In my experience, there are two types of Marilynne Robinson readers: Housekeeping people and Gilead people. Certainly there are those who enjoy all of her work equally. But in general, readers of Robinson lean toward one end of her career or the other, preferring the early novel, Housekeeping, or the later work of the trilogy, Gilead, Home, and now Lila. There are many reasons for this division, not least of which is the strong presence of religion in the later work. My pet theory is that preference often breaks down along secular and religious lines, with Housekeeping people attracted to its “gloomy, Northern paganism,” as one critic has it, while Gilead people enjoy its Christian worldview. This isn’t always the case -- Robinson has been awarded across her career by “secular” prize committees -- but in my conversations with secular and religious readers, I have often heard discomfort with the “religion” in Gilead or the “almost nihilistic” outlook of Housekeeping. Because of the 24-year gap between her first two novels, simplistic narratives about Robinson’s career have flourished, none more prevalent than an imagined difference between the early and late work. William Deresiewicz, one of the very few critics to challenge this difference, argued for a thematic continuity between Housekeeping and Home. Both novels, he wrote, are about “existential loneliness,” which is true. Nevertheless, Deresiewicz felt the need to declare his taste: “Robinson's first work, to my mind, is still her greatest. The novel unfolds as a single thought, impelled by a poetic intensity of language and vision.” Whether on aesthetic or religious grounds, there is a quality to Robinson’s career which presses critics, scholars, students, and fans to choose sides, making it challenging for anyone to come to an equal appreciation of her work, let alone to see her novels as unfolding from a single vision. The notion that there is indeed profound continuity between the early and late work would require much more space to prove. But let me at least sketch a different perspective on Robinson’s career, one that sees the difference between Housekeeping and the Gilead novels as greatly exaggerated. In this view, Robinson moves from being an author with an odd, two-stage career to an author with deep imaginative habits, one who has worked and re-worked, emphasized and de-emphasized, a single literary vision. Housekeeping is that vision, serving as Robinson’s spiritus mundi, a storage house of symbols, allusions, images, themes, and dramatic situations. From those basic materials, she has built each of her successive novels. Instead of an author who recreated herself late in her career, Robinson is one who has returned and renewed imaginative possibilities already latent within her first book. Some recurring patterns are fairly obvious, such as Robinson’s penchant for the figure of the outsider. Sylvie in Housekeeping, Jack in Gilead and Home, and Lila in Lila, are all on a quest for home in an alien, often hostile land. The drama of hospitality, whether to accept or reject the stranger, is Robinson’s most persistent theme. And from a variety of angles, each of her novels explores the lonely circumstance of falling outside a community’s ring of sympathy and approbation. And then there is the Bible, which she has always used to enrich and complicate the meanings of her books. In Housekeeping, the novel her publishers wished to call The Book of Ruth, nearly every page contains a Biblical allusion, just as Lila features extended quotations from Ezekiel and Job. And both novels imagine the resurrection. “Perhaps we all awaited a resurrection,” Ruth thinks, dreaming of her restored mother who “lifted our hair from our napes with her cold hands and gave us strawberries from her purse.” Lila imagines a reunion with her surrogate mother, Doll: She would tell her, I have married a fine old man. I live in a good house that has plenty of room in it for you, too. You can stay forever, and we’ll work in the garden together. And Doll would laugh and squeeze her hand -- ‘It come out right, after all! I ain’t dead and you ain’t in some shack just struggling to get by! I had to leave for a time, but I’m back now, I’m resurrected! I been looking everywhere for you, child!' Robinson has maintained from the beginning of her career that the authority of the Bible comes from its relation to human experience, not any church dogma about infallibility. Her characters open up the Bible and find a meaningful depiction of life. This humanistic account of Biblical revelation, along with the theme of hospitality, are two broad ways to unify Robinson’s work, though the patterns do not end there. Reading Lila and Housekeeping side by side reveals the extent to which Robinson continues to work similar literary material, even down to individual images. Here are a few examples: Standing outside and looking into lighted houses. Here’s Ruth and Lucille walking home in Housekeeping: “We walked the blocks from the lake to our grandmother’s house, jealous to the point of rage of those who were already accustomed to the light and the somnolent warmth of the houses we passed.” And here’s Lila on an evening walk: “When she lived in that