The Intricacies of Benevolence

by Marilynne Robinson
HarperCollins, 2014, 261 pages, $29.95


I found Lila a wondrous novel, lovely in its art, wide awake in its moral texture and, to describe my satisfaction in this, I shall quote the concluding sentences of its 261 pages, then give some account of what leads to their conclusiveness:

Well, for now there were geraniums in the windows, and an old man at the kitchen table telling his baby some rhyme he’d known forever, probably still wondering if he’d managed to bring her along into that next life, if he could ever be certain of it. Almost letting himself imagine grieving for her in heaven, because not to grieve for her would mean he was dead after all.

Some day she would tell him what she knew.

Here we are inside the head of Lila, heroine of the story. She is at home in the rectory of an Iowa town called Gilead. Downstairs is the “old man”, the Rev. John Ames who she has married, to whom she has borne a son and where, tentatively and with heartrending risk in the face of the distrust and instability ingrained into her reactions to the world by her bleak upbringing, the idea of “family” begins to repair itself both in Lila’s character and at this social frontier of America. And that “old man” with “his baby” discloses finely the edge of outlandishness to be found in both this novel and Marilynne Robinson’s acclaimed earlier books.

At the start of the novel, Lila is a child maltreated and outcast by her keepers. These may be actual family, though bearing the anonymity of “they” and “somebody” and “a woman’, for here is the disintegration of family both particular to Lila and symptomatic of degraded social coherence during this Dustbowl era when the novel is set; we will meet other child-runaways and uprooted folk in the course of Lila’s encounters. While Robinson’s America, both in this novel and her other writing, is closely her own in its plains geography and Protestant sensibility, it has an unmistakable forebear in John Steinbeck’s world of folk at the margin of community during marginalising times.

Then Lila is stolen, taken to a cabin where she is washed, cropped, and given a name. The child-thief is Doll, a tramp-woman, and first in a succession of benign figures who happen into Lila’s life. The pair join an itinerant work-crew from which, eventually, Lila is also outcast when they can no longer afford to feed her and Doll is taken into custody for a stabbing. The girl spends an interval in a St Louis whorehouse before finding herself in Gilead where she slips through a church door into the life of the Rev. John Ames and her fortunes precariously begin to stabilise.

Such, briefly, are the events in Lila’s story. But the luminous core of this narrative tells how The Good lives as a palpable presence in human affairs, how “to fall into good hands” is as naturalised to our existence as to encounter misfortune or indifference. This Good can reside in small kindnesses and yet be unmistakable in its solidity of presence. For instance, in a simple gesture of good will, the arresting sheriff lets Doll sit on a rocking chair on his veranda rather than languish in a cell, and here Lila brings a molasses cake for this prisoner who has been her closest friend and protector. She must watch where a crowd has gathered and with them is Doll’s victim in his open coffin. Here is malevolence. But here also is good nerve and self-possession.

The wind was taking the last few leaves. There was a little crowd of people watching her since she was a curiosity, and a couple of men who were as angry as could be to see her sitting there peaceful and at ease for all they could tell, though Doll never did give a stranger a sign that anything troubled her. The sheriff was standing on the step, talking with those men, already irritated with them.

One of them shouted, “You ought to be hanging her!”

“Doubt I can do that. She don’t weigh nothing.”

“Then shoot her.”

The sheriff laughed. “I guess I wasn’t brought up that way. To go shooting old women.”

Quietly, surely, the malice is disarmed and an American frontier reflex to “bring things to a head” is deflected. But for Lila the event has a dimension altogether more poignant and bewildering. She places her molasses cake on her friend’s lap, whereupon Doll says to her, “I don’t know you.”

In a novel where the gospels have daily presence in the characters’ lives, this denial reminds us of Peter’s denials of Christ, similar to the extent that both are a denial of love where dangerous association is the stake, dissimilar in that, in Lila, the denier seeks to protect, not self, but a cared-for other from that association, making her denial in stony awareness of the emotional cost to self.

