And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions;
In the fall of 2014, Marilynne Robinson published Lila, the third novel in her Gilead trilogy.  Like Gilead and Home before it, Lila articulates the perspective of one of the characters who either grew up in, or wandered into, the small town of Gilead, Iowa in the late 1950s. Neither a prequel nor a sequel, Lila is perhaps best understood as the next layer in a thick description—to borrow Clifford Geertz’s provocative concept—of a particular historical moment, an additional overlay of memory and perspective that complicates and sometimes contradicts our previous understanding of time, place, and incident. Stylistically, Lila seems to have more in common with Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, than with either Gilead or Home, and Lila’s description of the relationship between Lila and the Reverend John Ames is so different from how the two are described in Gilead that Lila and John often seem like entirely different characters. Indeed, in some respects Lila feels more like the kind of book Toni Morrison might have written than like the other novels in the Gilead trilogy—more akin to the rough-hewn narrative intensity of Beloved than the glossy prose and tidy worldview expressed in Gilead.
Not surprisingly, readers of Gilead, Home, and Lila have been eager to point out various contradictions between and within the three novels (usually attributing those contradictions to differences in perspective), and we will review what they have to say on that subject in a moment. But in spite of the novels’ manifest differences, in this essay I hope to show that the three books are linked together not merely—or even primarily—by the fact that Robinson is their common author, but, more importantly, by a shared cluster of textual properties that Michel Foucault first identified as the “author function.” The author function that connects Gilead, Home, and Lila is what I shall call—for lack of a better term—“vision.” Vision is simultaneously a Christian perspective and a textual strategy, and it runs through all three Gilead novels and in fact through Robinson’s novels and essays generally. Vision both creates a unifying sense of presence (in the Derridean meaning of that word) in Robinson’s corpus and stands as a potential rebuke to important aspects of contemporary literary theory, including Fredric Jameson’s assertion that pastiche is the determinate mode of aesthetic production in postmodern capitalism. As I hope to demonstrate in the pages that follow, the sense of vision that runs through the gospels of Gilead can thus be understood to do two things simultaneously: vision binds into a single unified perspective what Roland Barthes would call the “plural text” of Robinson’s writings. And in creating that single unified perspective, vision stands in potential opposition to one of the most influential critical theories of our time.
Although Gilead, Home and Lila all work the same terrain, they are better understood as a collage than as a series—as alternative gospels that tell and retell the same story. Each novel emerges out of what James Kidd calls the “gaps and silences” in the others, and critics have been quick to celebrate what Cathleen Schine calls Robinson’s chivalrous curiosity, her willingness to understand the different characters as they attempt to understand themselves. To critics like Sam Sacks, “The prismatic effect of the [resulting] trilogy makes Gilead a kind of mythic everyplace, a quintessential national setting where our country’s complicated union with faith, in all its degrees of constancy and skepticism, is enacted.”
All of that is true. It is equally true that like the biblical gospels themselves, the gospels of Gilead resist synthesis in ways that highlight the limitations of perspective, both individually and in aggregate. Indeed, in important respects, each of the novels can be productively understood in terms of unreliable narration.
As an epistolary novel, for example, Gilead has palpable designs on its narratee. And while I am not entirely persuaded by Sarah Churchwell’s intriguing suggestion that Ames’s last sentence—“I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep”—links him to King Lear in ways that foreground lacunae in the letters (“Marilynne Robinson’s Lila”), much of the beauty of Gilead comes by way of the care with which tone, voice, and subject matter are managed in accordance with Ames’s desire to create for his son a quite specific—and in important respects, quite limited—sense of history. Gilead is beautiful not in spite of Ames’s careful emplotment of the past, but in large part because of it.
