ll fall for anything! Any port of committed action, however nutty, in an existential storm.

Commentators invoke loneliness and anomie, and lament that the mentally fragile, vulnerable to the attractions of religious madness, don’t get the help they need. What we rarely hear in the public debate is mention of moral bankruptcy, how entire societies and classes and governments appear to have little on their minds other than consumerism, the almighty GDP and personal comforts. How blind must we be to not see how hungry so many people are for a sense of meaning that rises above well I got mine and we’re the greatest country in the world and what’s wrong with those crazy bastards over there? And, more unsettling, right HERE.

North America – and, no doubt, for Muslims and many other sorts of barely tolerated immigrants in France and over much of Europe – is a hard place to be if you’re not on the winning side. (This is why sports are better than real life: one percent of players, no matter how good they were, could never kick the living snot out of a team ninety-nine times bigger, and keep on doing it and doing it.) No wonder the frustrated, “lookin’ like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spend half your life just coverin’ up” guys, even if they were Born in the USA or Ottawa or a Paris suburb, want to do something about it. Are we so smug, so insulated in whatever socioeconomic or cultural bubble we call home, that we really find such a search for meaning and usefulness incomprehensible? Yes. I think that most of us are.

Young men want to kill authority figures, or go fight with the “men of faith”. They want their lives to mean something, to stand for something. (Suddenly I think of DeNiro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver: “Loneliness has followed me my whole life, everywhere….There’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man….Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum,…the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.” Talk about jihad!) This is all I could think of, hearing of an interest in Islam that was worrisome even to Muslim community leaders. It was days before I was able to consider another way of understanding it. There have to be some people (I thought, as the lights came on) who are just curious about what Islam really is. It’s slower to filter through than reflexive religious bigotry is, but after 9-11, after Charlie Hebdo or any number of atrocities committed by those who claim to honour the Arabian Prophet, there are always the voices, not always or even predominantly Muslim themselves, who say, This is not Islam. This is religion perverted to justify power-seeking and oppression.

And people learn something about the vast majority of Muslims, and they wonder what it is that compels believers to peacefully hold on to their faith in spite of suspicion, outright bigotry, and the humiliation, the resentment, the frustration, of constantly having to apologize for the misguided hatred of the fanatical few. I’m not denying that there are Travis Bickles out there who see in jihadist extremism a convenient container for their disaffection and their revenge fantasies. But listen: religion has been around for a lot longer than the fashionably modern rejection of it. There must be something more to religion than hatred and ignorance and division, or it couldn’t have survived. We shouldn’t judge a Book because of a Bickle who carries it around with his rage.

That’s why I went to (of all things!) my local celebration of World Religion Day.

In Part Two, I wade into the teeth of a multifaith storm, and come out unbloodied, unbowed, and pretty darned hopeful. Refreshed. Coming soon. (Pinky-swear!)

M.P. Freeman (on service and self-deprecation)

I’ve known MPF for a good while now, but in the way of introverts, the distance-loving perspective of nerdy writers, we’re getting to know each other more deeply via blog posts and nearly never-ending email threads. (G’mornin’, sir. How goes it?) One of his occasional comments here on JH.com recently blew up into this guest post on Aboriginal — and just plain human — identity and homing instincts.

We got ourselves into a brief exchange on feeling at home spiritually, or existentially, or even (Dawkins forbid!) religiously. Mr. Freeman, apart from his thoroughly Canadian love for hockey, curling and Tim Horton’s, is an unconventional guy, but quietly goes about serving others — as teacher, activist, fellow traveller and friend — in a way that most conventionally spiritual or religious types would do well to emulate. For my part, I come from a youthful ethical perspective that says work of any kind, performed in the spirit of service, is the truest kind of worship. I accused him of, therefore, being strongly implicated in this practical kind of faith, and I liked his brief, sardonic and wisely jocular reply:

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Anne Hines (on religion and perspective)

“When I meet God, whatever that is – whatever *I* am – I feel we will laugh about the things I thought were important, and cry over the things I didn’t see as important.”

