On Marilynne Robinson’s Lila

Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer for Gilead, the lyric love ballad of a dying small town preacher named John Ames. It’s not a fluffy book—covering cancer, a young son, a fragile wife, and festering feuds with a godson—but it is a fundamentally peaceful one. Pastor Ames sets his readers at ease. As he calms himself with evening Iowa air and Scriptural meditations, so he calms us.

His wife, Lila, takes no such pains.

Lila is a look at the sort of life that doesn’t predispose belief in a benevolent God. While her husband comes from a stable stream of devout if difficult preachers, Lila claims a lineage that’s fragmented at best. We meet her as a child, filthy and cowering beneath a table. Later, we see her neglected on a church stoop. In the middle of the novel, we gasp at Lila’s skirts, shaded with blood of a murdered man; we avert our eyes as she enters a brothel. In Lila, Robinson offers an almost stereotypical portrayal of a woman abandoned and abused. If her language weren’t so beautiful in its sincerity, we might not believe it—but it is, and we do.

Even Lila’s good fortune seems tentative, and accidental—and not necessarily good, either. Frantic, she’s perpetually scheming to run away from her husband, imagining how she might raise their child in the dust of roads and by sides of rivers. She feels ill-equipped to be a preacher’s wife, baker of cakes and champion of cheer. She’s lonely in Gilead. She craves stars. She misses Doll, her crusty and fiercely loyal caretaker that, years ago, froze to death in a cornfield. And while she loves her husband, the smell of his sweater and warmth of his bed and his treasuring of her, she nurses these thoughts of escape and sorrow almost obsessively. She’s full of contradictions.

Spiritually too, Lila’s all confusion. What happened to the band of field workers she traveled with as a child—will she find them in heaven? Why is there so much suffering in the world—in her world? Laced with recollections of exploitation, the questions carry all the more weight. John Ames, bless his heart, struggles to answer them. In Gilead, Ames is a gatherer of wisdom, penning little contemplations for his son to read after he is dead. In Lila, we continue to adore Ames, and he manages Lila’s queries with predictable grace. Still, he can never fully satisfy her existential musings. “For a preacher, you ain’t much at explaining things,” Lila tells her husband after he fails to solve the problem of evil. He responds in sadness: “I’m sorry about that. Sorry you’re disappointed. Again. But if I tried to explain I wouldn’t believe what I was saying to you. That’s lying, isn’t it? I’m probably more afraid of that than anything else.”

There’s a tendency to read Lila with a heavy heart—to see it as a refutation of everything Gilead was. Lila unsettled me. It broke open a fortuitous marriage and a miracle pregnancy and a glorious story of conversion, which is what we hear of in Gilead, and disorders them.

Not to be a pessimist: but it made the story of Gilead a story about real, broken life.

Lila is a book based on happenstance—things she and we can’t explain. She asks to be baptized at the river without understanding what it means. She enters into marriage with no idea how to be a wife; the request is a hastily spoken wish, and it changes her life. She wonders if she has unbaptized herself, blaspheming in the river muds. She thinks she may have been baptized again, drizzled with the water that covers her newborn son. She copies out difficult Old Testament texts for the sound of them, understanding their theology in experiential terms. She asks all those questions. She wonders where she stands with God. “Maybe you don’t have to think about hell because probly nobody you know going to end up there,” she whispers to John Ames in bed. “Except me.” Her husband is disturbed. “Lila… I have to preach tomorrow.”

Lila serves as an exaggerated, honest case study of the struggling Christian, i.e. the typical Christian. Robinson makes her girl sympathetic—Lila, if anyone, has reason to struggle, body patterned as it is with bruises. And yet, we start to read her skittishness with frustration. Why are you running from the sturdy arms of John Ames? Why do you scare him so badly, wandering off to the river and submitting your pregnant body to bitter cold? Why must you wrestle with the hard questions?

And yet, isn’t that what we all do. In Lila, we are meant to see ourselves writ large: pitiful and scared, and not quite sure where we stand with God, or how we found ourselves here, in this house, tending to the garden, living this sort of life. Robinson may overdraw Lila, but she does so to show us ourselves, in broad strokes that we can’t misinterpret. Reading Lila’s tale, we recollect sorrows from Gilead: John Ames’ dead wife and child, or Boughton’s struggles with his rebellious son. Although Lila may be deepest in the thicket, she is not alone there.

Lila is rife with moments of relief, too: short, but satisfactory. It is full of images of simple love—a soft sweater, a warm bed, a knife that recalls sacrifice, daffodils floating in a water pail, a small son alive and sucking milk. That is how our lives with God are, too. It is difficult to mentally inhabit the shack or the brothel for too long. And so we, and Lila, fill our days with routines and small things to be thankful for. And we keep the doubts, unavoidable and perpetual, at bay for a while.

Lila complicates Gilead: in terms of plot, and character, and particularly in terms of theme. The book’s theology is tricky—I wouldn’t read the novel for impeccable logic, or orthodoxy. Instead, it reads like a diary of questions, Biblical quotations, and observations. Robinson strays from traditional doctrine on salvation; she wishes everyone could be rescued. And yet, her thinking on heaven and hell and suffering—How could I live without those I love? How can I make it through tomorrow?—is earth-shatteringly real. The feelings behind Lila’s confusions—if not the shady, half-formed conclusions drawn from them—are impeccable; every Christian I know has had them. Lila’s empowerment—even in the midst of Job-like sores and Israel-esque wandering—comes directly out of her musing. It encourages us. “It was eternity that let her think this way… Pity us, yes, but we are brave.”

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