Marilynne Robinson’s new novel, the fourth of her Gilead books, must be one of the most anticipated works of the year. In her previous novels, Robinson has established herself as an unusually calm and understated writer. Her plots are simple and the voices of her characters both indelible and compelling, suffused with an emotional and affective poignancy that can leave the reader’s heart both shattered and somehow expanded.
Jack takes as its focus John Ames (“Jack”) Boughton, familiar to readers of Gilead and Home as the errant, prodigal son of Robert Boughton. In the Gilead novels, we learn about Jack first as a figure of distrust for John Ames, the dying protagonist of Gilead, and later as the tormented brother of Glory Boughton in Home.
In these novels Jack’s troubled personality and secretive history are unearthed, so that as a character he functions to show the far reaches of empathy in human connection. In the previous books we learn of his relationship with Della Miles, an African-American high-school teacher, which is revealed through conversation, and through the interior worlds of his family and friends, so parts of the narrative of Jack will already be familiar to Robinson’s many readers.
What is new about Jack is that here Robinson has excavated the story head-on. Whereas in the earlier novels the deeply affecting stories are felt most painfully through Jack’s attempts at reconciliation and his difficult but entrancing waywardness, here Robinson has moved outside the familiar frame of contemporaneity. All the previous Gilead novels are set in the same town at roughly the same time, but in Jack we begin in the before-world of those novels, so that this is perhaps more prequel than sequel.
Compared with her masterful achievements in Gilead, Home and her first novel, Housekeeping, Jack is more uneven. Robinson often reflects in interviews that her novels are “voice-governed”, coming to her first as the voice of a character, who speaks until the rhythm of that voice urges itself into the form of a new work. Readers of Robinson’s previous works will notice immediately a shift in her style. Jack, perhaps reflecting Robinson’s own inhabitation of that character, opens with a 70-odd-page dialogue, set in a graveyard, between the protagonist and Della.
Though set in St Louis rather than Gilead, Robinson is still in somewhat familiar territory (the discussion ranges through questions of predestination, rapture and the workings of grace), and the atmospheric setting is beautifully achieved. However, at times the emotional importance of the theology to the characters doesn’t quite translate, mainly because at this point we know quite little about them or about their relationship. Whereas the previous Gilead novels can be read distinctly, Jack on the other hand requires some knowledge of the world and characters if a reader is to persevere through the long (even clunky) opening scene.
Finding its feet
After a slow start, however, the novel thankfully finds its feet, though even through to the later pages it has a tendency to drag in places. What emerges, however, is a classically tender exploration of grace, love and the pains of relationships, heightened by racism and racist laws, and also by Jack’s ne’er-do-well character. The story, though somewhat timely, is also relatively old-fashioned – Jack is redeemed by Della, but it is never entirely clear why Della herself is so deeply committed to Jack.
Della, who has some of the best lines throughout, quips that “I have never heard of a white man who got so little good out of being a white man”. Indeed, Jack is a low-level criminal, who drinks excessively. He sees himself as a liability. “Keeping his distance was a favor, a courtesy, to all those strangers who might, probably would, emerge somehow poorer from proximity to him.”
Robinson’s theme, here, is transformation, redemption and the power of grace. As in her previous works, there are scenes of heart-rending regret, forgiveness and growth. The novel, however, falls prey to its often-unvarying style, and to Robinson’s dialogue, which rarely meets the lyrical power of her prose.
In its better moments, Jack is undoubtedly a beautiful book; nevertheless, it requires a fair deal of perseverance.