Marilynne Robinson established herself through some of the most biting critiques of neoliberalism written in her time. Since being identified as Obama’s “favorite novelist,” she’s taken political positions more aligned with the powerful than her readers might have once thought possible. Nevertheless, the searing insight and aesthetic magnificence of Robinson’s ornate prose can’t be denied. Phil Christman, author of How to be Normal, joins Lyta Gold on this episode of Art for the End Times to discuss Robinson’s oeuvre, its impact on his own writing, and what the left can still recover from her work.
Lyta Gold: Hello, and welcome to Art for the End Times. As always, I’m your host, Lyta Gold. So, my beautiful, left-leaning audience – I assume you’re all left-leaning. Hopefully that’s a reasonable assumption. I think that is a reasonable assumption. If I were to say to you this phrase, I think you’d get really mad at me. But I’m going to say the phrase anyway and see what happens, because I’m not going to see what happens, but you can write in if you don’t like the phrase. The phrase is “Obama’s favorite novelist”.
Yeah. Because I think a lot of left-leaning people will hear that and be like, oh fuck. Oh, that person has got to be terrible. They have to be some lib, ridiculous, saccharin, terrible writer. It’s got to be like Amanda Gorman but for novels. We’re not pulling our punches here today.
The problem is, though, that Obama’s favorite novelist is Marilynne Robinson. And the problem with Marilynne Robinson is that she’s amazing. She’s an amazing novelist. From a pure stylistic point of view, even without getting into characterization and the deep meaning in her novels, she just is a really, really good writer. So, if you’re not familiar with Marilynne Robinson, she’s written five novels, there was one, Housekeeping, which was like a barn burner, best seller, it’s really, really good. And then she took about 20 years off from writing novels and worked on creative nonfiction, non-fiction essays, that sort of thing. And then she wrote four novels within about 20 years and they all center… The first one’s called Gilead and won a Pulitzer prize, and they all center around this town of Gilead, Iowa. And it’s actually a very small cast of characters, but tells their story from different points of view. And there again, she’s written a lot of non-fiction, a lot of essays. She also taught creative writing in Iowa, therefore she’s CIA, clearly.
And in the last couple of years, as Obama appointed her his favorite novelist, she’s written these… I mean, they’re not bad essays, but they have appeared in The New York Review of Books and The New York Times and they’re very like, America’s good. America’s basically good. And we’d be good together because we’re family. They’re really pretty terrible, but anyway. And that’s frustrating because again, she is a brilliant novelist, and in many ways a brilliant essayist, at least in her early stuff. So, I read a good bit, I would say, of Marilynne Robinson, but I’m by no means an expert. So, to cover the gap, I have brought in a real expert, somebody who really knows Ms. Robinson back to front, and that is Mr. Phil Christman. Hi, Phil.
Phil Christman: Hi Lyta.
Lyta Gold: Hi. So to introduce you, Mr. Phil, Phil is a writer, a writing teacher, he’s editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. You wrote a book called How To Be Normal, which I really think, all of you jerks out there, this is like if I were drunk, if I were like six beers in like, you ought to read… No, but you really guys ought to read this book because you freaks could stand to be normal. It’s not really a book about how to be normal, but in fact about how normal –
Phil Christman: Yeah. It’s an instruction book.
Lyta Gold: It’s a wonderful book, and everybody should read it. But we’re here just because I like hanging out with you. But again also because you’re an expert on Ms. Marilynne Robinson. So, I wanted to start out by asking, before we get into what’s frustrating about her, I want to start with what do you find really great about her?
Phil Christman: So, I have the classic Marilynne Robinson fan backstory, which is that I was raised Christian and attended one of those colleges where there’s rules for when boys can be in girls’ dorms and vice versa. And where, every time we invite someone to do a concert and they use a swear word, it becomes a huge discussion for like three weeks in the student newspaper. That’s my backstory. Lot of earnestness, that’s one thing that I enjoyed about that background. Terrible, terrible earnestness. How is this serving the true, the good, and the beautiful?
Lyta Gold: All three at the same time? That’s a challenge.
Phil Christman: Yeah. Well, they’re convertible with each other at the highest levels. But anyway, and I talk about this in one of the essays in the book actually, in my book, the part of the Evangelical Christian kerygma that you just grow up with is the idea that you are horribly marginal in culture and nobody listens to you or knows anything about your stuff even though you run everything. And somehow… I mean, when you’re eight years old, you can miss that. And also, I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, so I’m partly living through a horrible sea change in the culture, but we were never especially marginal, but we just have this complex about ourselves that we… Well, if we’re Christians, we must be … I think it comes from confusing yourself with the protagonists of the Book of Revelation because the Book of Revelation predicts that bad things will happen to Christians, therefore bad things must be happening to me even if actually I’m just a nice white kid and the world is kissing my ass.
