What I Was Reading: Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson

July 12, 2006

Of late, my reading has revolved around digitizing books and writing these wonderful things called web pages. I was trying to think of the last fiction I had read, and it was Alice Munro’s Love of a Good Woman, and it is unfinished. It got put on hold for the aforementioned technological endeavors. So that takes me back to the weekend of New Orleans and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

This is a book I had been meaning to read for a while. Strangely enough, I first heard of Marilynne Robinson at a Bret Easton Ellis reading last fall. He was reading from Lunar Park, which I went on to read, unlike all the rest of his books, which I have assiduously boycotted. During the Q&A, somebody asked him what he was reading and he said Gilead by Marilynne Robinson but that it was taking him a long time. Like, months. Later I found out it only has 250 or so pages. But he must have been savoring it, just as Doris Lessing instructs us to savor Housekeeping on her cover blurb. Anyways, the name and the title stuck in my head, but I still managed to get Robinson confused with Mary Gaitskill, who wrote last winter’s Veronica, also widely praised. So first I read Veronica, and I thought it was pretty good but completely unlike any book an author who had also written a book called Gilead would write. This mystery was quickly submerged by the rest of my Christmas reading agenda, and it was only cleared up when reading Salon’s article about the New York Times best novels of the past 25 years. Robinson’s work is championed as an example of why biasing such judgments toward really long books misses out on some of the best stuff, and I realized that I had turned two Mary’s into one. Oops. Sitting corrected, I got on the interlibrary loan and got Housekeeping delivered to the circulation desk down the hall.

Within a paragraph, I knew I was dealing with the genuine article, a writer who didn’t waste a word of my time without telling her story. I love it when writers demonstrate enough love and mastery to give me a phrase like this:

“When, after almost five years, my grandmother one winter morning eschewed awakening, Lily and Nona were fetched from Spokane and took up housekeeping in Fingerbone, just as my grandmother had wished.”

I’m going to break it down as I read it just a little bit to make a broader point about why this book is worth reading. The sentence above could have been written, probably would have been written by many lesser writers in ways that were either pedestrian or completely overblown. Overblown: a death scene replete with emotional embellishments that don’t reflect the fact that the narrator was very young at the time and not likely to have been extremely attached to her grandmother, who we know had pretty much hardened her heart and got on with the business of running a house after a lifetime of heartbreak. Pedestrian: When my grandmother died five years later, my aunts moved in. See, that’s basically what this sentence gets across, but with just a few more words it does so much more: establishes a strong sense of place, builds character (only a lady as completely in control as the grandmother could have eschewed awakening instead of dying, likewise demonstrated her prudence by planning that the aunts would move in), touches ever so lightly on the biggest theme in the novel (by using took up housekeeping instead of moved in), and hits that the aunts don’t exactly want to be there. As I was reading, it was rare that a whole page would go by without a sentence that grabbed me and left me drooling in envy just like this one.

Summarzing plot would be a complete injustice. Plot in this novel is important, but what was even more important to me as a reader was how the plot seemed specific enough to be true in this one time and this one place at the same time as seeming like it was the only plot of all human condition. Meanwhile, the setting deepens the plot’s meaning. Like much of my favorite writing, Robinson uses the natural world as a stand-in for ultimate mystery, and one of the only ways that human beings ever truly encounter it. Water haunts the story in more ways than I can count. It is a symbol, bludgeoning reality, and a cipher as deep as our own identities all at the same time. The power builds and builds until you can practically feel the tension between mortal time and cosmic eternity quaking through every sentence. A very young person probably wouldn’t get much out of this book. A somewhat young person, such as myself, gets a glimpse of how the years will churn forward with certainty and result. Things will happen to us and around us that don’t get erased. Most of our questions will never get answered. These are themes that most writers would beat us over the head with, but all Robinson needs to do is tell one story with words that sound like she has polished each of them into their one meaning.

So, all in all, this book joins Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm as an example of why filling up pages is not even half of the battle. If I were a high school teacher, I would teach this book. Like I said, a kid couldn’t possibly get it, but I think it would put some ideas in there that might grow up later.


3 Responses to “What I Was Reading: Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson”

  1. D Says:

    Great book review! I must pick this book up again. Please write more reviews, as your reading tastes are impeccable. I also hear you write a mean movie review…

  2. SB Says:

    Isn’t it fantastic what a sentence can do?

  3. […] is “wonderful.” Not just worth it, wonderful. Not rewarding or fulfilling, just wonderful. As I’ve blogged about before, I am also in awe of Robinson’s ability to turn sentences into small stories by means of word […]

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