town...and she worked in the store, sometimes she would walk out at night, because then you can see into people’s houses.” Falling houses: Housekeeping: "I had heard of a family who lived some distance to the north of the lake who had been snowed in up to the eaves and whose house began to fall." And Lila: "'Boughton’s roof won’t fall because it’s stronger than you think it is.'" Ghosts: Housekeeping: “I wanted to ask her if she knew what she thought, and if so, what the experience of that sort of knowledge was like, and if not, whether she, too, felt ghostly, as I imagined she must.” And Lila: “If she had been a ghost watching Doane and Marcelle, so close she could have seen the change in their eyes when they looked at each other, it would have been there for sure.” Mother-daughter union: Housekeeping, where the orphan Ruth is embraced by her spiritual mother, Sylvie: “She opened her coat and closed it around me, bundling me awkwardly against her so that my cheekbone pillowed on her breastbone.” Lila, where the orphan Lila is embraced by her spiritual mother, Doll: “And then she was just sitting there on the steps, wrapped up in the blanket, the town all quiet and the moon staring down at her, and there was Doll with her arms around her, saying, ‘Oh, child, I thought I never was going to find you!’” Many more examples could be added to this list, but the point is this -- that on the granular level of sentence and image, as well as the level of theme, structure, and allusion, Robinson continues to work with material from her initial literary offering. The fact that Lila is full of images she produced 34 years ago, speaks to Robinson’s ongoing artistic and psychological involvement with Housekeeping. This should provoke us to reconsider her career, to characterize it not as divided, but as strangely, often uncannily unified. It’s worth remembering that Robinson was 37 when Housekeeping was published. She seems to have already possessed a mature imagination, full of the ideas and problems that would animate the rest of her career. If one simply emphasizes the degree of similarity between her early and late work, then there really is no need to choose between Housekeeping and the Gilead novels. They have too much in common, knit together by the same remarkable imagination.
The Conde Nast building is located just off Times Square, an uncomfortable area of NYC I try to avoid like the dickens. The flashy billboards and the noise and the crowds disturb me, and I wasn’t at all pleased to see a person in a dirty Elmo suit waving at me. I did not wave back at Elmo because I had other things on my mind, namely an appointment to talk with D.T. Max, a New Yorker staff writer, author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery (check out the Amazon.com book description and read what “prions” are; they will frighten you), and most recently the author of a biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story. The new book tells the difficult, at times joyful, but ultimately sad story of Wallace's life, couching it in a forward-driving narrative that is difficult to put down, bridging the life and the work in a way that is sensitive to the complexity and ambition of Wallace’s literary project. All told, the book promises to do what a good literary biography should do: return old readers to the work and gain new readers for the work. I met Max inside the Conde Nast building’s “cafeteria” where he was kind enough to purchase your interviewer a small drip coffee and chocolate chip cookie. “Cafeteria” is in quotes because the place was really more like a fine dining restaurant or night club with large twelve-person booths and low lighting and high windows and an aura of exclusivity — pretty much the opposite of my idea of “cafeteria.” Despite my confusion, Max and I settled into an hour long conversation about his book, a truncated and edited version of which follows. The Millions: What initially drew you to Wallace? Was his work the kind of stuff you typically read? D.T. Max: Well, I had this long love affair with David — embarrassingly enough, I loved the wrong book. I loved Broom of the System for most of my 20s and 30s. It was only when I wrote the piece after his death that I found out he had turned on the book. I didn’t know that he referred to it as written by a very smart 14 year-old. It stunned me. TM: Well you put up a pretty good defense of Broom in your book. DTM: You can’t take something away from me that I love! I think the book’s terrific. But I do see what he’s saying. So I grew — one of the pleasures of the book was that I grew as a reader and I grew as a Wallace reader. So where I always appreciated Infinite Jest, writing about David and reading Infinite Jest made it richer and richer. And I was also just willing to be engrossed in Infinite Jest in a whole different way. (I’m talking about now when I was working on the magazine article.) But then when I was done with the magazine article I felt I just barely scratched the surface. I felt like what I’d written was very focused on his later years. I wanted to do something that was bigger and wider and less focused. I was very affected by people who said things to me like, “He was much happier than you