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Marilynne Robinson Is Proof That Fiction Hasn’t Lost Its Faith

Marilynne Robinson is one of the great religious novelists, not only of our age, but any age. Reading her new novel Lila, one wonders how critics could worry that American fiction has lost its faith, though such worries make one think there might well have been wedding guests at Cana who complained about the shortage of water after witnessing the miracle with wine.

Lila, like Home and Gilead before it, is set in a small Midwestern town. It is not a prequel or sequel or any of those awkward things novelists sometimes write when expanding their fictional worlds, but a companion to those earlier works. Like the Gospels, Robinson’s Iowa novels tell the same story several ways: at first from the perspective of the dying Reverend John Ames; then from the view of the devoted daughter of Ames’s best friend, Reverend Robert Boughton; and now finally in the voice of Ames’s second wife, Lila Dahl. While before Robinson focused her narratives on pastors and prodigals, now she writes from the perspective of a convert.

The novel opens with Lila’s inauspicious genealogy: cold and crying on a porch, she was rescued by a woman called Doll, who raises and names her; decades pass, and Doll disappears, leaving Lila to fend for herself in Saint Louis, where she comes to work at a whorehouse. Then, like the certain man in Luke who goes from Jerusalem to Jericho, Lila leaves Missouri only to arrive in Iowa tired and ready to depend on the kindness of strangers.

There are several good Samaritans in Gilead, among them Rev. Ames. Lila ducks into his church one Sunday to escape the rain, but finds herself returning, at first troubled by and then curious about what happens there. She finally goes one day to talk with the minister at his house; in their first private exchange, she says, “I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do” and he replies, “I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life.”

Robinson’s novels are devoted to such wondering, a devotion that reveals itself in cosmic realism, a style she herself defined in a review of Annie Dillard’s novel The Maytrees. Cosmic realism, she wrote, is “full of the fact of time past and persisting, unchanging, changing everything,” its works “a highly localized meditation on the question, Why are we here?” What better concerns for fiction are there? Surely other living writers are interested in such questions, though often they seem too timid to ask them so directly in their work. Robinson, however, is fearless: even where the plot is stormy, her prose is serene. Not even gorgeous is a strong enough word for what grandeur charges the pages of Lila.

The kind of faith lived so capaciously on Robinson’s pages bears little resemblance to what one finds so often on television or even in the newspaper, which is perhaps why her work appeals not only to those who identify as believers, but also those who have shed but not fully forgotten such belief. It is not that Robinson’s characters do not believe the creeds, indeed most do, but they do not find it necessary to speak only in those terms. Words like baptism, eucharist, and resurrection are spoken, but so too are love, forgiveness, and forever. Lila becomes concerned with salvation not as some abstract idea, but an applied possibility for those saints and sinners from her former life, most especially Doll. There is, of course, a specialized vocabulary for these concerns, words like predestination and grace, but here too there is also the language of the everyday, words like hope and fear.

Lila is a love story, most obviously between Lila and Rev. Ames, who marry and have a child, but most powerfully between Lila and the Lord, who meet and separate, hide from and seek one another. The convert poses queries to God, and also God’s servant, and the shortage of answers draws her closer to both. In one exchange, Rev. Ames says to Lila, “I believe in the grace of God. For me, that is where all these questions end.” That frustrating refusal, not only to answer but to never cease asking such questions, is the best approximation of religious faith that I have read, in fiction or elsewhere.

It reminds me of something I heard a few years ago, when Marilynne Robinson delivered the lectures that were collected in her book Absence of Mind. After each set of prepared remarks, the writer took questions from the audience. One young man asked for her thoughts on heaven, and after taking a moment away from the microphone, Robinson leaned back and said only, “I expect to be impressed.” That expectation is what many of us have of her work, of the sweep and specificity of her cosmic realism, and Lila does not disappoint.