Book review: Marilynne Robinson’s wondrous ‘What Are We Doing Here?’

This wondrous book, What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson, has been called the work of someone old-fashioned, cranky and difficult. It appears that is now what we call writing that “will flame out like shining from shook foil”, to quote a line from Gerard Manley Hopkins as Robinson does herself to describe the unbounded beauty of (God-created) humanity and the world in which we exist.

At a time when we collectively seem to be gulping for air and sweating with a furious fever, what is named old-fashioned is perhaps better described as anti-fashioned. It has become the fashion to be cynical as an ineffectual response to the rabid selfishness and ignorance proffered globally as a lifestyle choice.

The crankiness this American writer is accused of turns out to be polite refusal to accept erroneous and unsubstantiated thinking and its consequent imposition on others. 

And difficulty – well, What Are We Doing Here? is only difficult in the sense that opening your heart and mind to mystery and love is hard but necessary work. Rather say singing like a bird or dancing like a firefly is difficult. Not for bird or firefly it isn’t, and neither is reading such fine prose difficult for the person who can understand the English language, used here with a joy that counters so much of the linguistic debasement we hear around us in an age of reductivist cynicism. 

I can’t write like Robinson, so please forgive my honouring her ability by straining to allow the brilliance of her prose reflect a little sparkle on my own.

I don’t mean that her sentences are stuffed with lyrical flourish or complexities worthy of a laureate. Blessed she is with both a rich and deep vocabulary fit for purpose and a cadence that invites understanding and evades the banal. 

“How to recover the animating spirit of humanism?” she writes in the title essay. 

“For one thing, it would help if we reclaimed, or simply borrowed, conceptual language that would allow us to acknowledge that some things are so brilliant they can be understood only as virtuosic acts of mind, thought in the pure enjoyment of itself, whether in making a poem or a scientific discovery, or just learning something it feels unaccountably good to know. There is an unworldliness in the experience, and in what it yields, that requires a larger understanding than our terse vocabularies of behaviour and reward can capture. I have had students tell me that they had never heard the word beautiful applied to a piece of prose until they came to us at the [Iowa Writers] workshop. Literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced. I think this phenomenon is an effect of the utilitarian hostility to the humanities and to art […] And yet the beautiful persists, and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.”

Robinson is seductive; she speaks so clearly, passionately and reasonably, while at the same time without badgering or hiding herself behind impersonal prose, she makes a reader feel valued and respected. 

In passages such as this, I am reminded, yet again, of artist John Wolseley describing a plant that winds around the trunk of a tree and under the bark, and his suggestion that human beings do best – are at their best – when they curl around ideas rather than pursue meaning by marching in straight lines. 

Robinson’s fame increased beyond literary and theological circles following her conversation with Barack Obama published in the New York Review of Books in 2015. She’s also certainly one of the most interesting novelists writing today, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Although she doesn’t make the shortlists for the Man Booker – too American perhaps, not fashionable – she did make the shortlist for the Man Booker International in 2013. Gilead, published in 2004, 24 years after her first novel, Housekeeping, is, for me, the best of her four novels, possibly because I came to it with no knowledge of this writer and was bowled over by it.

She is also a member of Congregationalist church in the United States of America, and someone for whom God is a supreme Being. While she disconcertingly calls her God “him”, at least she doesn’t use a pompous capital letter. She points out that her faith and religion has never prevented her finding common ground for thoughtful discussion with those who do not share her faith. Surely that is a good thing: it certainly makes it possible to enter into the dazzling arena of her ideas, her reasoning, her interrogation of history and morality, as a respected listener, not an adversary who needs to be admonished for different beliefs. 

If her God is the trunk of Robinson’s rhetorical tree, her winding plant is her belief that human beings are miraculous, an idea that takes a bit of getting used to, if one is reading the twitter feed about Australian politics or business. 

