On the fortieth anniversary of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: an unbeliever’s rereading of Christian conceptions of the afterlife.
Still from Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013)
I took one English class in college. The theme was contemporary fiction and, dutifully enough, we read DeLillo, Nabokov, Zadie Smith, Beckett, Coetzee, and—this last author was not like the others—Marilynne Robinson, whose novel Housekeeping appeared midsemester like a kind of anachronism. It was markedly domestic, reserved, inflected with lyricism, not self-serious but definitely sincere in its wonderment. At its first appearance, in 1980, spellbound reviewers praised its humble poetry, its interest in the ephemeral, the fidelity to small-town life.
Housekeeping, now nearing its fortieth anniversary, has returned to me throughout my writing career. Like those enraptured critics, in my first encounters I read for language, for voice, for craft. I loved this book. In graduate school, in a seminar on the literature of travel and trains, my professor recited the opening line to the class with a kind of disgusted glee: “My name is Ruth.” What kind of beginning was this? How had such an otherwise beautifully written book gotten away with it? The declaration—harsh, direct—is perhaps more shocking in the context of the rest of the novel, which proceeds with the gentle indifference of understatement. That opening chapter describes a mass drowning as no more upsetting than an exploratory dive: a train “nosed” into a lake, Ruth tells us, as calmly as a “weasel,” claiming all the passengers within as the water “sealed itself” over their souls. The scene is so soft, so seductive, it may as well have been narrated by a ghost. I remember we spent the remaining hour of that class discussing whether drowning truly was the most romantic way to die. I wonder now if perhaps parting from one’s body becomes more appallingly beautiful when alibied by the suggestion of an afterlife.
Housekeeping was unique among major anglophone novels of the eighties and nineties, a counterpoint to the anxiety and irony of hysterical realism. But it has also proved an outlier in Robinson’s own, formidable oeuvre; unlike her subsequent essay collections and novels, it has not been enshrined as an explicit exploration of her Calvinist faith. It is “about people who have not managed to connect with a place, a purpose, a routine or another person,” wrote the New York Times in 1981. But the detachment goes much deeper than a failure to connect. Certainly Housekeeping “is not about housekeeping at all,” but it is about the “light work” we do to stay alive, on earth, as we wait to join the world beyond. I see now that it is about waiting to die, and embracing death as a return. “Ascension,” Ruth says, “seemed at such times a natural law.” At the heart of the novel lies an unmistakable preoccupation with Christian conceptions of the afterlife.
I myself am uncomfortable about death. I don’t know where to put it. At age nine, I almost died in the kind of freak accident that Housekeeping’s lyricism so gorgeously blunts, an experience that has had a subtle but profound influence on my life ever since. Perhaps I ought to have flinched from a book that muffles the raw mechanics of a death, having once been within hearing range myself. But in fact it is easy to dissociate from that close call. My own accident doesn’t seem like something that happened to me. The memory, like that opening chapter, is muted, a scene overheard a long time ago. I spent weeks recovering in the ICU attached to the university where my parents taught and worked. The blinds were always drawn, and patients tended to slip in and out of consciousness—it was hard to tell if it was day or night, metaphor or real life. Like the characters in Housekeeping, we existed somewhere in between. Perhaps this is why I first loved the book, for the way it made a seduction out of dying. However, I didn’t register its explicit fascination with liminality—its orientation toward death—in my first reads. And now that I do, I question it.
The year after my accident, a fourth-grade classmate was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. This, to me, is the more violent memory. I sat next to him in math. I watched him lose his hair, his composure, his ability to perform simple calculations. He had tantrums over his homework sheets, slamming his fists on the desk. It was a tantrum against the enormity of all that his own body was taking from him—there was no metaphoric potential in this. Then, one day, he gave up. And there, in the giving up, the stories and imagery began. Before he died, he sat beneath a night sky with his mother and pointed into the stars. Will I go there? he asked. She answered the only way a Christian mother can: Yes.
I write novels for a partial living. It should be no terrible leap of the imagination to believe: a little boy finally at peace among the stars. I suspect Marilynne Robinson is able to lean into this scene. But I’m afraid I can’t.