Two Quick Reads

Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 261pp. $26.00

It’s odd that I even read this book. I’m one of the few people in the world who didn’t like Housekeeping, Robinson’s first novel, and I am a renegade from Protestant Christianity and fiction about it. I haven’t read Robinson’s much beloved books Gilead and Home, which concern the same characters and were written first. But my wife was so impressed with the reviews of this book that she read it, and liked the writing so much she thought I should take a look. I agree, the writing is marvelous. I don’t remember Housekeeping well, but don’t remember admiring the writing nearly this much.

Lila is a woman who comes literally out of nowhere. She knows nothing about her parentage, and was living in some kind of group home—the circumstances are vague—when a woman named Doll rescued her apparently out of the goodness of her own heart, or perhaps out of her own need. In any case, she was a faithful guardian to Lila, though they lived as drifters and knockabouts, finding work and shelter where they could, hanging out for a time with a larger group of drifters. I’m not sure I find that back plot entirely believable, but it is effective in a novel; this is a woman with no cultural heritage at all. She stayed at a school long enough to learn to read and that’s it. She’s the original primitive human being.

Somehow she wanders into Gilead, a town well known and much beloved by Robinson’s readers, and falls in love with the narrator of Gilead, a preacher named John Ames. He’s much older, thoughtful and somewhat stodgy, very Christian. They fall in love, get married, and she gets pregnant. She is torn by what she has done, not sure she can live this civilized life, drawn to her old life despite its hardships and difficulties. She misses the people she used to know, especially Doll, who wound up in trouble with the law and is likely dead.

It’s a touching love story, this older rather conservative man with an unpredictable and much younger woman. She’s wary because she’s not sure she can stay; he’s wary because he doesn’t know what she’ll do. I suppose that’s the situation with all couples, especially when one partner is much older. But their situation seems somehow magnified.

There’s an encounter between Lila and a young runaway boy that I thought was the most compelling moment in the story. The book came alive at that point, and riveted my attention, though we never found out what happened to the boy. Without reference to her newfound religion, Lila acted as a true Christian in that situation. Perhaps she was just a true human being.

What seems missing in the very religious John Ames is the sheer joy of life. He’s a loving caring person, but worries about everything, and as often as not is trying to explain away theology, rather than affirming it. I’m interested enough to want to read Gilead. But I’m as wary about it as John Ames is about his wife.


Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark By Peter Matthiessen. Penguin. 204pp. $20.00.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m a huge Peter Matthiessen fan, and when a recent featured author in the New York Times “By the Book” section said that he also was, and mentioned Blue Meridian in particular, I thought I’d better give it a look.

This book has the virtues of Matthiessen’s best non-fiction. It is superbly written, includes a great deal of arcane information (the man was a great researcher, or at least employed one), and it portrays a search for one of nature’s most magnificent and fearsome creatures, not (as in Matthiessen’s greatest nonfiction book) the snow leopard, but the great white shark.

It’s almost as if the post-Hemingway generation—Matthiessen along with Norman Mailer, James Jones, William Styron, Irwin Shaw, Matthiessen’s pal George Plimpton—felt some obligation to do adventurous things and write about them, as if measuring themselves against Hemingway’s macho past. In this case, Matthiessen goes down to observe the Great White in a fairly flimsy metal cage, and also, on various occasions, swims among sharks while they’re feeding. The idea is that they’re busy enough feeding on fish that they won’t bother with the humans. It’s a good theory, and turns out to be true, though the group didn’t try it with the Great White. But do you really want to test such a theory with your life?

The stories of what Great Whites have done (like attack small boats and overturn them so they could feed on the people inside. People actually died that way), and the descriptions of finally encountering them are simultaneously thrilling and terrifying; Matthiessen is a marvelous descriptive writer. The man was a novelist, of course, so he does a wonderful job of characterizing the various people on the expedition and his encounters with them, also their interactions in a rather difficult environment. The expedition was headed by Peter Gimbel, heir to the department store fortune, who wanted to make a documentary about the Great White, and actually did. Everything depended on getting good footage of that particular shark, and finally he got spectacular footage. But his obsession with it was akin to Ahab’s in Moby Dick. He travelled to the Caribbean, to the whaling grounds off South Africa, and to Australia. He would have gone to hell to get that footage.

There’s something slightly dilettantish about the whole project, an heir to a fortune who’s trying to find something to do with his life so he decides to make a great documentary film. He hires an all-star crew, great divers, great cinematographers (Matthiessen tagged along just to observe). One has the feeling that his whole self-image is involved.

But the crew actually killed whales so they could attract Great Whites, and killed other fish as well. They killed fish in order to see this other fish, and to satisfy the ego of this lunatic millionaire. No one on the expedition questioned that basic premise. I found it somehow sickening, just as revolting as all the killing Hemingway did to prove he was a man (to himself, apparently. Did anyone else care?).

Matthiessen did not become a Buddhist until some years later, so it doesn’t seem appropriate to hold up Buddhist standards to this earlier time. This adventuresome ideal goes a long way toward explaining the way he wrote about Buddhism; he essentially saw it as a heroic venture where he was trying to accomplish something, rather than a religious practice that would lead to a better life. Maybe he adjusted as he got older and practiced more (I’m judging by the early book Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969-1982). We all tend to be somewhat heroic when we start out.

But let’s look at what’s actually happening in Blue Meridian: a man kills a number of whales, and a great number of fish, so he can make a documentary movie and make something out of his life. Does that make sense?

Not to me. I think the whales would agree.