Jack by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages.
“Jack is thinking all the time—thinking too much—but I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator,” Marilynne Robinson told The Paris Review in 2008. “He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.” Though Jack’s story is in many ways the emotional core of Robinson’s Gilead novels—a cycle of books she’s published over the last sixteen years set in the town of Gilead, Iowa—his character remains elusive, a mystery ever since his unprompted and inexplicable misbehavior in childhood and adolescence. In adulthood, he has been a drunk, a thief, and worse. He has cut ties with his family and fatally abandoned a young woman with his child. Everyone around him wonders: Why does Jack act the way he does? What motivates him to be so bad, when he also seems so gentle? Or, as his sister Glory asks him in a rage, after he disappears and ruins a childhood game: “What right do you have to be so strange?”
What right, indeed? Even Robinson seems to wonder this, or so her answer to The Paris Review implies. Jack is perhaps incomprehensible even to his author, or at least it was useful to Robinson in writing the first few Gilead books to keep Jack as a kind of shadow character. “I would lose [him] if I tried to get too close to him” is an almost unbearably tender turn of phrase, echoing a fear Jack’s family has had since he was a boy. And yet Robinson has decided to get close anyway, producing a fourth volume in the series, simply called Jack. For longtime readers—for me—the title alone produced a kind of sudden thrill: finally, at long last, we might really know him.
Jack looks straight into problems and questions that Robinson has written about from other angles, both in her fiction and essays. Her previous novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008) both begin with Jack’s elderly father, the retired Reverend Boughton, receiving a letter from his wayward son; after all these years, Jack is coming home. Both cover the period of several months that Jack spends with his father and sister in the comfortable, oppressive atmosphere of small-town Iowa. In Jack, Robinson once again animates the struggles of living in this domestic world, the push-and-pull between the comforts of home and its confinements. She also returns to the long history of racism in America; examines the conundrum and motivations of the perpetual, compulsive sinner; and, crucially, comes once again to the problem of predestination: the possibility that a person like Jack is consigned to perdition and might have been since his difficult birth. What could be the point of it all, Jack wonders, his father wonders, we wonder, if he is already doomed?
The new novel begins with Jack arguing with a woman named Della on the street in St. Louis. He is trying to apologize to her for skipping out on the check at dinner, to tell her that it was because he had seen debt collectors who were coming to shake him for cash. She had believed he was embarrassed for a group of white men to see them together. She is Black; he is white. She is respectable, a teacher at a local high school from a prominent religious family; he is also a preacher’s son but was recently released from prison. They reach a sort of tentative peace at the end of their argument, and he tells her, “I won’t bother you anymore. You won’t be seeing me again.” This is not the last time he makes such a promise to Della, or to himself.
There is no hope that things might turn out in a meaningfully different way than they do. Jack and Della will not have a different ending.
It is almost a year until they meet again, by coincidence or destiny, in a cemetery. Jack has been aspiring to “harmlessness,” a low bar for human behavior, but one that he consistently fails to meet. “He was struggling in a web of interrelation, setting off consequences in every direction that he could not predict or control or even imagine with any hope of approaching the truth of a matter,” Robinson writes. So harmlessness for him mostly means staying apart from society, from family ties and friendships, from any possibility that he might hurt someone. He tells Della about this during a long night they spend together locked in the cemetery, during which they have theological arguments and discuss the imagined end of the world. She asks him to come to her house for Thanksgiving. They are already falling in love. This is Missouri during Jim Crow, and Jack’s attempts to avoid the tangled knots of interrelation, to be harmless, begin to falter here.
Robinson readers will already know how this story ends. In fact, she has written two versions of it. Jack, like Lila (2014) before it, is a prehistory of the first two Gilead novels. We already know that Jack and Della will enter into a marriage of sorts, though not a legal one, and that they will have a son. They will be forced to flee St. Louis when they are threatened with miscegenation charges. She’ll return to her family in Memphis and he to his in Gilead. He will wait for her letters, which for weeks do not come. Jack will not stay at home. The Gilead novels are strangely, compellingly static; an ending was written in the first, and the other books move inexorably toward it. There are differences in each narrator’s version of events—the kind of slight but significant mutations that occur, for instance, when family stories are retold. But there is no hope that things might turn out in a meaningfully different way than they do. Jack and Della will not have a different ending. Yet in Jack, Robinson manages to sustain the reader’s interest in something more profound than the ordered events of her characters’ lives.