portrayed him as,” and, “You didn’t catch his laughter.” So let me try to do a book and catch his laughter. TM: So what was your approach to the biography? DTM: Well one thing I was trying to do in the book was if David wrote realistic fiction for a world that was no longer real, then I felt an obligation to write a biography for a world that was no longer real. I wanted — not to extent that it was impossible for the reader to negotiate — I wanted to in some ways strip away some of the biographical conventions, in terms of what you can know and what matters, so that his story would feel a little more consonant with who David was and how he wrote. Really the two great factors in David’s writing are an affection for the reader and a refusal to write realistic fiction, so you’ll notice that the book has an emphasis on story. It begins, “Every story has a beginning and this is David Wallace’s.” And then the last line of the book is, “This was not an ending anyone would have wanted for him, but it was the one he had chosen.” And the idea is that we’re dealing with story, that every story is a ghost story, and among other things that’s a gloss on biography. TM: Same with the epigraph from the Oblivion story “Good Old Neon” (“What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant”). DTM: Absolutely. TM: I was thinking about the epigraph as talking about the limits of language and storytelling, and also that your subject lived in his head to a great degree, which poses particular challenges for a biographer. DTM: Yes well, you know, I wanted to make David live in a modern way, the way his characters live in his fiction — slightly more than a classic biography would provide. I don’t know if I achieved it or if anyone will notice it — but for instance I don’t try to do every year of David’s life. I think every year is in there, but I’m doing it more as memory would do it, almost like a memoir written by another person. It was a big effort to keep stuff out. There’s lots of wonderful things I left out. TM: Were the decisions about what to exclude surrounding Wallace’s family hard? The relationship between Wallace and his mother seemed like delicate terrain. DTM: It is delicate, but it’s also really hard to know. The biggest impediment to telling is knowing. And even when you think you know do you ever really know something as delicate as relationships? TM: The relationship between Delillo and Wallace surprised me. DTM: What surprised you? TM: I didn’t imagine the relationship as Wallace looking for advice, bouncing his anxieties about writing off him, Delillo playing the role of the consoling father, especially in the letter where Delillo tells him he belongs to elite club of writers who suffer. DTM: “Let the others complain about book tours.” It’s a wonderful line. TM: The Franzen relationship, too — I was surprised that Franzen had a little more power in the relationship. I always imagined Wallace as the more domineering author, I guess on the basis of his reputation as the Big Novelist with the Big Book. But Franzen really steered him the whole moral fiction direction. DTM: Well, Franzen caught him at a “teachable moment.” David’s just out of rehab, he feels he can’t write well anymore. I think if he met him at any other time in his life he would have bounced right off him — they knew each other before — Jon just keeps offering his ideas in a modest way — forthright way — eventually he catches David when he’s open to the ideas. He’s desperate. What’s stronger than to look for both your life and your writing? He was looking for both obviously. That’s one thing that makes him a great biographical subject is that there’s so little division between the work and the life. TM: Part of the fun of your book is catching Wallace when he’s exaggerating and misrepresenting himself. DTM: Oh God, I’m sure he got some by me. I took all the letters at face value initially. And then when I began to think a little bit harder about some of the exaggerations in the non-fiction I would see similar patterns in the letters. And I began to think, you know, this seems like a very unlikely scenario. He mentions that he goes and plays a basketball game in this rough neighborhood — this is the letter to [critic] Steven Moore when he talks about his nose being broken for the second time — and so he breaks his nose, but that doesn’t really sound like David. David was sort of fearful, basically. TM: And you say he wasn’t much of jock. DTM: He was and he wasn’t. But playing basketball with a bunch of rough street kids is not something he would have done. And then, theoretically, he has his nose broken again during a fight with a downstairs neighbor over Wittgenstein’s Mistress, so when he writes that to the editor [of Wallace’s piece on Markson] — what better way to show your commitment to the piece? And also fundamentally David was a joke writer, he loved jokes. He began as a joke writer at Sabrina at Amherst. So then I asked Mark Costello who lived with him at the time who said, “No, David never had a broken nose.” So then I began to suspect a lot of things weren’t true. TM: Did you feel any kind of special responsibilities writing the first biography? DTM: Responsibilities, oh yeah. I