Thinking About Thinking About Thinking

Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is a beautiful novel for a number of reasons, although as I read it I often found myself wondering how much of its lustre would be lost on readers unfamiliar with Gilead. Unlike readers of Home, its immediate predecessor in Robinson’s trilogy of novels set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, readers of Lila will find much to appreciate even if they are not familiar with the other two titles. In part this is the case because Home replays many of the events already depicted by the narrator of Gilead, albeit from the perspective of a different character and therefore in a way that imbues them with new meanings, while Lila covers events that occur many years before the action of Gilead and that have been, until now, almost entirely unexplored. If a novel that requires its readers to possess knowledge of another novel thereby places a burden on their shoulders, Lila arguably leaves its readers at greater liberty than Home, and yet, while reading it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that that liberty comes with its own sort of price.

In what sense, then, could a full appreciation of Lila be said to depend on a familiarity with Gilead if their narratives do not overlap or meaningfully conjoin? Towards the end of the novel, Lila, hitchhiking, is picked up by a woman driving home to visit her ailing mother, and when the woman suggests that it must be nerve-wracking for Lila to so completely have placed her life in another person’s hands, Lila replies by stating, simply, that she “don’t much care what happens” to her. “Then,” we are told, “she could feel in the dark that for a minute the woman was wondering about her, about to ask her a question, then thinking better of it. Lila thought, Maybe she suspects I’m the kind of woman who might keep a knife in her garter. Might sleep in her clothes.” As it turns out, though, the woman is listening to a sound outside, a sound that she fears might signal that the car risks breaking down. She’s more concerned about whether she’ll be able to make it to her destination than she is about Lila’s story.

This passage isn’t particularly significant in itself, but it’s broadly symptomatic of Robinson’s approach to conveying Lila’s approach to the ways in which she sees other people approaching her. The third-person omniscient narrator of Lila hews close to Lila’s perspective on events. Thoughts are reported without any qualms, and free indirect discourse prevails throughout. But Lila has been crippled by a lifelong poverty that has rendered her continually ashamed of herself and suspicious of the motives of others, and as a result her thoughts tend towards attempts at second-guessing the thoughts of the people around her. In fact, as Lila silently observes other people, Robinson’s free indirect discourse reveals that Lila’s thoughts frequently take the form of a secondary free indirect discourse, a reading of the thoughts of others conveyed in a prose style that makes seemingly factual assertions of speculative insights.

Essentially, Robinson uses free indirect discourse to construct and convey the experiential impressions of a very particular consciousness: the consciousness of a woman who is largely certain of what she thinks other people think of her, even though the very act of trying to think the thoughts of others makes her very susceptible to error and a misapprehension of social affairs. And by publishing this novel after having published Gilead, Robinson uses the space between the two novels, which is one of the key formal properties of any novelistic series, to suggest the extent of Lila’s susceptibility to error without ever making a statement of it.

Gilead takes the form of the first-person reflections and pseudo-memoirs of Lila’s husband, the Reverend John Ames. The form of that novel grants the reader more or less direct access to Ames’ thoughts and encourages an affinity for the sensibility they reveal. When Ames shows up in Lila, however, and involves Lila in events that occur well before their marriage develops a solid foundation, what appears on the page are Robinson’s reports of Lila’s thoughts of Ames’ possible thoughts of Lila. What doesn’t appear on the page are any statements, direct or otherwise, that hint at how misguided Lila’s thoughts may be, but as the reader of Gilead crosses the gap between that novel and Lila, he or she can’t help but import onto Lila an awareness of the way that Ames so carefully regulates his thoughts of other people. Just by virtue of occupying its position in the structure of a novelistic series, albeit in a way that has nothing to do with the causal connections between events in a serialised narrative, Lila weaves a shadow-voice, the voice of Ames, into the voice of the narrator who makes disclosures of Lila. The effect of this is that entire sentences in Lila acquire a double significance as Ames responds to the suppositions that Lila makes of him, although these responses do not appear on the page but only enter the novel through the serial structure it shares with its predecessor — gilding the free indirect style, as it were. But then, of course, only the reader of Gilead can hear the murmurs of Ames’ shadow-voice when reading Lila, so that even if the more recent novel is entirely comprehensible on its own, the experience of reading it as a standalone text is also, perhaps, not quite so deep or rich as it might otherwise be.