The right kind of slow read

December 11, 2008

Or, The stupid reason I have not read Gilead yet, and why I am now reading it, and why I dare you to name me someone who gets more out of word placement than Marilynne Robinson

Given how much I loved Houskeeping (doesn’t everyone?), I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the reason I have so long delayed reading Gilead is because of an offhand comment made by Bret Easton Ellis when I went to hear him read at Books & Books in Miami. Now, everything about this reading made it quite clear that he was a jerk, so I’m not sure why a comment from him would do anything but make me think the opposite of what he said. Anyway, someone asked him what he was reading, and he said Gilead, but said it was a really slow read for a short book. I think this influenced my first take on the book, which I checked out from the library shortly after Housekeeping. My fear of the book being a slow read (I’ve developed some bad reading habits, methinks, if a slow read is something I actively avoid) I think made me hyper-sensitive to my own fear of precious writing, and for some reason I heard the narrator in my head as a breathless old man, totally out of touch with reality, living out his final days in a sun-infused farmhouse where all the linens were white and all of the window frames were filled with irregular glass.

Now I’m reading it for real, and I have to say, that was a stupid thing for me to think. A more grounded narrator would be hard to find, and Robinson’s style as always could not be further from precious. Thank goodness the attractively covered Home that appeared last week on my library’s book cart enticed me to give Gilead another go, seeing as it was only after I had checked it out that I realized that it was kind of a sequel to Gilead. So now I’ve got Gilead, too, and I’m only about 25 pages in, but I’m in love all over again.

Possibly, it helps that I’m a little older this time around, a little further into the process of realizing that if I continue make choices that lead me closer to the opportunities to do more of the things I love for a living, I will almost certainly never make the kind of money that makes for blissful childhoods for my future children and will probably spend a lot of time shut up in a room, at a desk. The poignancy of the father-son conversation that this book is so obvious to me now, the weight of small admissions and apologies immediately resonant. Maybe this is why this particular passage about being a writer (a writer of sermons, but clearly a writer) made me get out my notebook and hand write it in today. The narrator has just made a rough estimate of the number of pages he’s written in his lifetime as a preacher, writing 50 sermons a year for 45 years (and they averaged 30 pages each, so that’s 67,500 pages):

That’s amazing. I wrote almost all of it in the deepest hope and conviction. Sifting my thoughts and choosing my words. Trying to say what was true. And I’ll tell you, frankly, that was wonderful. I’m grateful for all those dark years, even though in retrospect they seem like a long, bitter prayer that was answered finally.

I love the content here—the confession that the work of writing, and the pain and poverty that it cost the narrator and his family (not to the point that that they starved, but to the point that money was usually tight) 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 placement. She can take a straightforward and heartfelt observation and reveal character and move plot with it, all without making it obscure. My candidate for the word doing the most work in this passage: “finally.” First off, it’s only one spot away from being cliché, and that makes all the difference here, in my opinion. She’s taking a sentence you think you know and making it something much darker. It isn’t like the prayer is answered, and then a new happy life starts in the land of answered prayers. The prayer is answered finally, at the end, with an end, without appeal. The answer is having lived all those years in that hope, not in anything that comes after. And on top of that, putting it at the end of sentence affirms that weight, to me at least saying that she didn’t just swap the order to change up flat word placement, she put it there because she meant it. Finally. That’s how life ends, and that’s what this book is about.

You see? This is going to be a slow read for me—slow because I never want it to end.

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