mean, it’s a privilege. The privilege of being first is that it’s all new. You’re not glossing someone’s gloss. I’ll be glossed eventually — in the near future probably. So that’s the advantage. But the disadvantage is that you will be rewritten and new things will be found. More correspondence will surface. You can’t help that. But what’s the ultimate goal of the biography? It’s certainly to bring readers to David’s writing. And in that sense to be the first after his death to bring readers to David’s writing is a very special job. You want to do it the right way. You have to really show them how this writer can matter to them, and if the book does that I’d be very, very pleased. If you can take a reader who’s on the fence about David and whether it’s worth the effort and get that reader to really dig into Infinite Jest — I would think that’s really exciting. TM: So that was your audience, people who had heard the name but not read the work? DTM: Maybe one level more involved than that. Maybe people who read the cruise ship piece [“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published in Harper’s as “Shipping Out”] when it was offered to them or at least thought they’d like to, or who always looked at Infinite Jest, maybe given it as a present, tried 70 pages. They would be people who could come back to David — I think they’re already on their way back to him, so it’s not as if I’m starting any sort of trend that isn’t already underway. I mean, he has this quasi-readership that almost no writer has, and I would love it if that quasi-readership became a readership for him. TM: Do you think it’s surprising he went into fiction? Wallace says he uses more of his brain when writing fiction, but with all the logic and sports in his background — he’s not a typical literary type. DTM: George Saunders has interesting things to say about that — he comes from an engineering background. You know, on some level fiction for David was never what I think it is for an ordinary or even an extraordinary writer of the John Updike variety. David’s always seeing the seams and the struts — it’s always artificial — that’s probably why he had issues with The Pale King because he never gets past the artificiality of what he’s creating. There’s a wonderful quote by Thornton Wilder that fiction is the art of orchestrating platitudes. And I think for David that was always difficult because he had seen so far beyond those platitudes. I don’t think he was ever somebody for whom characters were really alive. The closest he comes is Infinite Jest. Of course the reader and writer see things from different perspectives, but I don’t think for David those characters were ever really alive in quite the way that other writers experience their characters as alive. TM: Why do you think people care so much about his work? DTM: It’s many things, but it’s not really that he had any answers for people. Because when you read the biography you have to understand how much he struggles with things that most of us have fairly compact. But he never stops taking his life seriously and he never stops taking the reader’s life seriously. And I think that’s the connection: you never stop mattering to him and he never stops mattering to himself. He never quits in that way. And I think that even non-readers of David’s books must be getting that now, given what’s gone on with his reputation, the amount of places you see his name, even how the Kenyon College speech has become so well known, deservedly so. But it’s an aspirational speech. It’s not what David achieved, it’s what he wanted to achieve. In the end you are the writer you are, and if there’s anything David teaches us it’s very hard to change the writer you are, and I had to be a writer who was interested in his efforts and difficulties. Because I never saw him as the pure joyous person that some people insisted he was. TM: “Saint Dave.” DTM: Well, I think the “Saint Dave” name is valid in the sense that I think what David teaches you, which is what a saint should teach you, is to take yourself and your life seriously. I don’t think he’s a candidate for the sainthood on the basis of his behavior, but many saints weren’t. So I don’t disown the saint idea. There is a way in which, faced with the massive seductions of modern culture, he did a pretty good job of pushing them away. Certainly in those later years there’s a kind of saintliness to his behavior — TM: A kind of literary saint in his defense of fiction. DTM: A literary martyr really. With Malcolm Lowry — who else never finished their last book? TM: Ralph Ellison… DTM: Another good example. I don’t remember him having agonized over his last book. David was never that way. He agonized over it. That’s what makes it so sad. So, no I don’t disregard the saint idea. I think Franzen had it right. He said at one of the memorial services that there’s nobody who seemed simpler and delightful on first meeting who grows more and more complex, yet all the same — he didn’t say appealing — but all the same endearing. In other words, as you get to know David better you just don’t like him in the same simple way that you started liking him. I think that’s got it exactly right. TM: It sounds like you really enjoyed working on the book. DTM: I loved thinking about him, writing about him, being in his head, reading his letters. I’d be very sad if the book makes people feel that he’s any less worthy of their love. The goal is the opposite. The quality that he has that he cares about you — that he cares about you caring about yourself. That’s very uplifting. I don’t think you get that from most writers.