Some of Robinson’s critics—most recently Dwight Garner of the New York Times—have found this closed fictional world a little dreary. Garner allows for the “grace and power” of Gilead, but writes that “on the other hand, to open her other novels, including [Jack], is largely to enter a remote, airless, life-denying, vaguely pretentious and mostly humorless universe, where it is always Sunday morning and never Saturday night, where the same bespoke arguments about religious feeling are rehashed, where a lonely reader enters, sniffs the penitential air and asks: Who died?” I could answer this criticism by quoting any number of passages from Robinson’s five novels, but the one that comes to mind is from the cemetery scene in Jack:
Then she said nothing, and he said nothing, and the crickets chanted, or were they tree toads. It had seemed to him sometimes that, however deep it was, the darkness in a leafy place took on a cast, a tincture of green. The air smelled green, of course, so the shading he thought he saw in the darkness might have been suggested by that wistfulness the breeze brought with it, earth so briefly not earth.
This might be a world of Sunday mornings, but it is neither airless nor life-denying. Robinson’s fiction has, more than perhaps any other writing, made me consider the ordinary pleasures of simply being alive.
If it is true that the prose in Jack has a more stifled quality than her other novels, it’s because we are inhabiting the mind of someone for whom there has never been very much joy in living in the world. You could read Jack’s despondency through the lens of Protestant penitence, and you would be right. But you could also look at it, as I did, through the lenses of addiction, poverty, and self-destruction. It is not pleasant to be within such a narrator’s mind, necessarily, nor should it be.
Jack knows this: he has been the subject of many sermons over the course of his life. He is as “fruitful a sermon text as the Lost Sheep, the Prodigal Son, the Unfaithful Steward.” Robinson attempts not to mine the events of his life for lessons like a parable, but rather to explore the interior realities of being Jack. It is not clear that she ultimately finds him comprehensible, or at least, she doesn’t make him fully comprehensible to us. His motivations—for doing wrong, for doing anything—remain somewhat shrouded, even after so many pages. Perhaps they are unknowable, and causality somewhat beside the point.
Rather than illuminate Jack’s strangeness, Robinson writes into his despair. Jack wonders, “What if the particulars of his life were only flotsam, so to speak, drowned necktie, drowned wing tips, and he was sunk in that dark flood of unstoppable harm, somehow adding to its appalling weight, lost in it, even while its great shoulder pressed into the age-brittled side of that old sanctuary, that tabernacle raised to the glory of God Almighty, for heaven’s sake?” Even this dark portrait of a man drowning in the concept of his own predilection toward unstoppable harm is not life-denying, but rather brimming with its dark possibilities: the image of a necktie, Jack’s floating on an imagined tide toward a hopeless future. Robinson does not treat the particulars of Jack’s life like flotsam, but rather turns our attention toward them, like the geranium he puts on the windowsill of a seedy rented room, imagining that Della will come to him. We may know the ending of this story, and Jack may fear that it has already been written, but that makes it no less wonderful, and miraculous, that after all, his love for Della is there.
“No theoretical language that I know serves me in describing or interpreting this era of American unhappiness, the drift away from the purpose and optimism that generally led the development of the society from its beginnings,” Robinson recently wrote, describing a different kind of despair than Jack’s personal one—a national malaise. She was writing for The New York Review of Books in the capacity of political commentator that she has adopted in the last decade or so. The essay appeared under the title “What Kind of Country Do We Want?,” and I find little to disagree with in its diagnosis of the decline of all our institutions and our lives at the hands of a “particular economics [that] has become the Theory of Everything.” I find little to condemn in many of Robinson’s political essays, which are often basically sound, particularly if you are used to reading about the “state of the nation” on op-ed pages. Among the pundits, it can be refreshing to encounter her voice, which is clear-eyed about things that mainstream political commentary prefers to obfuscate.
And yet, unlike in her fiction, some of Robinson’s most basic premises as an essayist leave me cold: though she reckons which what she calls the “broad streaks of pain” in American history, she remains committed to a form of American exceptionalism. She is unable to get over Obama, a fan of hers and perhaps a friend—something Sarah Leonard wrote about in an excellent essay for Dissent. She might also be accused of attachment to a certain politics of civility; at the very least, Robinson places optimism, what or you might call a kind of faith, in American history.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, her best essays, including many of those in her 2015 collection The Givenness of Things, are not about politics, but religion or belief. Like Jack, I am mostly a nonbeliever, raised against a backdrop of lapsed Catholicism. But Robinson, a Calvinist, articulates a compelling vision of Christianity that reconciles total faith with uncertainty. She is harsh, in fact, on certainty in general, decrying disciplines like neuroscience that she thinks overstate what they seek to explain, while remaining delighted by the relative mysteries of quantum physics and cosmology.
Still, even at their best, Robinson’s essays pale in comparison to her fiction, where she can animate the uncertainty she discusses only theoretically in nonfiction. In the novels, she stages not just uncertainty but great conflict, around political concerns as well as religious ones. Even Gilead, which takes the form of a letter from Reverend John Ames to his young son and has a sometimes didactic, Protestant preacherly tone, crackles with ambivalence and turmoil. Ames wrestles with the actions of his grandfather, a disciple of John Brown’s who may have murdered for the abolitionist cause. “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt,” Ames’s father, a pacifist, says to the militant grandfather in an argument that opens a chasm between them. “And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, this has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing.” But Ames, years on, has much less certainty about who was correct: his father who hated violence, or his grandfather who lost an eye in the fight against slavery.
