Wednesday, April 11, 2007


Don't worry. It's not an update on my indifferent at best housekeeping skills. Although for the record: after a very brief period of cleanliness, everything's back to being a mess. At least I'm consistent.

But off that subject and to the actual reason for the heading, which is that I'm reading Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. The critics would have it that the book was so good that people waited eagerly for her next novel, which was 20+ years in coming. I actually read and loved that novel, Gilead, so I was excited to read this one, which my aunt gave me for Christmas.

I think I've mentioned before that I'm big on reading the quotes on the covers of books, despite the fact that they're more often than not completely useless. And generally they all say the same thing as well. But I'm interested in them partially because choosing quotes is a part of my job and partially because I seem to like annoying myself. Housekeeping, however, has one quote on the back that, surprisingly, is extremely perceptive.
Here's a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life...You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt. [emphasis mine]
--New York Times

I think one of the most noticeable attributes of Robinson's writing is her sympathy--and empathy--for people. There's just an incredible warmth and kindness in her writing. At the same time, her characters are realistic and deeply flawed. And it's not that she doesn't seem judge them for this. She does. It's that she appears to forgive them their flaws. So in a way, that is indeed saintlike.

What makes her books so wonderful to read though, is the other thing I bolded, her writing--the vocabulary and use of the language is just truly beautiful. And she has a quiet but vivid way with it, as in this scene. A train has gone off a bridge and into the freezing lake by the town and men are jumping of the bridge and then being pulled back up in an effort to salvage some bit of it.
After a while some of the younger boys came out on the bridge and began to jump off, at first cautiously and then almost exhuberantly, with whoops of fear. When the sun rose, clouds soaked up the light like a stain. It became colder. The sun rose higher, and the sky grew bright as tin. The surface of the lake was very still. As the boys' feet struck the water there was a slight sound of rupture. Fragments of transparent ice wobbled on the waves they made and, when the water was calm again, knitted themselves up like bits of a reflection. One of the boys swam out forty feet from the bridge and then down to the old lake, feeling his way down the wall, down the blind, breathless stone, headfirst, and then pushing out from the foot. But the thought of where he was suddenly terrified him, and he leaped toward the air, brushing something with his leg as he did. He reached down and put his hand on a perfectly smooth surface, parallel to the bottom, but, he thought, seven or eight feet above it. A window. The train had landed on his side. He could not reach it a second time. The water bore him up. He said only that the smooth surface, of all the things he touched, was not overgrown or hovered about by a cloud of something loose, like silt. This boy was an ingenious liar, a lonely boy with a boundless desire to ingratiate himself. His story was neither believed nor disbelieved.

It's brilliant. That's all it takes to know Robinson's a wonderful writer. Hell, a couple sentences of that are all it takes. There are people who can tell specifically and in great detail, what they consider the attributes of great writing. I couldn't do it properly if my life depended on it. Much like Justice Potter Stewart and obscenity, I feel like I know it when I see it. And a blind man could see it here.

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