Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, Lila, like her last two, is set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, sometime in the mid-20th century. And, like her last two novels, it is a debilitatingly beautiful study of faith and existential resilience. But unlike the last two novels, Lila’s title character is an idiot. (I’ll explain.) She also happens to be one of the most stunning creations in recent American fiction.
Robinson, who is no stranger to faith, has pointed out more than once that Dostoevsky and Faulkner both used “idiots” — men who are innocent or simple or mute — to represent Christ. Writing for the New York Times three years ago, Robinson added:
Like Dostoyevsky, Faulkner represents Christ in the person of an “idiot.” Yet while the epileptic Prince Myshkin is unworldly and rather childlike, he’s not truly idiotic except in the eyes of those offended by him. Faulkner takes the idea a step further by limiting his 33-year-old Benjy to the perception and understanding of a child of 3.
I’m not sure whether Lila is a stand-in for Christ, but it is clear to me that Robinson has written a character, a new kind of idiot, who is as impressive as Prince Myshkin from The Idiot or Benjy from The Sound and the Fury. And it’s safe to say that Lila, who is more of a complete consciousness than a character, will be discussed, emulated, and admired for some time.
The novel’s striking opening pages show Lila as a homeless, roving, and nearly feral child who, like Faulkner’s Benjy, lacks basic language:
There was a long time when Lila didn’t know that words had letters, or that there were other names for seasons than planting and haying. Walk south ahead of the weather, walk north in time for the crops. They lived in the United States of America.
As the novel progresses, we realize that Lila is now married to Reverend John Ames, the sweet, intelligent, and elderly preacher from Gilead. Much of the book shows, in intense flashes, Lila’s rough transition from vagabondage to marriage and pregnancy. Along the way, she aggressively questions everything, from religion to her newfound domestic role, as she slowly develops a language to describe her new life.
In this way, the novel becomes an existential journey into a future always haunted by the past. As Lila learns (and questions) new ways of being in the world, she is constantly revisiting the fears, insecurities, and freedoms of her former life on the road. She aches for her old friends, other vagabonds and roughnecks hardened by itinerant life. Later, after Lila is baptised, she goes to the river to “wash off” the Christianity. Even though she is in love with the Reverend, she longs for the freedom of homelessness and wonders whether to run away with her child:
If she was going to leave town, she should do it before travel got too hard. She would probably have to decide between a bus ticket and a winter coat. And her shoes were about gone. No point thinking about it. She would decide it one way or another for one reason or another, save up what she could while she could, and whatever she did, she’d get by, most likely.
So Lila isn’t simple. And she’s far from innocent. She carries a knife in her dress, and she often openly mocks the Reverend’s faith. Her past is with her at every moment in the form of a kind of basic fear, a condition that keeps her thoughts fast and her reactions faster.
It’s Lila’s fast and persistent thoughts, driven by her fear of the past, that make her seem real. This appears to be what Robinson is after: a fully formed consciousness, like Faulkner’s Benjy. In her 2012 introduction to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Robinson writes about Faulkner’s idiot, but she may as well be describing Lila:
There is an inevitable sleight of hand involved in representing in language a consciousness that is composed of something more basic—of sensation, of emotions and associations that trigger the recovery of a past that is not understood as past.
And the unfolding of Lila’s past, as well as her mind, through language, is unlike anything we’ve seen in American fiction for some time.