Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Another audiobook, and one I think I might have enjoyed more if I had read it, but didn’t enjoy enough while I was listening to it to prompt me to place it on my “to get” list. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. That’s what I’m doing now. I got the list of Pulitzer Prize winning books from Wikipedia and am buying them each time I’m up for another audiobook. The Road (2007) and March (2006) didn’t disappoint, but this one did.

Don’t get me wrong. It is extremely well crafted. It is a first person narrative of a fictional preacher named John Ames, taking the form of a journal he is keeping for the benefit of his young son in the days before he dies of heart failure, and Ames’ voice is one of the truest I’ve ever heard in fiction. John Ames is real in every conceivable way, and consistent with himself and his voice from start to finish. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, especially when you take into consideration that John Ames is an old, dying preacher in 1956 with a grandfather who served in the Civil War and did holy battle in Bleeding Kansas, and the book was published in 2004. But as true as Ames’ voice was, and as interesting as that was to listen to, ultimately I did not sympathize with Ames and was not interested in him and the mental gymnastics he used to keep his sanity and religious perspective.

I did a little hunting online prior to sitting down to write this, and in the New York Times Book Review on Gilead, it says:

The great danger of the clergyman in fiction is that his doctrinal belief will leak into the root system of the novel and turn argument into piety, drama into sermon. This is one of the reasons that, in the English tradition, from Henry Fielding to Barbara Pym, the local vicar is usually safely contained as hypocritical, absurd or possibly a bit dimwitted. Robinson's pastor is that most difficult narrator from a novelist's point of view, a truly good and virtuous man, and occasionally you may wish he possessed a bit more malice, avarice or lust -- or just an intriguing unreliability.

And for me, that sums up Ames in a nutshell. An astonishing work of dramatic fiction, but a frustrating protagonist.

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