"I have to sneak over here in the dark just to have a few words with you. Is that language, or is it noise?" She said, "It's noise that you have to do it, and language that you do it, anyway." She said softly, "Maybe poetry."
To be harmless: this is the great aspiration of the titular Jack in Marilynne Robinson's fourth installment of the Gilead books. Readers were first introduced to Jack, or John Ames Boughton, in the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, and as Robinson has published each related book in turn (2008's Home and 2014's Lila), pieces of him have come through, filtered through different perspectives on this prodigal son of a Presbyterian minister. The timelines of the novels overlap but do not flow entirely side by side. Here, Jack we find Jack well after he has left his home of Iowa and is a shame to his family, barely able to keep shoes on his feet. When we finally get his story here, he is inhabiting an existence synonymous with shame, where the best he can hope for is this attainment of harmlessness. Yet another hope grows: he falls in love with Della, the Black daughter of a local bishop in Missouri. But in the 1950s, what is Jack's redemption is also damnation for them both.
The Gilead novels are filled with philosophical and theological considerations, yet Robinson doesn't feel didactic or heavy-handed. She is sorting through thoughts, as are her characters, as are we. There is an incomparable beauty to her language that burns slowly through all four novels, and it reaches its height in Jack, where most of the first one hundred pages take place overnight in a cemetery as the two talk. With all the intellectual heft of a Robinson book, Jack nevertheless becomes an experience of feeling one's way through thought and language. Even with this slowness, conflict is inevitable, and the pair ultimately have to face the consequences of wanting to share a life that has been deemed unacceptable by society. The exploration of racism is timely, to say the least, though Robinson gives no great pronouncements as she lets one truth seep in: that the very act of love is an instrument of harm due to the deeply embedded nature of racism.
In reading Jack, I ultimately kept coming back to the variations on this word that form the core of the man. To be harmless. It seems like a heartbreaking goal, to just desperately wish no longer to be a shame and a burden on those who surround you. But Jack finds it in something "exquisite," finds himself surprised that "harmlessness could be so sweet and so protective" of him and Della.
In one delightful moment, we see that perhaps nowhere is this idea of harmlessness more accessible to Jack than in the library. "I always feel at a little at ease in a library. I can take the best they have and no one is the worse for it. I mean, you know, things to think about. Not actual books. Well, I do get attached to certain things, but I bring them back sooner or later." (And we appreciate when you do, too, dear Camden patrons).
Unfortunately in pandemic times, we can't quite be the figure of this woman who meets Jack's needs with kindness in the library... "A kindly old librarian noticed him... She brought him cookies on a napkin with a fraying embroidered flower on it and said, 'You'll be sure to wipe your fingers.'" But in lieu of cookies, we love to hear about what you're reading and enjoying. I've been fortunate to have numerous patrons approach me to check out books in the Gilead quartet with a gleam in their eyes, acknowledging Robinson's incomparable writing. With Jack, Robinson seems to quietly press home the point that every story has many ways to be told, that every perspective and experience of the same lived moment is worth revisiting through other words and eyes. So as we come to the close of 2020, I share the most nourishing novel I've read this year. Follow the links below to request Jack or Robinson's other Gilead books (descriptions courtesy of NoveList).
As the Reverend John Ames approaches the hour of his own death, he writes a letter to his son chronicling three previous generations of his family, a story that stretches back to the Civil War and reveals uncomfortable family secrets.
Returning to Gilead to care for her dying father, Glory Boughton is joined by her long-absent brother, with whom she bonds throughout his struggles with alcoholism, unemployment, and their father's traditionalist values.
Triggering a romance and debate by seeking shelter in a church and becoming a minister's wife, homeless Lila reflects on her hardscrabble life on the run with a canny young drifter and her efforts to reconcile her painful past with her husband's gentle Christian worldview.
A new Gilead novel that tells the story of John Ames Boughton, the beloved, erratic, and grieved-over prodigal son of a Presbyterian minister from Gilead, Iowa.
Reading a Robinson novel feels at once like being sated and developing a further hunger for thought and language. For the one novel I have read that gave me this similar feeling with its brilliantly paced wading through thought and emotion, I recommend Amanda Coplin's 2012 debut novel, The Orchardist:
At the turn of the 20th century in a rural stretch of the Pacific Northwest, a gentle solitary orchardist, Talmadge, tends to apples and apricots. Then two feral, pregnant girls and armed gunmen set Talmadge on an irrevocable course not only to save and protect but to reconcile the ghosts of his own troubled past.