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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Housekeeping a dream read
Robinson's prose is poetry on the page

At a glance
by Marilynne Robinson

Farrar Straus Giroux
219 pages, $$13

Life, to some of us, is a dream.

To Ruth, the protagonist and narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel “Housekeeping,’’ life is something that exists in a reality so close to dreaming that it’s hard for some of the characters – Ruth in particular – to tell the difference. In any event, reality isn’t so much the thing that haunts Ruth as much as the thoughts that she has about it.

“What is thought, after all,” Ruth asks, “what is dreaming, but swim and flow, and the images they seem to animate? The images are the worst of it.”

Ruth, as we know from the beginning, is a grown woman. She tells us her story, and the story of her family, in flashback. She begins with her grandfather’s emigration by train from a “subterraneous house” in the Midwest to the mountain town of Fingerbone, a place reclaimed from the lake next to which it stands. And she ends with Ruth’s looking back at everything that has happened, ruing some of it, recalling most of it, wondering about it all.

Or at least as much as her thoughts will allow.

The bulk of “Housekeeping” is the story of what happens to Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, after they are brought to Fingerbone from Seattle by their mother, Helen, who drops them off with their grandmother – and then commits suicide.

The girls are raised for five years by their grandmother, a kindly woman still shocked at a life that can wrench not only a husband from you but three daughters as well (her husband died in a legendary train wreck that Fingerbone sees as one of its claims to fame and which Robinson uses as a haunting image of loss; the daughters just left). Then, after the old woman one morning “eschewed awakening,” the girls are passed on, temporarily, to their grandmothers’ sisters-in-law.

It’s temporary because, before long, the girls’ aunt Sylvie arrives.

Sylvie, the youngest of the grandmother's long-departed daughters, is the key to “Housekeeping.” It is in reaction to her that Lucille rebels, seeking what she sees as a normal life. And it is through Sylvie that Ruth drifts into the same kind of waking dream state that has her aunt sitting quietly in the dark, taking long walks along the lake shore, collecting newspapers and tin cans and fulfilling all the obligations of housekeeping – if by housekeeping we mean living a life that most rational people would find odd.

Conversation to her is often filled with murky hints of larger things left unsaid.

Example: ``Lucille opened the newspaper to the crossword puzzle, and found a pencil in a drawer, and sat down across the table from Sylvie.

`` ` The element represented by the symbol Fe,' she said.

``Sylvie answered, `Iron.'

`` `Wouldn't it start with F?'

`` `It's iron,' Sylvie said. `They try to trick you.' ''

The girls know early on what the rest of Fingerbone only eventually realizes: Something about Sylvie doesn’t fit into the everyday world.

“Clearly,” Ruth says, “our aunt was not a stable person.”

And while this may be true (Sylvie does make some odd decisions), it doesn’t make her a bad person. And in the end, it is she who gives the cerebral, existentialist Ruth the choice: Live as others would have you live, or live as you would like – and then choose which is the dream, which is reality.

These are the themes of a born storyteller. But if Robinson explores these ideas as a novelist, then the prose style that she employs is purely poetic. Who else but a poet could create phrases such as:

“So the wind that billowed her sheets announced to her the resurrection of the ordinary.”

“She had lavender lips and orange hair, and arched eyebrows each drawn in a single brown line, a contest between practice and palsy which sometimes ended at her ear.”

“There were lisps and titters, and the sound of stealthy approach – the sense of a disturbing intention, its enacting inexplicably deferred.”

Of contemporary American novelists, only Annie Proulx matches Robinson’s ability to make English sound so musical. But Robinson isn’t trying just to show off. Her colorful language gives understated but important moments, such as the death of Ruth and Lucille’s mother, that much more emphasis.

And in any event, they don’t sound out of place in passages where Robinson has Ruth questioning the very essence of life, when she makes statements such as “Loneliness is an absolute discovery” or “Perhaps memory is the seat not only of prophecy but of miracle as well.”

In the end, “Housekeeping” is not so much a novel as it is a musing, a meditation, a kind of brilliant literary rhapsody that emphasizes its overall message with references to water, to darkness, to dreaming and to death. And what is that message?

Hard to say, exactly. But four centuries years ago, the Spanish playwright Calderon de la Barca wrote a line that seems to fit.

“Life is a dream,” he wrote, “and dreams are dreams themselves.’’

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