"we can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective.”

-W.H. Auden

The Vessel's Cracks

By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages.

Imagine that someone failed and disgraced came back to his family, and they grieved with him, and took his sadness upon themselves, and sat down together to ponder the mysteries of human life. This is… human and beautiful, I propose, even if it yields no dulling of pain, no patching of injuries. Perhaps it is the calling of some families to console, because intractable grief is visited upon them. And perhaps measures of the success of families that exclude this work from consideration, or even see it as a failure, are very foolish and misleading.

So writes Marilynne Robinson in an essay titled “Family” from her collection The Death of Adam. Such a passage invites reflection on the aims and expected outcomes of familial loyalty. What counts as love if every motion toward it ends without the hoped-for result? How do we determine the success of our attempts to love? Robinson’s latest novel, Home, is an extended engagement of these questions.

Home is the companion volume to Gilead, Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that ended her 24-year hiatus from writing fiction (she authored Housekeeping in 1980). Much like Wendell Berry’s stories of Port William, Gilead and Home narrate the same events but from different characters’ vantage points, and thus they are intermeshed rather than sequential. Gilead is a sublimely contemplative letter written by the dying Reverend John Ames to his young son in 1956. In the letter, Ames meanders through the significant details of a life lived sweetly, though often achingly. Throughout Gilead, Ames frequently describes his encounters with Jack, who is recently returned home from a twenty-year estrangement. In Home, a third-person narrator tells the story of Jack’s return in deeper detail, primarily from the point of view of Jack’s sister, Glory.

Readers of Gilead come to Home with some knowledge of the broad brushstrokes of Jack’s life. Growing up, he establishes his reputation as a scoundrel, albeit one motivated as much by loneliness as by malice. In late youth, he fathers a child only to skip town in her infancy and not come home on news of her death, rejecting both convention and obligation. Likewise, Jack is conspicuously absent from his mother’s funeral, recapitulating his scarcity. These choices stand as the crowning dishonors on a life of petty theft, meanness, and bitter withdrawal from family.

In Home, though, we are able to take in more of the measure of what it means that Jack has finally returned to Gilead, the fictional Iowa town in which both novels are set. He has returned to live again, if only for a while, with those he has wronged so devastatingly in the past. Whereas in Gilead Jack becomes for John Ames a mirror in which the aging minister is able to contemplate his own need for grace, in Home, Jack’s own life is mirrored by its most intimate observers—his father and sister—who reflect its light in tones sometimes brighter, sometimes dimmer. If Gilead shows Jack as a fractured bearer of what Flannery O’Connor might call a “violent grace,” Home invites us to examine the vessel’s cracks with more loving, patient, sad attention.

If Gliead shows Jack as a fractured bearer of what Flannery O'Connor might call a "violent grace," Home invites us to examine the vessel's cracks with more loving, patient, sad attention.

If Gliead shows Jack as a fractured bearer of what Flannery O'Connor might call a "violent grace," Home invites us to examine the vessel's cracks with more loving, patient, sad attention.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that one of its central questions is whether or not Jack can be at home in Gilead. “I just never knew another child who didn’t feel at home in the house where he was born,” Jack’s father laments helplessly. Such a lament could serve as a précis of the entire novel. Every conversation with his father and sister, every casual moment, from a shared meal to an afternoon ride in the car, becomes an occasion on which Jack’s alienation might erupt in unbearable pain.

At every turn, Jack’s uneasiness with his father and Glory, his inability to receive their earnest efforts to make him welcome, prompts a deeper question: if Jack cannot allow his alienation to be swallowed up by his father and Glory’s unconditional care, how can his family keep alive the hope that he might ever be consoled? If their sharing of Jack’s grief “yields no dulling of pain, no patching of injuries,” how might they find the will to sustain their care? Is love still love if the beloved remains lost?

“‘Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds,’ in the words of the sonnet, which I can only interpret to mean, love is loyalty,” Robinson writes, again in the essay “Family.” She continues: “I would suggest that in [loyalty’s] absence, all attempts to prop the family…will fail. The real issue is, will people shelter and nourish and humanize one another? This is creative work, requiring discipline and imagination.” Home may be read as Robinson’s fictional embodiment—all the more real for being fiction—of these stated convictions.

Home depicts not only the anguish of an estranged prodigal but also that of the ones who try to provide sheltering, nourishing, humanizing care for him. For reasons that remain mysterious and grievous, the love of fathers and sisters may prove ultimately ineffectual when it comes to “dulling the pain” or “saving the soul” of one like Jack. And yet, if the measure of love’s success is the degree to which it approximates loyalty, then the absence of sought-after effects may be no barrier to love’s growth, love’s fullness. Indeed, as the novel’s conclusion hints, it may be, in some strange way, the most important reason for continuing the effort.

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