Home highlights the limitations of perspective and narrative in a different way. Jack is the novel’s focal character, but our access of his mind is so mediated by both Glory’s sensibilities and the distance Robinson periodically establishes between Glory and the novel’s third person narrator that in the end we are left with as much puzzlement as insight. Kasia Boddy calls Jack a mystery in Home, and although Churchwell would probably not go as far as Boddy, she concludes that “Home is a novel of secrets, and a secretive novel,” and that “the novel, like Glory, remains a little reserved, respecting Jack’s privacy perhaps a bit too much” (“Man of Sorrows”). Home makes us weep for Jack rather than truly understand him.
Much of that reserve disappears in Lila. As a child, Lila was neglected and abused, and the novel—which is written in free indirect style—highlights the consequences of that trauma. The novel inverts time, loops it, and dispenses with large chunks of it whole cloth, deconstructing itself in ways that force readers “to assimilate multiple information sources at once, and to engage a discourse that can feel foreign or alienating” (Ryan). In the resulting “graceful swirl of time”—to borrow Ron Charles’s lovely phrase—“[w]e see [Lila’s] past only intermittently, as a child’s clear but fragmentary memories or a trauma victim’s flashbacks.”
Sacks celebrates Robinson’s cheerful proliferation of fallible perspectives in the Gilead trilogy, noting that “one of [Lila’s] rich pleasures is the way that it builds on Gilead and Home, viewing the same characters (and sometimes the same scenes) from a different slant of perception and a different set of sympathies.” Churchwell agrees, calling the novels “masterclasses in the use of perspective, overlapping, often narrating the same events, but from sharply divergent standpoints. For all their thematic consonance, they are startlingly different novels” (“Marilynne Robinson’s Lila”). Joan Acocella goes even farther, asserting that the books fundamentally contradict one another: “Robinson has followed up Gilead with Home and Lila,” Acocella writes, “which often, while covering the same events as Gilead, contradict that book, and each other, too.”
Acocella will later qualify her conclusion, and we will return to that qualification in due course. But before doing so, I would like to quickly review her discussion of the proposal scene described in both Gilead and Lila—descriptions that highlight one of the most important contradictions between the two novels.
In Gilead, Ames describes both being smitten with Lila on sight and feeling embarrassed and puzzled by his response. Readers are puzzled as well: Michiko Kakutani, for example, observes that “Ames’s instant and unwavering attachment to Lila—especially in the face of her prickly, often hurtful behavior toward him—often seems mystifying.” But Ames then reports that after Lila speaks to him about baptism, he begins to regain his balance:
She confided […] that she came to me seeking baptism. […] So I instructed your mother in the doctrines of the faith, and in due course I did indeed baptize her, and I became happily accustomed to the sight of her, her quiet presence, and I began to give thanks that I had lived through the worst of my passion without making a ruin and a desolation of my good name, without running after her in the street, as I nearly did once when I saw her step out of the grocery store and walk away. (207)
Ames then describes how Lila proposes to him in his rose garden—a proposal that seems to come out of nowhere:
[…] [S]he started coming by herself to tend the gardens. She made them very fine and prosperous. And one evening when I saw her there, out by the wonderful roses, I said, “How can I repay you for all this.”
And she said, “You ought to marry me.” And I did. (209)
This is a joyful memory for Ames. It is also very much at odds with Lila’s account of the same event in the book that bears her name. Acocella begins her summary of the differences this way:
Few people who have read Gilead will forget Ames’s description of his and Lila’s decision, among the roses, to get married—the speed, the wildness of it—but I hope nobody ever asks me to choose between that and the version that Lila, in Lila, gives of the same event. In her version, she is not in a nice, symbolic garden. She is walking down a dusty road, with Ames beside her. She didn’t invite him to accompany her, and yet, once he does, she tells him that he should marry her. It’s crazy, but so is his answer: “You’re right. I will.” Her rejoinder is equally crazy: “All right. Then I’ll see you tomorrow.” In fact, they have no plans to meet the next day. She is just saying that so that she can get away from him for a moment.