Thus are depicted the intricacies of benevolence. Portrayal of innate goodness in fiction is notoriously difficult and has engaged me in my own practice because, if one measure of a novel is the justice with which it observes the veritable fabric of living, then to neglect characters with a natural predisposition towards contributing to the good is to neglect an entire dimension of likelihood and so deal with Reality unjustly and fall short in one’s art.

Sometimes such characters are unconscious of what they do, sometimes consciously intrigued to discover their wit in recognising another’s need. The phlegmatic Doll is of the former type. She simply appropriates the outcast child and takes full responsibility for her care until a murder interposes and will see her tried and probably hanged for the crime. The virtue of the Rev. John Ames is also of this kind. But Robinson’s special wisdom is to give the expression of this unconscious benevolence its intelligent necessity, and on occasion a highly suspenseful delicacy. This is worth illustrating …

… Lila has wandered away from the rectory to see her old shack. We know, through self-distrust, shame and natural inwardness, that she might forsake the sanctuary she has found in her marriage to the Rev. Ames; he certainly dreads this. In the shack she meets a runaway boy who discloses he has murdered his father. At the conclusion of this encounter, Lila walks home to the rectory, finds it deserted, goes upstairs to lie on her bed.

… She was thinking, I’m gone the minute he talks down to me, no matter what. And just that morning she’d been feeling so safe.

He spoke down the stairs, “She’s here. She’s fine,” and Boughton said, “Tomorrow, then,” and let himself out. Then the old man said, “That’s true, isn’t it? You are fine?”

She said, “Far as I know.”

My admiration for this scene lies in how deftly Robinson manages the suspense. The appearance of kindliness more often appears in fiction to disarm suspense, not prime it. We know the Rev. Ames and his devoted friend Boughton are deeply good human beings in the tradition of intelligent Christian charity. We know they have been searching for Lila in circumstances where they are aware of the deadliness of her peril and the confusion of her spirit. We know Lila’s touchiness, and how casually the good that accrues to her fortune in her marriage to Ames can be lost by inadvertent words. Instead these dangers are disarmed by a finely ordinary touch; “She’s here. She’s fine.” So the achievement, in technical terms, has been to resolve suspense (“I’m gone the minute …”) by setting in abeyance a malignity where there is not an atom of malice discernible among the three participants of the scene. At the same time, the achievement of moral comprehending of her characters lies in how the novelist has implied the intimacy and intelligence with which a well-disposed nature can interact with the unforeseen-ness of human lives. People can fall into good hands; here is the x-ray of how it might occur.

In her narrative voice, like Steinbeck, Marilynne Robinson stays close to American proletarian vernacular, both for dialogue and for Lila’s thought processes, and this has an interesting binary effect. On the one hand, we remain very close to Lila’s stream-of-consciousness—her socio-economic being, one might term it, with all its insecurities from her vagabond life. At the same time we are not constrained by her consciousness-stream as the vernacular overlaps her self-communing into the story’s other characters. This deflects the airlessness of purer “stream-of-consciousness” narrative where the centrality of a singular meditative presence can become claustrophobic.

In addition, the narrative does not mimic linear time, but allows us glimpses of character that await later explanation, backward glimpses at old substance that pose new threat. The effect is to integrate rather than merely unfold Lila’s living. She is, as it were, all of herself for all the duration of the storytelling, even though we meet her as a child on page 1 and leave her as wife and mother on page 261. This gives to her presence an interiority whereby we learn her vulnerability at the same time as we watch her process of self-understanding.

In her encompassing review of Lila and its place in the succession of Robinson’s related novels, Joan Acocella in the New Yorker calls this an unflinching book. The adjective is just. In the course of the story we encounter two murders and the likelihood that two essentially innocent perpetrators will hang for the crimes. Cruelty, meanness, poverty, are stitched into the very fabric of the American setting, whether beside a sheriff’s veranda or in a St Louis brothel. But to my mind that good nerve in the book’s composition lies in how the existence of The Good is naturalised into this fabric, so very actual in its fragility, intelligence and resilience. This consideration returns us to that “Old Man” and his recognition that “not to grieve” is not to care, and to be “dead after all”.

Alan Gould’s ninth novel, a picaresque titled The Poets’ Stairwell, has just been published by Black Pepper Press in Melbourne.


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