Does this story sound familiar? The year is 1956, and a minister in Gilead, Iowa is in failing health, and any day might be his last. Although he has led a simple, decent life, he is beset by worries about what will happen to his family after his passing, and is especially concerned about the fate of his son.
If you read Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel Gilead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, you will recognize this plot. But here is the surprise: Robinson relies on the same story for her new novel Home. No, this is not a sequel or a pre-quel: perhaps one could call it an ‘e-quel’ since Home is more or less equal to Gilead. It is the exact same story from her previous book, retold from a different perspective.
This is an unusual approach, although not completely without precedent. Lawrence Durrell attempted something similar in The Alexandria Quartet, while Raymond Queneau retold the same story over and over again—99 times, to be precise—in his Exercises in Style. Even so, Robinson will surprise most of her readers by returning to the very narrow focus of Gilead, and relying on the same settings, characters and incidents. Even some of the specific scenes and conversations are almost identical.
Yet Robinson succeeds in finding new themes and meanings in the same old events. The dying minister in Gilead was John Ames, while in Home it is Ames’s lifelong friend Robert Boughton. Boughton’s son Jack has returned after being away for twenty years. He wants to reconcile with his father, yet his life and values may be incompatible with the minister’s. His troubled and often irresponsible past is not likely to find forgiveness in the community, and perhaps not even in his home. In his present situation, he even feels he needs to hide from his family the personal circumstances that brought him back to Gilead.
Readers will inevitably be reminded of the parable of the prodigal son, but here Robinson shows the troubles and complications that are left out of the Bible story. Here is the tale of what happens after the prodigal son comes home. In short, we learn that killing the fatted calf does not resolve all of the frictions and uncertainties created when a family is split asunder.
The most fascinating moments of this novel come when Robinson takes situations from Gilead and gives them a new emotional valence and moral resonance. Jack Boughton’s long-standing adversary, Reverend Ames, was the hero of Gilead, and his Christian virtues almost glistened off the page in that book. Yet in Home, Ames comes across as a crotchety, unforgiving old man, and his unwillingness to take action is a major contributor to the miseries in the household of his long-time friend. One can’t help but be impressed by Robinson’s ability to construct such radically different perspectives from the simple facts of her twice-told tale.
Yet, in the final analysis, Home falls short of its illustrious predecessor. This book is not as tightly written as her previous work. The reader must endure at least two dozen conversations in Home during which Jack Boughton is evasive and says “Thank you” or “You are so kind” or “Yes, sir” or some other equivalent statement—dead end dialogues that gets tiresome after the tenth or twentieth repetition. The action of the book revolves around Jack, our prodigal son. Yet, sad to say, no work and all play has made Jack a dull boy—or at least a dull conversationalist.
The more interesting character here is Jack’s sister Glory, who constantly vacillates between her desire to get closer to her brother and her resentment against him for all his irresponsible behavior. Although the novel is written in the third person, Glory is the only character whose innermost thoughts are laid bare in Robinson’s narrative. But it is hard not to compare Glory’s often superficial and instinctive response to events with John Ames’s rich psychology as laid out in Gilead. The sister of the prodigal son, at least in this instance, does not make for a riveting character study.
What’s next for Robinson? Perhaps she will tackle the same events a third time from one more perspective. If so, I suspect that her next version will come from the angle of Ames’s deep but soft-spoken wife Lila, whose mysterious past and motivations have yet to be probed in these books. But will the city of Gilead prove to be for Robinson what the Glass family was for J.D. Salinger—a source of inspiration that becomes a cul-de-sac, blocking out all other perspectives and types of narrative? Or will Gilead, Iowa prove to be more like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, a setting where many different stories can flourish?
Then again, this novelist might just keep us guessing; after all, she left us waiting almost a quarter of a century between her first and second novels. Time will tell, but certainly Robinson has piqued my curiosity about where she goes from here.