Thursday, November 06, 2008

Home by Marilynne Robinson

My reaction to this novel falls in between the deep and abiding love I have for Housekeeping, Robinson's first novel, and the admiration I have for Gilead, her second. I was truly attached to the main characters of Home, who appear on the periphery in Gilead (in a nice touch the central characters of Gilead appear on the periphery here), but one of the most noticeable qualities of the novel is how dialogue-heavy it is. These aren't characters who do; they are characters who talk. But what I really want to point out is the crying. I am constantly drying the tears that flow in my students' stories. Now obviously I know people cry and therefore fictional characters should cry, but you wouldn't believe the weight of these tears--they are constantly soaking garments, dripping to the floor, leaving salty trails everywhere. And generally it's not a bad sign that my students write so much sobbing--it means the characters are in high stakes emotional situations which typically are good for fiction. It's just that it's practically impossible to describe crying in a way that doesn't sound cliched, melodramatic or sentimental. One of my favorite moments in Ishiguro's novel The Remains of the Day, which is about an emotionally repressed butler, is when someone has to tell the butler that he's crying. He's so out of touch with his own emotions that he hasn't noticed his own tears. So his crying is revealed via the dialogue of another character. And this is exactly what Robinson does. Glory, the protagonist of the novel, is a cry-er. Mostly because her brother Jack--the prodigal son returned--drives her to it with his sad past, his lost love, his alcoholism and his general despair. But somewhat weirdly--though interestingly--Robinson never says, Glory cried. Certainly there are no salty trails. Instead she has Jack tell us via his, "There you go again," or "Are you crying" or "You're crying;" and even though I admit I found this pattern a little distracting, it does serve the function of making Glory's tears a burden to Jack rather than a burden to Glory. Glory doesn't mind that she's crying--she can't help it--but Jack certainly feels that he's the one making it happen. Sometimes he teases her, sometimes he feels guilty, but always, the reader is reminded, the problem is Jack and the tears ostensibly belong to him.

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