In Lila’s account of what happened, her and Ames’s discussion picks up again the next day, includes moments of doubt in which she backs away from her earlier proposal, and culminates in her baptism, which is so tightly integrated into the beautiful scene in which Ames gives Lila his mother’s locket as a token of betrothal that both events seem part of the same baptismal ceremony—a baptism, remember, which in Ames’s account is separated from the proposal by time, space, and—for lack of a better phrase—emotional valence.
To Acocella, the differences in these two versions of the proposal are a function of Robinson’s strategic employment of point of view narration, designed in part—at least—to highlight the potential incommensurability of competing perspectives:
The most forceful piece of technical machinery operating in Robinson’s Gilead books is point-of-view narration. […] Each of the three books can stand on its own. I didn’t hear anybody complaining, when Gilead was published, that we were getting only Ames’s side of the story […] But now Robinson has followed up Gilead with Home and Lila, which often, while covering the same events as Gilead, contradict that book, and each other, too.
It is of course possible to create a third perspective designed to unify Ames’s and Lila’s differing accounts. Acocella gestures in that direction when she subsequently reframes her conclusion in terms of strategic omissions, inclusions, and shadings, rather than as contradictory accounts that—in her words—“actually catch each other in lies.” One obvious way to narrow the gap between the two accounts would be to think in terms of authorial intention and writing sequences—to imagine a scenario in which Robinson returns to the world of Gilead after having finished Gilead and Home, decides to write Lila, and then attempts to imagine Lila’s perspective in ways that contradict what she has already written as little as possible. There is nothing wrong with negotiating the conflicting accounts that way, and in fact it is probably the easiest way to do so.
But it is not necessarily the most interesting way, which may come to us courtesy of Roland Barthes, with a quick assist from Michel Foucault. As you will recall, in S/Z Barthes distinguishes between readerly texts, writerly texts, and plural texts. A readerly text attempts to produce a single determinate meaning and leaves the reader with “no more than the poor freedom either to accept or reject the text” (4). A writerly text, on the other hand, invites the reader to become “a producer of the text”—to create its meaning on the fly (4). But since writerly texts do not exist per se, the most interesting text becomes what Barthes calls a plural text.
Plural texts are not governed by authorial intention or the dates of composition. Instead, plural texts create meaning relationally, intertextually, by bridging the gaps between texts and by replacing chronological sequence and linear causality with an indeterminate web of meaning that has no beginning or end: “[T]he networks” that constitute the plural text, Barthes writes, “are many and intersect, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; […] it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one” (5).
If we think of Gilead, Home, and Lila not as three separate novels governed by authorial intention and ordered by the sequence in which they were written, but as a single plural text that generates its meanings relationally, interesting things can begin to happen. The novels can be read equally profitably in any order, with any of the three serving as the conceptual framework within which the others are to be interpreted. History can be revealed as a synchronic structure rather than a diachronic process. And our understanding of the novels’ plots, characters, and incidents can begin to develop relationally along a horizontal plane, with aspects of the plural text commenting on, critiquing, and contradicting other aspects of the same text, producing a kind of interpretative plentitude that extends—as Barthes would say—“as far as the eye can reach” (5-6).
This is not to suggest that we need abandon the notion of the author completely. In The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes observes, “As institution the author is dead: his civil status, his biographical person have disappeared; [been] dispossessed” (27). But he then continues, “but in the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure (which is neither his representation nor his projection) […]” (27). There are lots of ways to understand what Barthes means here, but I take him to mean the rough equivalent of what Foucault calls the “author function.”
In “What is an Author?,” Foucault defines the author function as a discursive practice employed by readers. It is employed by way of a four-fold process in which readers organize texts into categories, discover within the collected texts certain similarities, create the sense of an “author” (in quotations) on the basis of those similarities, and use the resulting sense of authorial presence—to once again borrow Derrida’s term—to regularize the texts, smooth out their contradictions, and create a pleasing sense of development, coherence, and closure.
