Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a small miracle, a novel in the form of a letter from the Reverend John Ames, 76 and dying, to his 7-year-old son. There are strands of plot in the book — flashbacks involving Ames’ abolitionist grandfather; the explanation of how Ames met his young wife and became a father so late in life; and the story of his friendship with his neighbor Reverend Robert Boughton. But Robinson is really interested in extended rumination, charting Ames’ thoughts about mercy, mortality, forgiveness, grace and doubt in great detail. The pace of these thoughts requires an initial patience from the reader that is amply rewarded. The book’s modest, carefully planed language and its concern with primary human needs make it timeless, but it’s hard not to also marvel at and appreciate the way it functions as a timely corrective. While the proudly ignorant hardcore religious right and arrogant preachers like Richard Dawkins shout past each other, Robinson addresses faith in a way that is both spiritually generous and intellectually serious. Here is religion not as a political cudgel or a claim for moral superiority but as a thoughtful balm for an attentive individual soul.
Starting Lynne Tillman’s American Genius, A Comedy, I was led to assume by the confessional intimacy of the voice that this would be a story on a scale small enough to match the closeness its first-person narrator’s tone made me feel to her. But then I began to notice how many physical locations she was taking me to on a given page, or even in a typical supple and quicksilver sentence, and how many temporal locations, and how many of the novel’s vast range of themes and motifs she was advancing, and how many different — often contradictory — attitudes toward a given assertion she was adopting or testing out. Another way to describe this narrator’s propensity to make an assertion and then to iterate a number of alternative and mutually opposing points of view about it would be to say that the novel she inhabits, even at the level of a single sentence, is polyphonic, that its central voice contains many voices.
So, while tracking her protagonist’s mental and physical peregrinations in time and space to and from the mysterious retreat-like communal living space that is the novel’s core location, Tillman composes and arranges in syntactical harmony a great many people and places and things: mothers and fathers, dogs and cats, the Empire State Building, Eames chairs, textile mills, China and Poland, 1733 and 2006, John D. Rockefeller and Jean Genet, coumadin, lanoxin, chocolate pudding, farting, murder, the Revolution and World War II, shoes, bikes, cars, a lost brother, a City upon a Hill, worry that does not hinder exuberance or vice versa. In American Genius, a Comedy, Tillman becomes, in effect, a dozen Ellingtons conducting a monumental symphony played by an orchestra consisting of a single multifarious instrument.
Middlesex, like a girls’ locker room, is crowded and noisy, with smells. The novel combines the respective hysterias of two fraught traditions–the Greek and the mid-century American (one produced the professional lady mourner, the other produced Saul Bellow). At the center of this story, which, like many family histories, is at once tremendously unlikely and perfectly plausible, Jeffrey Eugenides has placed the two great standards of the human race: a pair of genitals, and a heart. And while the genitals of Middlesex’s intersex hero are of an unusual sort, with them Eugenides conveys not only the singular misery of gender and sexual confusion, but the universal lumpen misery of adolescence, and the pain of young love. These, and the goofy relatives, and the historical vignettes, are relayed as a kind of artful schmaltz, which doesn’t stray too far into parody. The novel seems carefully researched and written; and its numerous set pieces (Smyrna burning, Detroit burning, penis stirring) are controlled. It’s a wonderful novel. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
The intellectual history of modernity is in one sense the story of specialization. In the 16th Century, Descartes imagines writing a magnum opus called The World; by the 21st, it takes 500 pages just to cover Salt. Nor has the novel, that mirror dragged down the road of the culture, been immune to the proliferation of specialties and subspecialties. James Wood may posit two novelistic bloodlines, extending from Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, and Zadie Smith may see two paths going forward, but to stand before the Barnes & Noble fiction tables circa 2009 is to be asked to choose among thrillers and literary fiction, psychological novels and novels of ideas, novels driven by plot and novels driven by language, novels hailed for their imagination and those hailed for their accuracy.
What the fiction writer in me loves about Mortals is that Norman Rush writes as if none of these distinctions exist. He does all of the above not just well, but wonderfully. The story of hapless CIA functionary Ray Finch’s midlife unraveling in Botswana is uproarious and deadly serious, ruminative and suspenseful, psychological and philosophical. Think Graham Greene as written by Saul Bellow. Or Thomas Mann as written by Jonathan Franzen.
Yet Mortals doesn’t feel like a mere showcase for the various novelistic virtues. Rush is downright radical in his refusal to pass judgment on his characters or to let the reader settle into a comfortable ironic distance. You have to learn, in the first 100 pages, to read through Ray’s blustery self-presentation; as with people in real life, you have to learn to love him. And the reader in me loves that. More than any other fictional character to appear in the last 10 years, Ray Finch is alive.