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Extraordinary times: revisiting the familiar through the novels of Marilynne Robinson

Last week, after more than a year of living in pandemic lock-down, my husband, my son, and I drove from our home outside Boston to the outer tip of Cape Cod, where we parked in a near empty lot and walked down a steep hill through the dunes to the ocean. “It’s still here,” I said aloud, trying to breathe in the sweeping expanse of the curved shore, the June light illuminating the water, the sound of waves and the sweep of terns. Like the trip we took as a young family to watch the sunset at Race Point Beach just days after 9/11, this encounter with the sublime felt like a blessing, a visceral recollection of the way that beauty opens us up to something larger than ourselves.

When I read Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, in graduate school, its lyrical beauty transfixed me in a similar way. Over the years, I have taught that book to undergraduates (some mesmerized, some confused), recited favorite lines aloud, and written out passages in notes to friends.  At my wedding, perched above the rocky shore of Maine, my sister read from the novel:

Having a sister or a friend is like sitting at night in a lighted house. Those outside can watch you if they want, but you need not see them. You simply say, “Here are the perimeters of our attention. If you prowl around under the windows till the crickets go silent, we will pull the shades. If you wish us to suffer your envious curiosity, you must permit us not to notice it.” Anyone with one solid human bond is that smug, and it is the smugness as much as the comfort and safety that lonely people covet and admire. (154)

Robinson scholars and fans share my passion for the grace of her writing and the way that she transforms the ordinary world into something extraordinary. The power of her prose and the framework of religious faith distinguish her fiction from much contemporary writing, offering the solace of beauty and the possibility of belief.

Often, that beauty emerges out of the awareness of loss. In Gilead, Robinson’s second novel, Ames’s journal offers a series of achingly beautiful images of a world detailed by a narrator whose awareness of his impending death intensifies his every perception. Seeing his wife and child play outside, he observes,

I saw a bubble float past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst. So I looked down at the yard and there you were, you and your mother, blowing bubbles at the cat, such a barrage of them that the poor beast was beside herself…. Some of the bubbles drifted up through the branches, even above the trees. You two were too intent on the cat to see the celestial consequences of your worldly endeavors. They were very lovely. Your mother is wearing her blue dress and you are wearing your red shirt and you were kneeling on the ground together with Soapy between and the effulgence of bubbles rising, and so much laughter. Ah, this life, this world. (9)

The intensity of Ames’s vision emerges as compensation for his inability to participate in this quotidian moment; Robinson’s protagonist observes a scene made all the lovelier by virtue of his anticipation of its loss.

Even for those of us who have not gotten sick or lost a loved one to COVID-19, this period of crisis has generated an awareness of vulnerability that pushes us to appreciate all that we have taken for granted. Seeing the ocean, hugging a family member, even lingering over fresh produce in the supermarket, assumes an intensity usually reserved for doing something for the first time. The prospect of loss encourages us, like Robinson’s narrator, to re-experience the familiar, perceiving it anew.

Her novels, however, also explore the way that the threat of mortality and the reverberations of trauma disrupt the comforts of the everyday. Scarred by illness, addiction, and grief, Robinson’s characters inhabit a world of transcendent beauty suffused with the terrifying threat of loss. As consciousness haunts her protagonists, returning them again and again to the inevitability of loss, the everyday world that might cushion them only throws into relief their panic. In contrast to the luminous images of textured presence that we often associate with her portrayal of the ordinary, Robinson’s characters also huddle, hunched and anxious, in an uncomfortable everyday. Stiffly perched on the edge of uncushioned furniture or propped awkwardly in the midst of someone else’s conversation, they inhabit the margins of a lived experience they are often forced to observe self-consciously and vigilantly. The novels stage, again and again, scenes in which their protagonists look down at the unfolding activity of daily life from a window or a podium, summon its textures only through memory and imagination, retreat from its touch into dim and isolated spaces that strain to echo the lived rhythms of home.

As it defamiliarizes the familiar world, the inexplicability of loss pushes us into a state of hyperawareness that transforms the way we inhabit the everyday. For many of us lucky enough not to be on the front lines of the pandemic, this endless period of lockdown has unfolded with a sameness edged in horror. Locked into circumscribed spaces, we have been isolated but not necessarily protected; as days blend into one another and weeks pass, we labor to make ourselves at home in our most familiar spaces. The abstractions of daily death tolls, combined with the invisible, omnipresent threat of the virus, have forced us into new routines that might return us to the realm of safety. New habits—wiping groceries, quarantining packages, washing hands—seemed designed not only to keep the virus at bay physically but psychically, to restore the illusion of security and the grounding of the familiar destroyed by the horrors of the pandemic.

In Housekeeping, Ruth’s grandmother responds to the sudden death of her husband by desperately reenacting the domestic routines that represent the ordinary rhythms of the taken-for-granted, everyday world:

And she whited shoes and braided hair and turned back bedclothes as if re-enacting the commonplace would make it merely commonplace again, or as if she could find the chink, the flaw, in her serenely orderly and ordinary life, or discover at least some intimation that her three girls would disappear as absolutely as their father had done. So when she seemed distracted or absent-minded, it was in fact, I think, that she was aware of too many things, having no principle for selecting the more from the less important, and that her awareness could never be diminished, since it was among the things she had thought of as familiar that this disaster had taken shape. (25)

The unassimilable disaster of the pandemic has settled uneasily into our familiar lives, piercing the protective cushion of routine and rendering the ordinary uncomfortable. As we take off our masks and begin to venture out into a larger world, we wait to see what it means to live with a newfound awareness of our own vulnerability. Although a return to the everyday as we once knew it seems impossible, the aching beauty of lived experience, thrown into relief by all that we can no longer take for granted, calls us back into the world.

Feature image by Caleb George on Unsplash

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