Foucault’s notion of the author function can be surprisingly useful in that it can help us to expand the meaning of the plural text to include Robinson’s entire corpus, in order to then focus on a specific aspect of her writing that can help us rethink the meaning of the contradictions in Gilead, Home, and Lila mentioned earlier—in this case, by focusing on an aspect of Robinson’s writing that grows out of her response to select theological texts.
In an essay on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Robinson remarks that for Bonhoeffer, writing was a form of praxis—an attempt to transform the world in the act of describing it. “He invoked this language of recognition and identification,” she asserts, “in attempting to make the church real and aware of itself. […] For him, word is act. And, for him, it was” (Death of Adam 117). Robinson’s comment is an equally apt description of her own work, for like Bonhoeffer, Robinson attempts to transform the world through words—to write the world in such a way as to discover within it an overflow of grace.
Sometimes, that transformation occurs by way of a switch from the literal to the figurative and from the historical to the mythical. In the passage around which Housekeeping pivots, for example, although the promise of mended families is linked to faith in Christ, that link is presented provisionally, in terms that are equally amenable to a literal or a figural reading:
He is known to have walked on water, but he was not born to drown. And when He did die it was sad—such a young man, so full of promise, and His mother wept and His friends could not believe the loss, and the story spread everywhere, and the mourning would not be comforted, until He was so sharply lacked and so powerfully remembered that his friends felt Him beside them as they walked along the road, and saw someone cooking fish on the shore and knew it to be Him, and sat down to supper with Him, all wounded as he was. (194)
This passage is mythopoeic. It is also inclusive by virtue of its conditional mode. It affirms faith through a type of figuration that has historically been grounded in literal belief. But it attempts to make that affirmation available even to those for whom belief in the literal veracity of the Bible is no longer possible. Since myth is linked to myth rather than myth to history, affirmation comes by way of the transformative power of figuration rather than by recourse to claims for historical certainty.
That combination of mythic figuration and historical transformation reappears periodically in Gilead. The pièce de résistance occurs when Ames in memory transforms a sooty biscuit into a communion wafer. He realizes that the resulting memory is a fictional construct: “I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn’t. […] [I]t is strange that I remember receiving it the way I do” (102,103). But even though the reconfigured memory is self-consciously mythopoeic, it becomes the lynchpin of an entire life: “[I]t seems to me much of my life was comprehended in that moment. […] I remember it as communion, and I believe that’s what it was. I can’t tell you what that day in the rain has meant to me. I can’t tell myself what it has meant to me. But I know how many things it put altogether beyond question, for me” (96).
In Gilead, then, history and myth are neither demonstrably true nor demonstrably false, for “you never do know the actual nature even of your own existence. Or perhaps it has no fixed and certain nature” (95). The novel’s defining trope is ultimately neither history nor myth but rather vision—a retrospective creative process which collapses the distinction between the two categories: “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. […] I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect” (91).
Home reproduces the dialectic between history, myth, and vision found in Gilead, and in its conclusion, Home appears to similarly privilege vision over the other two categories. The novel ends with Glory’s imaginary vision of Jack’s son—a final gesture toward hope that neither repudiates history nor quite achieves the status of myth:
She thought, Maybe this Robert will come back someday. […] He will talk to me a little while, too shy to tell me why he has come, and then he will thank me and leave, walking backward a few steps, thinking, Yes, the barn is still here, yes the lilacs, even the pot of petunias. This was my father’s house. And I will think, He is young. He cannot know that my whole life has come down to this moment.
That he has answered his father’s prayers.
