Lucy and Todd

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Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 5, 2014 at 9:11 am

Marilynne Robinson is a magician. A snake charmer. She mesmerizes you. She conjures with the basic materials, the molecular building blocks of America: rivers, stars, smoke, taffy, soil and wet grass. Popcorn. Schoolrooms and birds and berries and lanterns. The main action of Lila takes place in the late 1940s, in and around the small Iowa town of Gilead, the locus of Robinson’s excellent last two novels, Gilead and Home. But much of the emotional power of this book comes from what happened to the principal characters during the previous decade.

Lila is very young when she is stolen from some people who are badly neglecting her (it’s never clear if they are her parents). She is spirited away by a determined woman with an injured face known as ‘Doll’. Homeless and virtually possessionless, they join a loose family of sharecroppers. The winds of the Dust Bowl begin to blow, and life becomes wickedly hard. What this means is that Doll and Lila lead a life that is almost completely out of doors, and in this is the compelling poetry of Lila, which is concerned with the astonishing facts of existence and consciousness. That these are its subjects is what makes it great, from the very beginning.

Robinson has the art of timelessness – it’s almost impossible to figure out in what decade or even century the story takes place. Because, almost impossibly, the story takes place in the actual, real world, we suffer it without the signposts of industrial artifacts. It’s fascinating. Finally a tiny clue arrives, in the title of a movie playing in town: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Lila is relieved when the men start shooting because she knows the picture will be over soon. She prefers tap dancing.

The feeling for the physical world is so strong in this novel. In fact it’s dedicated ‘To IOWA’. There’s a similarity to the mise en scene of Leon Rooke’s brilliant and frightening novel A Good Baby, in which it seemed he’d lashed his characters to rainy Carolina hillsides. In the stillness of Robinson’s American language you can hear Steinbeck, too, and in Lila’s cherishably awkward take on the world, the intricate steeliness of Flannery O’Connor.

Here is Lila’s memory of a storm she endured as a child: “There was that one time the wind came with thunder and rain and scared them half to death. The ground shook. There was lightning everywhere. Leaves and shingles and window curtains sailed over them, falling around them. Mellie lay on her back to watch, so Lila did, too, wiping filthy rain out of her eyes. There were things never meant to fly, books and shoes and chickens and washboards, caught up in the wind as if they were escaping at last, at last, from having to be whatever they were.” There is such genuine human transference of knowledge and experience in Lila, something very few writers ever achieve.

The story of a woman who fears that she is the one person in the world who can’t make sense of it, the narrative of Lila trails in and around itself, like the way we think about our own lives. The present is always part of the past, because we tell our story to ourselves. As a reader you feel very well looked after by Marilynne Robinson: you are knocked out by the weight of thought, the care, the worry she puts into her work. You find yourself wandering into vast new rooms, as if you’re in a fabulous museum that you’ve dreamt up for your own pleasure. There’s really no one else writing like this today.

Lila is never physically described: we usually only know if she’s clean or dirty, and whether she’s shod or not. But there’s an anarchic, pressing logic to her personality, somewhat like Bertha’s in Fannie Hurst’s Lummox, which makes her unforgettable. And Robinson always takes her side. Doll, too, is a real force, a minor but not a lesser god in this story of more official gods. She recurs in many ways. She kills. She is wise. “Don’t want what you don’t need and you’ll be fine,” she tells Lila. And she reaches an apotheosis. Her determination, all her life, is to look after Lila, to keep this child she stole almost physically attached to herself.

Later, Lila has spent a few years in a whorehouse in St Louis: never very good at this, she’s become more the janitor of the place. When one of the prostitutes becomes pregnant, Lila fantasizes about stealing that baby in turn and returning to the hazards of nature (“She’d be out in the weather again…”) which is the only life that makes sense to her. But she escapes the city alone and arrives at a derelict cottage on the outskirts of Gilead, where she soon meets an older man, the Reverend John Ames. It’s as if Lila has just arrived from some other planet. She knows how to read, thanks to Doll putting her in a school for a year, but she never has read anything. So both the Bible and the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalogue are revelations to her. Reverend Ames is seeing out his days as a pastor; when he meets Lila he realizes he knows nothing. They fall in love in the most dazzling, tortuous way.

Lila begins to read The Book of Job, to Ames one of the most difficult parts of the Bible. To her, having lived through the Depression with Doll, without a roof, it makes perfect sense: “She never expected to find so many things she already knew about written down in a book.” And she says to herself, “You’d think a man as careful as this Job might have had a storm cellar.” Yes, you are very definitely being sold something in Robinson’s novels: God. I don’t like God and I hate it when he has to be part of a work of art. But I don’t care, because Lila is just so damnably beautiful.