Some reviewers have chided her for repetition in these essays, which are a series of lectures, dating from May 2016 through to the final extraordinary essay titled Slander, delivered in February 2017, to the congregation of Trinity Cathedral, in Little Rock, Kansas. Lucky them.

What she underlines through the repetition as her essays unfold is her fascination with the thinking of the Puritans, and how they have influenced what was the great liberal tradition of the United States of America. 

Don’t scoff. Read her. I for one needed the repetition to fully take in some of the information Robinson offers up in these essays, such as the writings of Puritan thinker Jonathan Edwards, the development of human rights charters in New England, how the liberalism upon which the United States of America’s grandeur was built came to be undermined and supplanted with the arrogant ignorance to which we are now witness.

Dipping in to this collection might seem opportune, particularly if you find titles such as The Sacred, the Human not particularly compelling. I began several of these essays thinking I’d be bored by her theology but was drawn in quick smart every time: she is never ever boring. A desultory dipping-in will work fine, but be warned – that kind of reading will miss the shapely elegance of the book in its entirety. Robinson is seductive; she speaks so clearly, passionately and reasonably, while at the same time without badgering or hiding herself behind impersonal prose, she makes a reader feel valued and respected. 

Most importantly, she raises our eyes from the dung-heap of despair of a vindictive and petty zeitgeist. We are better than this, she says, and here’s the kind of thinking that proves it. 

That final essay, Slander, tells us about her mother, a god-fearing woman who, in old age, came under the sway of Fox News, and consequently “tormented by anxieties and regrets”.

The writing in this piece is as personal and angry as Robinson gets, and she steadies herself by going back, as always, into the scriptures of her religion, to consult writers she admires, trusts and loves on why slander is a great wrong done not just to individuals but to society. If you’ve wondered how people who believe themselves to be Christians can act in what is patently an un-Christian manner, Robinson is helpful here: “It seems to be assumed,” she writes, “that any cultural or intellectual jostling that results from a diverse population together in one place must be hostile and threatening. Lord have mercy. We are normalising cowardice.”

I think it’s time we stopped feeling queasy about discussions around the subjects Robinson writes about – the mind, the soul, faith, love and conscience. We have some heavy-hitting “Christians” in power in this country, and they get an easy ride, ethically, because it is enough to say, “I’m a Christian”, to end all discussion, where, in fact, that could be the very beginning of the conversation. 

What Robinson shows us is that religion ought not be a hiding place for dull – even malicious – thought but rather a place where beauty will “flame out like shining from shook foil”. 

Amen to that. 

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson is published by Virago

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2 responses to “Book review: Marilynne Robinson’s wondrous ‘What Are We Doing Here?’

  1. “We have some heavy-hitting “Christians” in power in this country, and they get an easy ride, ethically, because it is enough to say, “I’m a Christian”, to end all discussion, where, in fact, that could be the very beginning of the conversation.”

    Hear hear. I would love to read of more conversations discussing the spiritual aspect of life that’s not written by wellness bloggers and that is Australian. Tis is the second b9ok review in a week I’ve read from an Australian outlet that reviews a book dealing with what could be considered fluff. (The other was on Overland – https://overland.org.au/2018/09/a-mythopoetic-reading-of-tony-birchs-ghost-river/).

    I like it! It’s also spinning me out a bit, to be honest. I’m not used to it. I love that DR has published this. My faith in Aus outlets’ depth is being restored.

  2. Thank you for your lovely review. I will go looking for her book. Housekeeping is, to date, the only one of her books that I have read, some time in the late 80’s, when I knew nothing of her or of her writing. With it I employed my usual approach to unknown authors, which is largely dipping in at random and reading a couple of sentences before making a snap decision about readability. That I shared a full name, my maiden name, with one of her characters was a clincher. And the book was wonderful and profound, moving and funny, and Marilynne Robinson (whose name I had temporarily forgotten till reading your review) remains a lantern shining in the darkness for me.

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