Monday, September 10, 2007


Recently I got around to reading Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping (1980), a dreamlike tale told with great economy and precision. In fact the language is so well-rendered that it is often at odds with the perspective it recreates -- in first person -- of a young girl named Ruthie. I don't see this as a flaw, necessarily, because the perspective, we gradually come to feel, is of Ruthie enhanced beyond her actual years and perhaps even beyond the mundane world altogether. In other words, what seems to begin as a kind of coming-of-age story about two young sisters who come under the care -- through a series of incidents -- of their mother's younger sister, Sylvie, becomes as it goes a story of spiritual awakening. The effect is achieved through a prose that is able at times to register an almost biblical sense of things -- like a flooded house, or a train de-railed into a lake, or an all-night campout -- that would otherwise be homely enough, if odd.

The central figure of the story is the house the girls share with their young aunt whose sense of housekeeping is ramshackle and distracted, so that the house -- which is what holds the family together as family, at first -- comes to seem nothing more than a device of normalcy, something the townsfolk want to see upheld so as to register the proper sense of belonging, though Sylvie, an outsider and sometime vagrant, has no particular use for the town or the house. It's in the depiction of the character of Sylvie that the novel attains a quality of genuine perception which, due to the narrative voice of Ruthie, grown at times almost otherworldly under Sylvie's tutelage, lifts it beyond the simple story of a misfit -- whether conceived as a misfit of proper childcare, of proper housekeeping, or of particular gender roles. Sylvie is more than all that because she elicits something deep and real about the American character -- think of Huck Finn, think of Whitman's song of the open road, think of the Depression-era train-riding hoboes celebrated by the likes of Kerouac, Guthrie, Dylan.

"...the tramps, when they doffed their hats and stepped into the kitchen as they might do when the weather was severe, looked into the parlor and murmured, `Nice place you have here,' and the lady who stood at the elbow of any one of them knew that if she renounced her husband and cursed her children and offered all that had been theirs to this lonely, houseless, placeless man, soon or late he would say 'Thanks' and be gone into the evening, being the hungriest of human creatures and finding nothing here to sustain him, leaving it all, like something dropped in a corner by the wind. Why should they all feel judgment in the fact that these nameless souls looked into their lighted windows without envy and took the best of suppers as no more than their meager due?"

This passage conveys what to me is the real meaning of the book, the sense of house-leaving as the basis for any positive change, though the theme of the evil of breaking apart families -- in the name of some civic rectitude -- is developed more dramatically (and gratuitously, it seems to me). In other words, the solidarity between Sylvie and Ruthie (set against the longing-to-be-ordinary sister Lucille) is fine without the need for persecution to drive home what is implicit in their self-knowledge: they cannot stay. The further meaning of such house-leaving, for Robinson, has to partake of ultimate ends: this world is not the be-all and end-all; we are not meant merely to make ourselves comfortable.

That theme too is a bit of a will-o-wisp because there's nothing in the actual story to support a more transcendant or allegorical meaning, ultimately. So two themes of the story, for me, hang limp as the cuffs of a scarecrow's coat: the clash with the townies, and the effort to attach spiritual, "thy kingdom-come" uplift to the story, both of which come on strong in the close with a feeling, to me, that these were decisions on the publishing end, to make the story resonate in a certain way, to become 'exciting' by bringing in, too emphatically, plot and significance. Without those larger gestures, to be sure, the novel tends to be almost wholly poetic, a narrative of tonalities where the hieratic has its place so long as it is in the service of the child's awe at what the world potentially is, beyond the parameters of what human needs have made of it.

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