This evening I finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s new novel Jack. A blurb on the back cover says that Robinson “is one of the great religious novelists. . . .” Another blurb talks about her “spiritual force.” President Obama listed this novel near the top of his list of favorite books of the year, and a few years ago he met personally with Robinson for a conversation about her work.
I deeply admire President Obama. His rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the service for religious people killed by a young racist echoes in me to this day. But I would never have read this book if I thought it was going to be a religious novel. Spiritual is no longer a word that is very interesting to me.
There is plenty of religion in the book—both of the main and practically only characters are children of pastors, and Jack, the white man who narrates the story, is obsessed with the theological questions his good father wrestled with. Della, the “colored” woman who sees his “soul” and becomes his soul and physical mate, is a spiritual woman in the best sense of the word.
Nonetheless, or rather because of this, this novel has moved me like nothing else I have read this year.
Because these feel like real people. Because Jack is on the edge and often over the edge of being able to function in society (he recently was released after two years in prison; he is alcohol dependent; he is an inveterate thief; he inevitably and purposefully causes harm). Because Jack knows all this and lives all this and still keeps on doing what he can, especially after Della comes into his life, I love this book.
This story is tense. Edgy. Powerfully unsettling. 309 pages about Jack’s thoughts and conversations kept me fearful for him, hopeful for him, unsure whether he would revert to destructive habits or find his way to new ways of living. My thoughts turned inevitably to my brother John, who lived on similar edges, to my children who each have their own battles, to myself.
Edgy thoughts and conversations?
Edgy thoughts and conversations about theology? No. Forget that. Rather, theology as metaphor, life-affirming metaphor, life-questioning metaphor, psychologically profound metaphor.
My friend Alex Caldiero is a mystic. I love mystical writing from Meister Eckhart to Thomas Merton. I love Alex’s work. I love these thinkers for the metaphorical power of their ideas.
I’m not discounting belief. I’m simply trying to explain why Marilynne Robinson’s book has unsettled and affirmed my human existence.
It’s a hell of a good book.