I should have trusted my instincts. When I first read the excerpt from Gilead in The New Yorker, I was bored out of my skull. Still, Marilynne Robinson was one of my favorites contemporary authors—I’ve probably bought more copies of Housekeeping for friends than any other book.
And then there were all of the rave reviews for Gilead. And then, of course, the Pulitzer. It’s pretty damn hard to argue with a Pulitzer, right?
So I bought the book. I was as bored after a few pages as I’d been when reading the excerpt in The New Yorker. I kept trudging on, however—how could this novel not deliver something astonishing?—and even up to the last few pages, I kept expecting something great, a final twist or turn of phrase or bit of wisdom that would make the whole drudgerous reading exercise redeeming. But no.
This is the sort of novel that makes one question literary prizes. Did Robinson essentially get this Pulitzer for Housekeeping (which is fine if that’s the case)? It reminds me of when Paul Newman received an Oscar for his performance in The Color of Money, a crappy film, especially when compared to his work in its predecessor, The Hustler, not to mention his other great films. The lesson: Never trust a book that’s received an award (especially if a great book preceded it).
I also question the reviewers and Robinson’s editors. James Wood said in his New York Times review, “Gilead is a beautiful work — demanding, grave and lucid — and is, if anything, more out of time than Robinson’s book of essays, suffused as it is with a Protestant bareness.”
“Protestant bareness” is a nice way of saying the prose was flat, only faintly expressive at best. I didn’t glean any grave or demanding religious truths from the work. Worse, especially in literary terms, the novel’s characters were without dimension for the most part, in particular the narrator’s son, who the novel is supposedly written for (as one long, meandering letter). He’s a nice boy who likes to play—that’s about all of the characterization there is. I know plenty of five-year-old boys who beg for sharper, more nuanced portraits than Robinson gives this stereotypical little tyke.
The narrator’s wife is equally lacking in dimension—a shame since as a younger, less educated wife, she begs for so much more drama. And this is what the book is fundamentally lacking, drama.
I’m all for a quiet, meditative narrative, a religious novel, but despite some tender, evocative moments, Robinson doesn’t truly deliver this note. It reads as what it is in fiction: an old man’s letter, meant to be read by no one other than his son.