That the Lord is wonderful. (324-25)
There is nothing simple or easy about Glory’s final hymn of praise, which is tempered by the melancholy that permeates Home generally. The same is true in Lila. For much of the novel that bears her name, Lila vacillates between loneliness and the desire to remain alone. Time and again she reenacts what Marian Ryan calls “the basic pain of separation that defines the human”—a pain that reaches back, in Lila’s case, to early childhood. But near the end of the novel, her halting journey toward hope and connection leads her to envision a sense of grace that binds together in joy and thanksgiving both a wayward son and his neglectful father:
Can a soul in bliss feel a weight lift off his heart? She couldn’t help imagining—Oh, here you are! Your dear weariness and ugliness as beautiful as light! That boy, weeping over what he was, his big, dirty hands that had done something he couldn’t quite believe, and then there he would be, fresh from the gallows, shocked at the kindness all around him, which was the last thing he expected. […] And there that mangy old father would be, too, because the boy couldn’t bear heaven without him. (258-59)
Hesitantly, tentatively, willfully, Lila decides to embrace that vision of grace, a decision that is equal parts faith and praxis: “So she decided that she should believe in it, or that she believed in it already” (259).
In Gilead, Home, and Lila, then, vision trumps history and myth alike, with writing serving as a form of praxis through which the material world is called into grace. Vision is the textual embodiment of the author function that in my reading of Robinson’s corpus, at least, shapes and controls the plural text. Although vision is mimetic in that it alludes to the external world, its primary purpose is to create and transform rather than describe. And while the notion of vision does little to resolve the kinds of contradictions in individual perspectives we have discussed earlier, it effectively solves the problem by rendering the entire issue moot. What counts in Robinson’s plural text is the process of visionary transformation itself, rather than any of its discrete results. In that respect, Acocella’s fond hope that nobody ever asks her to choose between Lila’s description of the proposal and Ames’s has already always been granted.
Interestingly, in the same gesture in which Robinson subsumes the discordant perspectives expressed within Gilead, Home, and Lila under the auspices of a single determinate ur-concept, her notion of vision-as-praxis simultaneously inaugurates a dialectic that extends outwards rather than inwards. For rightly understood, Robinson’s enumeration of the many and varied ways in which the world can be called into grace stands as an implicit rebuke to Fredric Jameson’s claim that pastiche is the dominant mode of aesthetic production today.
As you will recall, in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson says that the hallmark of contemporary culture is pastiche, a process of cultural appropriation that cannibalizes past styles without creating substantive new meanings and that obscures true historicalness through the creation of historicism or pop history—forms of nostalgia that represent the past as a glimmering mirage precisely by projecting onto it contemporary stereotypes.
Robinson’s depiction of vision-as-praxis offers itself as both an implicit rebuke of, and possible alternative to, Jameson’s description of pastiche-as-cannibalization, for while he critiques facile historicism and argues that pastiche is the hallmark of our age, she implicitly counters with a description of vision that is neither myth nor history precisely because it is creative in the most fundamental sense of the word. Vision transforms the world rather than cannibalizes it, creating a version of reality that is generative and unique rather than derivative and stereotypical.
Jameson’s discussion of pastiche is based on the assumption that in the world of late capitalism, human subjectivity itself has become so fragmented and impotent that it is functionally in Atari, reduced to imitating past styles by way of a neutral parody lacking deep or hidden meanings. Robinson’s embodiment of vision, on the other hand, is grounded in the faith that human subjectivity is not merely alive and well but that it is the foundation of human existence per se, the single most astonishing fact of existence. As Ames puts it in Gilead, “it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined” (53).
Seen from this perspective, the celebration of vision in Robinson’s three gospels of Gilead is perhaps best understood both as the textual embodiment of what she says about subjectivity in Absence of Mind and as a therapeutic rebuke to all those who, like Jameson, would reduce the complexity of history and of the mind to the iron laws of Althusser’s social totality. Jameson’s version of cultural materialism requires him to conceptualize the culture of late capitalism as predominantly a gloomy world of empty parody and grey neutrality. Robinson’s faith, on the other hand, allows her to create a visionary world filled with light, both literally and metaphorically:
The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. […]
It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. (Gilead 119)
Robinson’s luminous sense of vision is thus one part defensible counterpoint and one part pis aller. The duplication of vision in her plural text is also intensely pleasurable in both of Barthes’ senses of the word. To the extent that vision includes a substratum of mimetic content, it facilitates what Barthes calls the plaisir of readerly recognition. And to the extent that it invites the reader to participate in the act of transformation, vision simultaneously generates what Barthes calls the jouissance of writerly creativity. Little wonder, then, that Gilead, Home, and Lila are more than mere alternatives to theories like Jameson’s description of pastiche. They are among the most powerful, and most pleasurable, of contemporary American texts.