This review appeared in the Herald, 18 October 2014

The Age of Magic, by Ben Okri

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 5, 2014 at 9:02 am

In the beginning, there was no Ben Okri, and darkness moved upon the face of the waters. Then he came up with a group of men and women journeying in a train across Europe, as a metaphor for life. They’re making a documentary film about the idea of Arcadia, so they’re deep, you see. The star of the show is the self-obsessed Lao, a poet. He has a girlfriend called Mistletoe (yes), who draws things, and the others have variously offbeat names, which is all you will ever know about them. It’s all mystical, free-wheeling and hippy-dippy, but you have to wait until page 177 for them to take their shoes off, which seems wrong somehow. One, the director, has actually had an encounter with the Devil himself, and he reveals this to Lao during an erstwhile eerie nighttime bus trip to a Swiss hotel. The Devil was quite charming, but didn’t have a lot to say.

This merry band get stuck in a strange lakeside town, which is straight out of the Twilight Zone. It expands and contracts and exists in different periods of time all at once. There’s a ghost who is bothering them all, haunting the film, causing disquiet. The director finds himself writing the spook’s name in a notebook; everyone hears the spirit whisper to them and they glimpse him in dark corners. Lao and Mistletoe have a bonk and then fall out because of the spook, but then they patch things up and accidentally discover the meaning of life. But you won’t – everything is so overdescribed and yet vague and empty that you will either scratch your head till it bleeds or run far, far away.

Did you know that there are some very important ideas and things in the world? Terribly meaningful and essential. And you and I are very very bad and guilty for never having given them a moment’s thought. Here are some of the insights in The Age of Magic: Travel is an escape, but do we not carry with us the things we are trying to escape? We really hear long after we have heard. Reality is the greatest misunderstanding of them all. It’s easier to lose if you have to win. There’s much more to life than what we see. It’s not the dead we really mourn, but ourselves. Death must hold the key to life – or maybe life holds the secret of death – perhaps they need each other like light and darkness – but which is light and which is darkness? – life is darkness – so death is light. Truth seems upside down and inside out… Incidentally, these are not being ruined for you by being taken out of context, because there is no bloody context. There is only the Biblical smell of parables.

Lao, you will be overjoyed to hear, is reading Faust, as all poncy protagonists do, in order to make himself seem taller and to give the journey a veneer of meaning. Many opinions and judgments of Faust are rendered, as if it were a very elegant and convenient hat stand for Okri. There’s a problem with Lao, though: he’s supposed to be the brains of the outfit, but in this intellectual salad – soup is too heady a description – he doesn’t seem really able to think. Arcadia is, among other things, ‘An oasis. Poetry in the midst of prose. Music in the silence. Silence in the music.’ The book is loaded with such crude would-be Freudian dualistic non-thoughts. It’s an orgy of duality, or possibly two. If you miss a pithy thought, though, don’t worry – it will be along again in another five minutes.

Who knew that philosophy is just saying something and then immediately negating it, or stuffing its opposite up the backside of the first thing? Okri is going for a very still, very solemn tone, like a Zen koan that’s two hundred pages long. (You can try this at home: an aphorism is not a book, but a book can be an aphorism. Or not!) When it isn’t reading like the syllabus of a night-school course in philosophy, The Age of Magic sounds like My Little Pony for Aristotelians. The Magic Mountain meets The Wayward Bus.

All this just for a pretty slim and casual argument against luxury, a reminder that we’re not looking after the natural world, which we’re a part of, apparently. Or not. To turn another page of this really does starts to seem like a tussle with Mephistopheles. In the middle ages, the poor folk were scared of books. There was an idea that some volumes, if even glanced into, could cause you to go mad. Well, congratulations. One has finally arrived.

Okri may think that he has become Leo Tolstoy. The later Tolstoy, that is, of the beard and the aphorism and the cracked ideas about men and women. Eventually we are treated to Lao’s high art: ‘Living water burning with light/And living still it shines at night.’ Some poet! No wonder he’s working in television.

No novelist lacking a sense of humour should ever be allowed near subjects like life, death, love, intelligence, perception, beauty and especially Switzerland. Working to this degree in aphorism seems a shoddy camouflage of very common and even poor ideas. And surely the language of parable is as dead as the dodo.


A version of this review appeared in the Herald, 26 October 2014