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.
Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a book I return to for sustenance, for instruction, and for pleasure. The title story is a masterpiece, a miracle of structure, character and plot, in which two teenage girls write prank letters to a housekeeper and thus set off a chain of events that changes and creates lives.
Munro is a realist of profound and subtle comprehension whose great subject is women’s lives. She is not a romantic, not sentimental, nor does she work the other end of authorial power and put her characters through excruciations and misery simply because she can. Instead, she writes with the clear, rigorous dispassion of a spiritual master.
Because literary convention so often nudges narratives toward familiar outcomes–happy endings, redemption, tragedy–Munro has retooled form to suit her nuanced purposes. Her stories have the range and depth of novels; their structures are intricate and unusual but completely lucid. Her pace is leisurely; she lingers on physical descriptions of trees, geology, and faces, and on gradations of emotions. Yet somehow the stories often span years, even decades, and cover vast tracts of ground. She makes all this seem effortless.
Alice Munro has taught us to find literary pleasure in leaping over time, in the odd swerves life takes, in the unexpected sources of comfort and sustenance, and in the idiosyncratic arrangements made for human happiness. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, she is at the top of her powers, each story, one after another, a stalwart, shimmering beauty.
They say that most novelists end up writing the same book over and over again: a truth which manifests itself differently in the work of different novelists. In the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, it takes the form of an incredibly elegant formal unity.
Never Let Me Go, like The Remains of the Day and, to a lesser extent, When We Were Orphans, is a mystery in which a Martian-like, yet strangely affecting first-person narrator (a young female clone, an aging butler, a middle-aged celebrity detective) deciphers the dimly sensed evil (human organ-harvesting, Nazi collaboration, a family crime) underlying an idyllic quintessentially English institution (a beautiful manor house, a posh boarding school, the British colony in Shanghai). Despite the radically different settings, all the three novels share the same key formal elements: a painstakingly unraveled historical mystery, constructed on the time scale of a single human life; a journey to track down characters from the past who have survived, inconceivably, into the present; an unhappy love story; the haunting sense of a decayed idyll that remains, despite its historical rottenness, the locus of all the most beautiful and meaningful impressions in somebody’s life.
In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro brilliantly and heartbreakingly executes the same retrospective plot in the unlikely chronotope of science fiction. This book made me cry for days. Did I feel a little bit exploited—did I feel that sci-fi rule-bending had been used to construct an otherwise inconceivably tragic story of doomed young love? I did, but it was worth it.
That is, before colleges offered courses in “flash fiction,” Davis was patiently crafting sentences “as clean as a bone” (to crib from James Baldwin) and joining these sentences together in small, miraculous assemblages. Here’s one from Varieties of Disturbance called “Collaboration With Fly”:
I put that word on the page,
but he added the apostrophe.
Here’s another, called “Lonely”:
No one is calling me. I can’t check the answering machine because I have been here all this time. If I go out, someone may call while I’m out. Then I can check the answering machine when I come back in.
Like the color fields of Mark Rothko or the sculpture of Donald Judd, Davis’ stories give off a disarming appearance of simplicity. However, as anyone who’s ever tried to work in her manner without collapsing into mannerism will attest, there is tremendous art behind the artlessness. These assemblages are, in fact, tools, their purpose to wrench us a little bit out of our habitual ways of moving through the world. The word Disturbance is characteristically apt and elegant – le mot juste.
As is “Variety.” Like Davis’ other sterling collection of this decade, Samuel Johnson is Indignant, Varieties of Disturbance intermingles stories in the classic Davis mode with longer and more unusual experiments. Several of these – “We Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders,” “Mrs. D and Her Maids,” “Cape Cod Diary” – are among my favorite pieces here.
In Davis’ hands, things are both exactly what they are and not quite what they seem, and after an hour or so, Varieties of Disturbance starts to look less like a collection of experimental fiction and more like an adventure story: there’s no telling what the next page will bring.
(It’s also worth mentioning that this book has one of the best covers of the millennium.)