Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

It took me a long time to finish Housekeeping--not because I found it dull, but because I found myself overwhelmed with jealousy for Marilynne Robinson's prose style.

If one should be shown odd fragments arranged on a silver tray and be told, "That is a splinter from the True Cross, and that is a nail pairing dropped by Barabbas, and that is a bit of lint from under the bed where Pilate's wife dreamed her dream," the very ordinariness of the things would recommend them. Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. So shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon and finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on, just as the wind in the orchard picks up the leaves from the ground as if there were no other pleasure in the world but brown leaves, as if it would deck, clothe, flesh itself in flourishes of dusty brown leaves, and then drops them all in a heap at the side of the house and goes on (73).

My slow, "spurts" of reading method, however, didn't really do Housekeeping justice. Because the life of this novel is so deeply embedded in the flow of language, rather than in the plot, or even the characters (though the imagery exists through the characters), it can be difficult to get back into that flow if you only read a little at a time (I found this true with Robinson's Gilead as well, but I read that more quickly).

Just about everyone seems to have nice things to say about Marilynne Robinson's novels, so for simplicity's sake, I'm just going to list all (okay, several) of the things I liked about Housekeeping:

  1. Robinson's breath-taking mix of water/air/ice imagery.
  2. The picture Robinson draws of Fingerbone, Idaho through Ruth's position as someone neither completely inside nor completely out.
  3. The idea of transience, and the question of whether it is harder or easier to love something/someone transient.
  4. The characters. There's almost a gentleness in the way Robinson portrays people. Most of the people I've grown up around are likable and even (outwardly) boring. I always have a little trouble relating to novels populated by scoundrel after despicable, colorful scoundrel.
  5. There's an innate spirituality in Robinson's prose. And she has a way of taking Biblical images (such as the Flood) and turning them so that they catch the light in a new way.

...and things that may make reading Housekeeping difficult:
  1. There is a plot structure, but it's not immediately visible. Don't expect a fast read. (Not that I believe a fast read automatically equals a good read.)
  2. Ruth, the narrator, (like many of the other characters) is a ponderer. I can relate, but sometimes I felt like shouting, "Just do something already!" But this, ultimately, makes the actions Ruth chooses more meaningful.
  3. The knowledge that Robinson's prose is much, much more elegant than your own.

(Image from LITTORAL.)

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