When Lila visits the Reverend for the first time in Marilynne Robinson’s marvelous new novel, she has been wondering “why things happen the way they do” and decides to put the question to the old man by knocking on his door (29). The Reverend tells Lila he finds the question very interesting, but then of course he’s interested in Lila herself, a young woman who has appeared in his life like a bird swept into the house by a storm, bearing a “blessing” along with its alien “wildness” (19). In other words the Reverend is preoccupied with the same question as Lila, who, for all her confusion and lack of schooling, is attuned to the evasiveness underlying the Reverend’s cautious humility as he plays host to her. The question of “why things happen the way they do” is bound up with what is happening to the two characters there and then — they are falling in love — but neither can quite sort out the relationship between the question and their inarticulate desires.
“Tell me how it came to be on your mind. In a few words.”
She said, “I got time to myself. I think about things.”
“Yes. Clearly you do. Interesting things.”
“I spose everybody thinks about ’em.
He laughed. “Right. But that’s interesting too.”
“On Sundays you talk about the Good Lord, how he does one thing and another.”
He blushed. It was as if he expected that question, too, and was surprised again that the thing he expected for no reason was actually happening. He said, “I know that I am not — adequate to the subject. You have to forgive me.”
She nodded (31).
This is a delicate moment, a scene in which the unknown and the unspoken shape the characters’ actions, as happens so often in this story. It’s also a moment when we’re invited to consider the shape of the narrative, “why things happen the way they do” in the construction of the novel. The Reverend says that Lila’s question is “theological,” or at least “philosophical” (112), but we might add that it’s narratological too, because her query is metaleptic, as narratologists say, operating both at the level of the tale and the telling. Why, the reader might ask, does Lila’s first visit to the Reverend follow a scene where we already learned they get married? Why are Lila’s years in Gilead constantly intercut with episodes from her early life? These questions point insistently at problems of time, or more specifically anteriority: the mystery of beginnings, origins, and first occasions. Often something is mentioned in Lila that has not yet been narrated; this means that the mention is proleptically indicating something to come in the book. But that thing to come likely has to do with events that occurred before, and so requiring flashback, or “analepsis.”
The author’s deft handling of narrative temporality can be seen in the following passage, where Lila visits the Reverend’s church for the first time. Lila feels embarrassed and out of place, a stranger in the town of Gilead, entirely ignorant of church customs, indeed of Christianity itself. The Reverend rises to his feet when Lila appears in the door, which makes her take fright and flee. She is determined to do better when she tries again some days later.
So she decided she would go back to the church and walk in the door the way she meant to do in the first place. But when she did walk in, he stood up, so she left, and those ladies followed her out into the street (36).
The passage is disorienting because the second sentence initially leads us to think that it follows the first one in a temporal sequence resulting from Lila’s decision to “go back to the church.” Instead it analeptically returns us to the previous visit when she walked in but quickly left. One could restore the proper chronology by inverting the order of the two sentences, but that would destroy the internal temporality of Lila’s psychic experience, which follows the fits and starts of obsessional reflection and traumatic recall. In this mental realm, Lila’s “decisions” shape time in their own way, and this is reflected in the weird syntax of our two sentences. Her (proleptic) intention to “go back to the church” is realized not in the act of doing so but rather in the (analeptic) memory that goes back to the time “she did walk in” before. Why do things happen this way?
The psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche gave the name “afterwardsness” to the distinctive backward and forward movement of thought and memory as a person struggles with the primary influences on their sexual and emotional make-up. Laplanche argues that primal sexual drives are formed in the innocent physical exchanges between a caregiver and their infant child. The simplest acts of feeding and handling an infant are laden with the adult caregiver’s unconscious thoughts and desires, Laplanche argues; the result is that the child is invaded by unspoken and coded messages that haunt it as unsolved enigmas. Such enigmatic signifiers can crop up at any time in an adult’s life, reawakening confusion and desire whenever a mysterious other crosses one’s path. As such, the primary human sexual relationship is deeply anachronistic, and it is fitting in this light that Lila’s love story pairs a very old man with a very young woman. A child grows up to master its enigmas as best it can; this provokes a perpetual shuttling back to primal scenes, forward to the present, and further forward into plans for the future. Robinson at times gives these elemental coordinates of reflection a Beckettian tone, as here, where Lila wonders “who it was that kept her alive when she was newborn and helpless”:
What could matter any less than where she came from? Well, she thought, where I’m going might matter less. Or maybe why I’m here by myself in the dark wondering about it (37).
At other times her meditations are shaped by absence and retroaction, the belated awareness of catastrophes she has survived all unaware.
Lila heard about the Crash years after it happened, and she had no idea what it was even after she knew what to call it. But it did seem like they gave it the right name. It was like one of those storms you might even sleep through, and then when you wake up in the morning everything’s ruined, or gone (15).
As a young child Lila was rescued from a harmful environment by Doll, a poor drifter who stole Lila away one night and devoted herself entirely to the girl’s care and upbringing. Lila says she was borne away by Doll “as if she were carried along in the wind” (5), a catastrophe like the Crash or a nighttime storm her mind keeps returning to. Lila survives the uprooting from her natural family, but the past has a strong hold, not only because Doll is pursued for years by Lila’s vengeful family, but because in spite of herself Lila cannot keep from inquiring into her primitive beginnings. The last thing she heard from her family — though she may have imagined it — is a voice calling out in the dark, “Where are you going with that child?” (5). Years later, in a compulsive fantasy of repetition, she imagines stealing her own child away from its father, the Reverend. The voice that calls after them carries something of Lila’s primal enigmatic signifier.
Two or three times she had even had the thought of stealing him, carrying him away to the woods or off down the road so she could have him to herself…. But she imagined the old man, the Reverend, calling out after them, “Where are you going with that child?” The sadness in his voice would be terrible. He would be surprised to hear it. You wouldn’t even know your body had a sound like that in it. And it would be familiar to her. She didn’t imagine it, she remembered that sadness from somewhere, and it was as if she would understand something if she could hear it again. That was almost what she wanted (17).
One of Lila’s insistent refrains is the biblical line “There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard” (117, etc.). This silence passes between Doll and Lila just as it does later between a pregnant Lila and her unborn child, who she imagines hears and feels all her worries, and so will likely become a conduit of Lila’s unspoken fears and enigmas.
She’d never thought before how strange a cornfield can look so late in the year, all the stalks dead where they stand. … Now she saw the dim shine of sunlight on the leaves, and how the stalks were all bent one way, the tops of them. The wind had bent them and left them rigid, with their old tattered leaves hanging off them. But it was as if they had all heard one sound and they all knew what it meant, or were afraid they did, and every one of them waited to hear it again, to be sure, every one of them still with waiting. She said, “It don’t mean nothing,” speaking to the child. “It’s the wind” (144).
The “wind” in this passage evokes Lila’s rapture by Doll, and the cornfield the place she fears Doll met her end one freezing night; Lila’s entire life is resumed here, along with the all-important theme of an enigmatic sound. Lila is on a par with Morrison’s Beloved in its reflections on haunted motherhood and non-verbal communication across generations. Robinson of course intends to give these themes a religious meaning. This does not prevent them from conveying something of Laplanche’s afterwardsness as well. And one feature of this afterwardsness is the pleasure of revisiting through Lila’s innocent eyes the same places and characters we met in Robinson’s earlier novels, those grand achievements of contemporary American literature, Gilead and Home.
Lila is a wonder.
Marilynne Robinson, Lila: a Novel (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).