Marilynne Robinson’s latest collection of essays rehashes a lot of old positions. There’s the polemic against reductionism — “There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell” — and the arguments against rational-choice economic theory and its assumption that humans are one-hundred-percent self-interested. Calvinism still needs defending, the Abolitionists were truly heroic, public discourse has been “dumbed down,” the New Atheists get religion all wrong, and the ghost of Sigmund Freud won’t go away. There’s also a pretty serious lack of humor throughout, which is too bad because Robinson can be funny in a folksy kind of way. It’s not that her interests aren’t compelling; it’s that if you’re really familiar with her nonfiction, especially The Death of Adam stuff, you might grow slightly impatient with all this thematic repetition, despite the fact that the prose is consistently gorgeous. Thankfully, that’s not everything. The latest turn in Robinson’s thinking is toward politics, specifically her strong intuition of political crisis in America. She’s talked politics before, but it’s never been quite this intense or urgent. The Tea Party is isolated as a particularly menacing development — she sneeringly calls them “these patriots” — but the crisis goes considerably beyond them, to the bedrock of American values. “Loyalty to democracy is the American value I fear we are gravely in danger of losing,” she writes. “We are now losing the ethos that has sustained what is most to be valued in our civilization.” Whether you buy ambiguous intuitions like these, and there are probably decent empirical grounds for doing so, like the abysmally low percentage of Americans who actually trust Congress, the point is that Robinson intends for her book to respond to what she believes is the depressed spiritual state of the union. This isn’t anything new. Walt Whitman talks about all kinds of American terribleness in Democratic Vistas, which Robinson quotes from in the introduction. In this collection she wants to do roughly the same thing as Whitman did in Vistas, to respond to this American moment with a mixture of criticism and hope in a prophetic-sounding voice. Besides the essays’ tone, which is consistently heartfelt, moving from grave (“We do not deal with one another as soul to soul..”) to joyful (“I love the writers of my thousand books.”), her political concerns give the book a kind of informal unity. “Austerity as Ideology” is a good example of the kind of political thinking Robinson does, combining an eccentric mix of discourses — cosmology, Cold War history, autobiography — to approach a Major Topic from an Oblique Angle. Here the Major Topic is the politics of Austerity (her caps) that emerged after the ’08 financial collapse and the Oblique Angle is starting the essay with the planet Mercury’s “innumerable scars of eons of local cataclysm.” It’s neat how she circles toward her subject from a distance, literally from outer space; the cosmic scope can be exhilarating. Even if you don’t agree with her arguments, it’s fun to watch her leap between discourses, finding intuitive linkages between them. One of her virtues as an essayist is her sensitivity to the emotional texture of ideas. Another is her knowledge of how ideas can surprise you and suggest new ones when juxtaposed in original ways. The Austerity essay criticizes the reductionism of ideological thinking and the culture of fear and anxiety that makes Austerity possible. Hopefully you’ll hear some echoes of Robinson’s calm, historically-informed voice in a debate that will likely play into the 2012 Presidential election. Robinson’s politics are tough to classify. They’re obviously on the spectrum of liberalism, but from what I can tell they seem closest to a species of communitarianism that the term “civic humanism” describes pretty well. The entry in Stanford’s online Encyclopedia of Philosophy says civic humanism is opposed to “acquisitive individualism” and it’s a stance that says the purpose of society is the “realization of human potentiality, encouraging the flowering of all forms of creativity and ingenuity insofar as they contribute to public welfare.” This jives with Robinson’s critique of the self-interestedness of neoliberal economics and her concerns about civic virtue and public responsibility. It also helps explain the most persistent political theme in the book: education. Two of the essays, “Freedom of Thought” and “When I Was a Child I Read Books,” celebrate education from an autobiographical perspective, and in other ones like “The Human Spirit and the Good Society” education is being undermined by cultural forces like anti-intellectualism. Robinson holds on to the humanist faith in the liberating powers of education, and the essays do a lot of worrying about the fate of public education once that