Anne Hines, writer and United Church of Canada pastor-in-training. She added — I believe this was from a radio interview — “My current goal is to graduate while there still is religion!” There’s a darkly pregnant joke.

BHL III: The American Odyssey Continued

Yes, continued, as did (and does) my asynchronous meandering through stale-dated magazines. I’m an Atlantic subscriber, and I can’t keep up. Well, I don’t, at any rate. But I have completed the July/August issue (from 2005), which I went back to because it contained the third instalment of the French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy’s study tour of the United States, “In the Footsteps of Toqueville”. Great stuff, and of a nearly timeless quality that makes it more interesting and more useful than any number of contemporary news bites. (I wrote about the first two instalments here and here.)

I’ll try not to go on and on, but I probably will. BHL’s observations are quirky and smart and engagingly written. He’s good. He returns, as his 19th-century countryman repeatedly did, to American prisons. He muses on questions like public versus for-profit incarceration of criminals and the death penalty. Consider this image from his visit with the only woman on death row, having passed by her “’girlfriends’…the hundred or so women, almost all of them black, in the ‘segregation’ section you need to go through to get to her cell – genuine raging beasts, all dressed in the same brightly coloured jumpers, and shouting behind their bars that they haven’t done anything, that they can’t bear it anymore, that they want to be allowed to exercise, that they screw visitors, that I should go to hell.” The travelogue resumes.

He tours the “obscene nether side” of American puritanism at the Chicken Ranch, a legal Nevada brothel in the boondocks that services Las Vegas customers. A flight over the Grand Canyon yields the “two theories” of its creation, and gives the bemused Parisian a close-up view of modern creationism and “intelligent design”. (He finds it alarming, the “most cunning and at bottom most dangerous ideological maneuver [sic, American spelling] of the American right in years…” Lévy is not generally so dogmatic in his views, and for the most part is quite refreshingly non-partisan. For example, when he goes to Salt Lake City, he is fascinated by the Latter-Day Saints’ spectacular obsession with genealogy, based on their belief in retroactive baptism of the dead. “I hesitate between two sentiments. One is a certain respect owed to this relentless interest in one’s ancestors, this homage made to the dead….But then there’s also the idea that these Mormons…have found the absolute weapon. How can you possibly fight a church that reigns not just over the living but also over the dead?”

Midwestern miners and social security; U.S. Air Force cadets (motto: Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do), conversations with whom impel BHL to vow that he will “think twice before allowing myself to talk glibly, like too many of my fellow citizens, about the imperial American military…[or] the imperial calling of the country itself”; the wealthy, white, Arizona “city of the old” that puts him in mind of “casinos, military installations, and internment camps for the Japanese”; his frustrated efforts to interview the campaigning John Kerry, and his impressions once he finally does (“a European at heart”); liberal-minded college students in the heart of Texas (he was surprised); the bizarre carnival of the Great Western Gun Show and its “morbid flirtation with horror”; the Kennedy mystique in Dallas (“What kind of cliché makes you cry? What is a myth you no longer believe in but that still functions?”); the Memphis national convention of the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal movement that forces him to weigh the “ostentatious display and calculating stagecraft” against “this joy, this fervor, this spirit of communion which I haven’t yet seen in any white church”: these are the people and things he has seen through those public intellectual eyes.

Lévy concludes with a mournful description of the storm-drenched opening of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock. Clinton himself is a bit frail after his surgery, and the Democrats after the Kerry defeat. It rains and rains. “It’s not an apotheosis; it’s a debacle…[a] lugubrious ballet…His famous legacy suddenly seems altered by the reflected light of this gloomy, twilit, graceless day…this eclipse…this disaster.” This entry has no proper ending, and neither does the article. Sometime this summer, I’ll get to Part IV. This is me walking along with some good and intriguing writing (don’t you think?).