 An early version of this essay was presented at the Marilynne Robinson Symposium at Nottingham Trent University, 10 June 2016, which built upon various of the insights I gained into Robinson’s work generally while writing a review essay of Home for Literature and Belief shortly after the novel’s publication in 2008. I am grateful for those who organized and ran the Marilynne Robinson Symposium and for Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature, which helped facilitate both my trip to England and the earlier review of Home. Thank you.
Acocella, Joan. “Lonesome Road: Marilynne Robinson returns to Gilead in her new novel.” The New Yorker, 6 Oct. 2014. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/06/lonesome-road. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. Paris: Blackwell, 1974. Print.
—. The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975. Print.
Boddy, Kasia. “Review: Home by Marilynne Robinson.” The Telegraph, 28 Sept. 2008. www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/fictionreviews/3561288/Review-Home-by-Marilynne-Robinson.html. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
Charles, Ron. “Marilynne Robinson’s Lila: an exquisite novel of spiritual redemption and love.” The Washington Post, 30 Sept. 2014. www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/marilynne-robinsons-lila-an-exquisite-novel-of-spiritual-redemption-and-love/2014/09/30/55f5f318-45aa-11e4-b47c-f5889e061e5f_story.html. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
Churchwell, Sarah. “A man of sorrows.” The Guardian, 3 Oct. 2008. www.theguardian.com/books/2008/oct/04/fiction. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
—. “Marilynne Robinson’s Lila – a great achievement in US fiction.” The Guardian, 7 Nov. 2014. www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/07/marilynne-robinson-lila-great-achievement-contemporary-us-fiction-gilead. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology. Essential Works of Foucault, 1954 – 1984. Vol. 2. Ed. James D. Faubion. Trans. Robert Hurley and others. New York: The New P, 1988. 205-22. Print.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Woman Caught in the Paradox of Being Adrift and on a Journey: In Lila, Marilynne Robinson Gives a Prequel to Gilead.” The New York Times, 28 Sept 2014. www.nytimes.com/2014/09/29/arts/in-lila-marilynne-robinson-gives-a-prequel-to-gilead.html?_r=0. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
Kidd, James. “Lila by Marilynne Robinson, book review: A sumptuous, graceful, and ultimately life-affirming novel.” Independent, 11 Oct. 2014, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/lila-by-marilynne-robinson-book-review-a-sumptuous-graceful-and-ultimately-life-affirming-novel-9787708.html. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
Robinson, Marilynne. Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print.
—. Gilead. New York: Picador, 2004. Print.
—. Home. New York: Farrar, 2008. Print.
—. Housekeeping. New York: Banton B, 1980. Print.
—. Lila. New York: Farrar, 2014. Print.
—. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. New York: Picador, 1998. Print.
Ryan, Marion. “A Likeness of Wings: Marilynne Robinson flies higher and goes deeper into issues of faith and redemption in Lila.” The Slate Book Review, 6 Oct. 2014. www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2014/10/marilynne_robinson_s_lila_reviewed.html. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
Sacks, Sam. “Book Review: Lila by Marilynne Robinson.” The Wall Street Journal, 3 Oct. 2014. www.wsj.com/articles/book-review-lila-by-marilynne-robinson-1412371170. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.
Schine, Cathleen. “A Triumph of Love.” The New York Review of Books, 23 Oct. 2014. www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/10/23/marilynne-robinson-triumph-love/. Accessed 27 Nov. 2016.