I'm done trying Marilynne Robinson.
01 May 2012
I just don't care for Marilynne Robinson.
And it hurts me to say that, because many readers whose judgment I trust have told me that her novels (among them, Housekeeping and Gilead) are some of their favorite books of all time.* I've tried both those novels, and they were so boring to me that I simply could not finish them. Were they religious too? I seem to remember that they struck me as smarmily religious. But perhaps I just did not give them a fair trial.
So when a collection of her essays, titled When I Was a Child I Read Books, came out this spring, I thought, hey, I'll give her a try in nonfiction form. And that's a title you just have to love, right?
I took this book along on a car ride to visit my in-laws, and it couldn't even hold my interest halfway there. And trust me, the drive from my house to the in-laws is nothing but southern Wisconsin boringness in large highway form. Particularly in March.
The first thing readers should note is that this is a book of essays, and although many of them are about learning and imagination and reading, none of them are what I would call really ABOUT reading. (Making this a misleadingly titled book, in my opinion, designed to sell to people who love reading, and therefore still buy books.) The other essays include paragraphs like this, on why we need fiction:
"There is a tendency, considered highly rational, to reason from a narrow set of interests, say survival and procreation, which are supposed to govern our lives, and then to treat everything that does not fit this model as anomalous clutter, extraneous to what we are and probably best done without. But all we really know about what we are is what we do. There is a tendency to fit a tight and awkward carapace of definition over humankind, and to try to trim the living creature to fit the dead shell. The advice I give my students is the same advice I give myself--forget definition, forget assumption, watch. We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true." (p. 7.)
I'm not calling that bad writing. I suspect it is actually very good writing. But I'd have to read it a few more times to try and work out what she's really saying (I just typed it and I still got lost somewhere in the middle, like when I read tax form instruction booklets), and at the end of the day, I just don't care enough to put that kind of work into her essays. I need my essays a little more dumbed down, evidently.
Other reviews: New York Times, Shelf Love
*She's also a Pulitzer Prize winner.