So much writing advice out there, including my own, starts from the premise of what not to do. Honestly, it’s often easier to articulate the things that don’t work in a novel than to pinpoint what does.
In order to change that up, I’m going to introduce an occasional new feature on the blog where I take a book I like and talk about what I think the author does especially well.
Here are a few of the many reasons why I think it works.
Why Gilead works
Gilead is a novel about four generations of men in Iowa. In chronological order: a firebrand anti-slavery pastor in league with John Brown, his more cautious son who resented his recklessness and intensity, a third generation pastor who navigated the tension between his father and grandfather (this is the protagonist, aging and soon to die in the “present” time in the 1950s), and his young son, for whom he’s trying to record his history before he dies.
Truth be told, there is a ton that works in Gilead, everything from the interweaving plot lines, the heartbreaking premise of an older man writing letters to a young son who will never really know him, and the way it captures a unique American experience and view of religion and morality.
What I want to focus on are the details.
The small, beautiful details
The descriptions in Gilead are what truly make this novel come alive for me. Take, for instance, how the narrator describes his grandfather:
I wish you could have known my grandfather. I heard a man say once it seemed the one eye he had was somehow ten times an eye. Normally speaking, it seems to me, a gaze, even a stare, is diffused a little when there are two eyes involved. He could make me feel as though he had poked me with a stick, just by looking at me. Not that he meant any harm to speak of. He was just afire with old certainties, and he couldn’t bear all the patience that was required of him by the peace and by the aging of his body and by the forgetfulness that had settled over everything. He thought we should all be living at a dead run.
This passage illustrates how much mileage you can get by honing in on one key detail about a person that defines them fully. There are separate places where the grandfather is described in fuller physical detail, but here, as a first impression, we get the intensity of just one eye that stands in for the rest of him.
Here’s another moment of judicious, brilliant description of the grandfather returning to his town preach after disappearing for anti-slavery raids:
There were Sundays when he would ride his horse right up to the church steps just when it was time for service to begin and fire that gun in the air to let the people know he was back. They’d find him standing in the pulpit, with his eyes red and his face pale and dust in his beard, all ready to preach on judgment and grace.
You learn so much from this combination of action/gesture (firing the gun into the air) and description: eyes red, face pale, dust in his beard. It makes the character come alive.
Fully imagining another era
Great historic fiction transports us fully to a world we can scarcely imagine. One of the most memorable stretches of Gilead involves the narrator and his father trying to find his grandfather’s grave in the middle of nowhere in Kansas in the late 1800s.
They’re walking. It’s hot. And they’re lost.
I will tell you some more old stories. So much of what I know about those old days comes from the time my father and I spent wandering around together lost in Kansas. I don’t know if I ever actually cried, but I know I spent a lot of time trying not to. The soles of my shoes wore through and the dust and sticks and gravel came in and wore out my socks and got to work on my feet. O the filth! O the blisters! Time weighs on children. They struggle just to get through church, as you know. And there I was, trudging through the same old nowhere, day after day, always wanting to slow down, to sit down, to lie down, with my father walking on ahead, no doubt a little desperate, as he had every right to be. Once or twice I did sit down. I just sat there in the heat and the weeds with the grasshoppers flying around my head and watched him walk away, and he’d keep walking till he was almost out of my sight, which is a long way in Kansas. Then I’d go running to catch up. He’d say, “You’re going to make yourself thirsty.” Well, it seemed to me I’d been thirsty half my life.
This prompts so many “oh yeah” moments.
As in: “Oh yeah, there was a time when you might only find out about your grandfather’s death until long after he’d already been buried.”
“Oh yeah, there was a time before GPS, before cars, when you might not have even had a horse, and you just had to walk through the heat. Even if it took weeks. And oh yeah, if you got lost you might just die.”
And “Oh yeah. That wasn’t that long ago. The narrator was a child in this scene, and his child would be in his 70s in 2019.”
In order to really make the setting palpable, Robinson makes the description physical. The dust, sticks, gravel, the blisters, “the same old nowhere,” “the heat and the weeds with the grasshoppers flying around my head.” We can feel ourselves right there with the narrator.
But rather than just getting straight physical description where Robinson tells us how hot it is, something is happening. There’s a push/pull between the narrator and his father that contextualizes the description and makes it feel more immediate.
The voice’s charming and halting uncertainty
There are so many quietly profound moments in Gilead that end up feeling completely natural in the context of the narrative.
Rather than having these insights served up on a “look how smart I am” platter, the voice hesitates as it teases out the deeper meaning.
For emphasis, I’m going to highlight the hesitations:
In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable–which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live. We take fortuitous resemblances among us to be actual likeness, because those around us have also fallen heir to the same customs, trade in the same coin, acknowledge, more or less, the same notions of decency and sanity. But all that really just allows us to coexist with the inviolable, untraversable, and utterly vast spaces between us.
Rather than feeling like an author pontificating from up on high, the thoughts feel much more natural because there’s a very particular person narrating. These thoughts feel like they’re originating from the character rather than from the author. The narrator’s fussiness and hesitations make it seem more like someone who is trying to tease out meaning than an author just coming straight out to tell us stuff.
We’re much more likely to stick with an author through some philosophical musings if they feel like a natural outgrowth of a particular character’s personality.
Notice though, that these hesitations are judicious. A tiny bit goes a long way. If this were nothing but stutters it would quickly feel forced and annoying.
As with everything, Robinson gets it just right.
Tying it all together
Finally, this passage is just… I mean I would give up everything I’ve written just for this paragraph.
Look how this moment with the protagonist and his best friend weaves together all the different elements I’ve talked about to this point: the beautiful details, the way it transports you to another place and time, and the humble profundity:
Once when Boughton and I had spent an evening going through our texts together and we were done talking them over, I walked him out to the porch, and there were more fireflies out there than I had ever seen in my life, thousands of them everywhere, just drifting up out of the grass, extinguishing themselves in midair. We sat on the steps a good while in the dark and the silence, watching them. Finally Boughton said, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” And really, it was that night as if the earth were smoldering. Well, it was, and it is. An old fire will make a dark husk for itself and settle in on its core, as in the case of this planet. I believe the same metaphor may describe the human individual, as well. Perhaps Gilead. Perhaps civilization. Prod a little and the sparks will fly. I don’t know whether the verse put a blessing on the fireflies or the fireflies put a blessing on the verse, or if both of them together put a blessing on trouble, but I have loved them both a good deal ever since.
What an incredible book and what an incredible author. Read it and learn from a master.
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