A literary masterpiece is not only well-written and has complex characters, but engages with the reader by offering them a unique and rewarding experience through philosophy, history, faith and a national language. This is the reason why I acclaim Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. However, a literary critic must not restrict herself to the classics: if she is to comprehend the 21st century, she has to read contemporary novels published in this millennium. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is excellent; as is Cormac McCarthy’s hellish The Road. Others may suggest Wolf Hall by the recently departed Hilary Mantel.
Yet none of these three novels can claim the prestige of being the greatest novel since 2000. A novelist from Idaho can, however.
Marilynne Robinson’s award-winning novel Gilead is the finest work of American literature so far this century. As an epistolary novel, we follow Reverend John Ames, a dying Calvinist pastor in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. The letter depicts the tensions with Ames’ theology and social life – especially the concept of ‘Predestination’, a rival philosophy to ‘free will.’ However, Gilead is more than an exploration of theology; Robinson immerses us into Ames’ life and trials, especially his encounters with a young man named Jack.
Here, Robinson shines: our perception of Jack is uncertain, but when there are promises of humanity, it is tough not to feel emotionally swamped. Such is the splendour of Gilead. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph is composed with a lovely elegance. Marilynne Robinson, who has a PhD in English literature, is not alien to the peculiarities and potentials of her mother tongue.
A novel is truly great if the author depicts an experience hardly communicated between humanity. A mediocre or average novelist is well-versed in emotions. A good novelist knows what triggers these feelings. However, the superior storyteller can connect these passions to the readers own life. It is not sufficient for a novel to have universal themes. Gilead does: death, love and memory. Yet look deeper. Gilead’s themes are straight forward when distilled into bullet point form. The exploration of these topics, however, is rich with complexity and nuance. It’s clear the characters are the highlight of Gilead: not only are they relatable, but individuals such as Robert Boughton are interesting and difficult to simplify. This is made more potent with Robinson’s heartfelt language.
Here is one example:
“To be useful was the best thing the old men ever hoped for themselves, and to be aimless was their worst fear.”
Gilead also presents a notion of timelessness. This is not through the setting, characters or plot points. Rather, Robinson’s knack for reflection and investigation into theological concerns render Gilead a novel not limited by the boundaries of history. As seen from the quote above, Gilead’s concerns are not restricted to a certain time, nation or civilisation, although Robinson certainly speaks to post-WWII America. I’m also reminded of the despair in Jeremiah 8:22 (Old Testament), where the prophet mourns:
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?
The spiritual alienation and sickness depicted in Jeremiah is tricky to depict in literature. The author risks preachiness, melodrama, cliché and simplistic explanations. This is not a concern for Marilynne Robinson. There’s something bewitching and masterful about her prose. Much to the strength of Robinson, there’s no overarching goal of simplifying a problem and proposing a situation. She’s more of a detective than a teacher. This allows for a greater connection between her and the reader as they approach the rocky terrain of Gilead.
This novel will enjoy relevance for decades, even centuries, on end.
To conclude, I want to briefly mention Robinson’s exploration of predestination. Marilynne Robinson, in numerous interviews, has praised John Calvin. Part of her reason for writing Gilead deals with wanting to overcome stereotypes and misconceptions about Calvinism.
As I grew up in a Catholic family, and still consider myself one, I have had few interactions with Calvinism. It’s difficult to understand predestination if you have little access to those who believe it! Yet Robinson’s exploration of predestination is deeply humane and touching; even though I differ theologically, I certainly appreciate Gilead’s portrayal. There is no denying the force of Gilead.