There is no certainty, in the world Robinson conjures, about whether living in a sturdy house among loved ones in a small town is inherently good.
He struggles similarly with his feelings about Jack, the son of his closest friend, whom he cannot forgive for the past. Toward the end of the book, Jack tells Ames about his marriage to Della, and this revelation is transformative for him—the sudden knowledge that Jack, too, is involved in a version of the same fight as his grandfather was. In this way, Gilead presents two models of resistance: the violent struggle and the quotidian one in which Jack has been living with his wife, against society and against the law.
Leonard argues in Dissent that Robinson ultimately comes down against radicals, writing, “Over and over again, [she] nudges our sympathy toward those whose ties to the community bind them fast, who care for their families, and look inside for peace.” She reads Ames as Gilead’s hero. I disagree: Ames is a good man but also a weak and limited one, aware of some of these limitations but not of others. He has done very little, if anything, to combat racism in Gilead. He does not promise to help Jack and Della when Jack asks. And in Home, even Jack’s model of resistance comes to look more like a failure and less like resistance at all, as he does not to stand up to his father about the burgeoning civil rights protests in Montgomery. Jack is not tragic because he is radical but because he is ordinary.
There is no certainty, in the world Robinson conjures, about whether living in a sturdy house among loved ones in a small town is inherently good. Neither is there certainty about the correct course of political action, or how Jack ought to behave—if it is even right for him to drag Della into a dangerous relationship, whether he ought to be in Montgomery instead of at home with his father. Rather than emerging from the Gilead novels with clear answers, we ponder along with Robinson when violence might be necessary; how should we live in the face of injustice; whether it is enough to do one’s best in one’s community; whether it is enough to simply live in defiance of unjust laws. There remains in Jack that live wire of ambivalence that animates Robinson’s fiction at its best.
How, then, to reconcile these fundamental uncertainties about how we ought to live with the belief that our destinies are prewritten? How to reconcile Jack’s possible damnation with the optimism and hope that Robinson allows us to have for him, even by the very act of writing a novel centered on his perspective? It is worth noting that her own views on predestination are more complicated than the idea that everything is preordained from birth. To put it simply, Robinson believes that predestination exists in a realm beyond human understanding, that there might be modes of it compatible with will. But there still remains that possibility, cruelly embedded in Reverend Boughton’s theology, of hell: “Also probably figurative, his father had assured [Jack], tears in his eyes as there often were when he had to curtail another part of the great explanatory system his theology once was, to spare himself the implications it might have for his son.”
Why read a novel centrally concerned with predestination in a society that has mostly abandoned the idea, you might ask. But there are many kinds of being doomed, and many of them remain pertinent, both to us and to Jack. There is being doomed to poverty. There is being doomed by the criminal code of the state of Missouri. There is being doomed, as Jack puts it, to a hell of your own making, in which there are “no flames all, just an eternity of disheartened self-awareness.” And there is being doomed by the very fear of being doomed. “There were many times in his youth when his imaginations of destruction were so powerful that the deed itself seemed as bad as done,” Robinson writes. “So he did it.” This is as close as we get to understanding Jack’s motivations.
It is Ames’s wife Lila—once a drifter like Jack, now a former prostitute uneasy in her role as a minister’s wife—who offers a way out from this trap, arguing in Gilead that “a person can change. Everything can change.” This is not a complete solution from a theological perspective: change is not the same as salvation or free will, though it is compatible with God’s grace. In the context of Jack and Della, one hopes more for a changed world, one that might allow them to love each other in peace. In Jack, it is 1956, and we know that in several years everything will change. Not all at once, but slowly, America will become more hospitable to stories like theirs. This being a Robinson novel, there is also the possibility of a life beyond this one. Jack thinks that he and Della “mix irradiance” like Milton’s angels when they are in the same room—a kind of sexuality that transcends the physical, an intimacy that exists another a plane, a love that is consummate at once in this world and another.
Perhaps the happiest vision of an ending to Della and Jack’s story comes not in Jack but in Home. Della arrives in Gilead just days after Jack has departed, and she has her son with her. Their son, whom Jack did not tell his sister Glory about; his name is Robert, after Glory and Jack’s dying father. Glory imagines a future in which Robert might return to this home in Gilead, where she will live after her father dies. “He will talk to me a little while, too shy to tell me why he has come, and then he will thank me and leave, walking backward a few steps, thinking, Yes, the barn is still there, yes, the lilacs, even the pot of petunias. This was my father’s house,” she imagines. This return is conditional, and, we know, unlikely. Still, there is a flicker of possibility, an imagined space beyond the present reality where it could come to pass.