faith disappears. As probably anyone who read Gilead figured out, Robinson is a Christian, but she’s the kind of Christian most non-Christians are comfortable with, not the dogmatic Evangelical or TBN-style Prosperity Gospeller, but the liberal Protestant type. She’s a part of a tradition that’s okay with mystery and uncertainty, that encourages a spirituality of process and exploration, a faith that she calls in her “Credo” “a liberation of thought.” It’s also a tradition that values the Bible, without a doubt the most important book to Robinson, and two of the essays take up Bible-related issues almost exclusively. “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” delves back into the Reformed tradition and Biblical scholarship of The Death of Adam and the history of law of Mother Country to make the contrarian point that the origins of American liberalism’s ethos of social justice is more indebted to the Hebrew Bible or Old rather than New Testament. Instead of the O.T.’s “warlike God of Israel,” Robinson looks to the sunny side of Deuteronomy and finds liberalism, “an ethics of non-judgmental, nonexclusive generosity.” The bigger point Robinson makes is about the Christian attitude of disparagement toward the O.T. In the other Moses essay, “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” which contains some of the best rhetorical take-downs in the book and brings out Robinson’s ironical side, she finds this same attitude of O.T. disparagement in recent biblical scholarship. “The Old Testament certainly is not ours to misrepresent, since in doing so we slander the culture we took it from, an old and very evil habit among us.” That quote’s “ours,” “us,” and “we” really begs the question of audience. After some light Googling, I found that most of the essays were originally talks or lectures. It would have been helpful to know the makeup of the audiences she addressed, since some of the essays like the Moses ones seem explicitly addressed to a Christian audience, concerned as they are with debates internal to that community. There are lines like, “To speak in the terms that are familiar to us all, there was a moment in which Jesus, as a man, a physical presence, left that supper at Emmaus.” Is the supper at Emmaus “familiar to us all”? I’m just not sure how many people buying books of pop-style intellectual history, from a publisher like FSG, will know about that. The introduction would have been a good place to tell us about the rhetorical situation of the essays so as to make those “we’s” and “us’s” less confusing. My other big criticism is an overall sense I get that Robinson’s intellectual and political interests end in the 1960s, right around the time she left Sandpoint, ID for Pembroke College, RI. Other than a brief reference to Vattimo in Absence of Mind, she’s refused to deal with one of the most influential intellectual developments since the 1960s, the emergence of Theory. It’s like she’s not aware of how much the part of the academy she cares about most, the humanities, have absorbed the assumptions and attitudes of thinkers like Foucault. She’s still hand-wringing over Nietzsche’s superman, Freud’s primal horde, and Skinner’s behaviorism. Politically, Robinson’s liberalism looks to the past rather than the present. For her, the paradigmatic liberals were the Abolitionists who had a religious vision for social justice. But she seems reluctant to acknowledge that the torch of social justice has long since passed to secular hands, and the major progressive achievements of the last thirty years, feminism and gay rights, were couched in secular rhetoric. There’s also the sense with Robinson that all good things come from New England, that every major U.S. achievement, artistically, intellectually, politically, religiously, is traceable back to Puritan origins, and ultimately back to the fountainhead of John Calvin. Her privileging of New England origins was once fashionable back with scholars like Perry Miller whose heyday was roughly around the same time of Robinson’s undergrad days. I really don’t care that she takes these positions — in fact, they account for a lot of her strangeness and originality — but her thinking would benefit from a dialogue with some of the recent shifts in the humanities, and her politics would benefit from a deeper recognition that good things can have secular sources. The risk of her essays is that they might come off as culturally irrelevant or out-of-touch or, worse, conservative. She includes almost zero references to TV, movies, Facebook, celebs, or anything to do with pop culture. Her lonesome distance from the mainstream is eccentric, but it’s also what gives her essays their strange power to diagnose America’s discontents. It’s a perspective that’s simultaneously alienated and engaged, public and personal For anyone familiar with her nonfiction, her positions are by now familiar: her defense of public education, her sense of the irreducible mystery of existence, her reverent attitude toward history, her questioning of the assumption that we are absolutely self-interested. But I don’t mind the repetition, because if any of her thought somehow seeped out into America I think we’d be much better off for it.