So, if you were that type of person and you were interested in literature, you had the idea that all the good novelists were secular, just like all the good bands were secular. And if someone came along that was a literary equivalent of U2 where it’s like, no, did you know they’re Christians? They’re totally Christians. It was really exciting and you would really overrate them. So figures like John Updike, who wrote one Christian thing in the mid ’60s and we were still kissing his ass about it 30 years later.
Lyta Gold: I didn’t even know about his Christian book. What is it?
Phil Christman: Yeah. His poem Seven Stanzas on… No, that’s wrong. Seven Stanzas [at Easter] or something like that, where he’s like… He says something like, if I’m a Christian, I’m very literal about it. Okay, now back to writing 300 page novels that are just like Nabokovian descriptions of the different flavors of vagina that there are.
Lyta Gold: John Updike, if you’re listening. Just kidding. We still love you.
Phil Christman: So, yeah, who was there? There was Updike, there was Flannery O’Connor, there was Amy Dillard who we didn’t overrate, because you can’t overrate her because she’s fucking GOAT [greatest of all time]. And then toward the end of my time as an undergrad I started hearing references to this Marilynne Robinson, who at that point had written like three books, two of which basically nobody had ever heard of. And that was very sexy to me. Ooh, I’ve only heard your name twice.
The first thing of hers that I read with was Death Of Adam, which is a collection of essays from ’98, and we’ll talk about her political trajectory in more detail later, but she’s so strange. She is a person who probably… I feel like I don’t see her using the word neoliberal much if at all ever, but in her nonfiction from the ’90s, without ever abandoning thinking of herself as a liberal and basically liberal reference points, she is writing some of the most smoking, just scorched earth critiques of neoliberalism as it is happening. And beautiful. The sentences are just gorgeous. These verbs that nobody… She just found them in the closet where nobody had used them in 300 years. I was first just attracted to the beauty and ornateness of the prose style.
Then I was attracted to her total forthrightness about what she thinks, which is still a virtue of hers even now that she’s saying… Some of what she thinks makes me mad. It’s her willingness not to be… I mean, this sounds like such a basic thing, but she really, really doesn’t get her opinion secondhand. And she doesn’t get her opinions… She doesn’t buy them in a bunch. You’ll be reading her and you’ll be thinking, oh okay, she hates this guy. So people who hate that guy always end up defending this ism. Oh no, she hates that ism, and that other guy. And it turns out I’ve been reading Locke wrong my whole life, and she’s actually done the homework. Whereas I, at that age, was fronting as a guy who had done the homework and I was like, oh shit. Oh, okay.
Lyta Gold: Well, there’s so much homework, especially theology, philosophy. And she really has read it all.
Phil Christman: Yeah. She really has. I am now reaching a point where I can begin to pick on some of her interpretations. But she’s not fronting. And so then I read Housekeeping and I just… That book, it seems to come from nowhere. It is beautiful in ways that I would never have anticipated. It’s just like this gorgeous alien object on the literary landscape. And then it was after a couple years, I guess I just figured, well, she’s too busy teaching to write new books or something. I didn’t know if I’d ever get new fiction from her. And then Gilead came out, and then she’s been pretty steady writing new fiction since then. And it’s been great watching her get added back into the canon after almost being forgotten about. And I love her to pieces. I think she’s the greatest living English language writer, Samuel Delaney is her only serious rival.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, that’s fair, actually.
Phil Christman: And these are two people who would not get along at all, they’d probably kill each other.
Lyta Gold: The amount that I would love to see them debate, though. I would actually love to see them in a [crosstalk] room together. That would be fun.
Phil Christman: Oh my God, yeah. I’m pretty much as big of a stan as I ever was. It hurts me whenever she talks about Barack Obama and his policy.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, so we can get into this. So again, she’s writing these novels that are about… They’re about religion, and they’re about these… The four Gilead books, they are a series, they’re about this pastor, John Ames. But they’re not all directly about him. There’s one from his point of view and there’s others that are about characters in this orbit. But he’s a fundamentally decent person who is trying and who still screws up a lot. And so, I mean, these really magical, powerful books. Again, they bring in all of her incredible,erudition and everything that she knows. But then something happened with her, and it’s really…
I don’t know exactly when her relationship with Obama began, because they did become friends. He fanboyed out. I’m imagining now a Marilynne Robinson forum where it was like an AMA and she came on and then Obama was her biggest concern.
Phil Christman: One of my dearest friends and I, we basically ran a Marilynne Robinson fan site for [inaudible] –
Lyta Gold: No way, you did?
Phil Christman: Yeah and he’s –
Lyta Gold: That’s awesome.
Phil Christman: The Marilynne Robinson Appreciation Society. He still lets me have a bio on there even though I have not done jack shit for that site in like 10 years. But I was very active in the beginning.
Lyta Gold: Oh my God. Well, did Obama ever show up?
Phil Christman: So, it’s very [inaudible]… Yeah, it’s very possible she has… I think she knows we exist, but she’s never shown up. It’s very possible that Obama has read my website, which at one point in my life would’ve thrilled me. Now, it’s…
Lyta Gold: I know. But I’m trying to imagine now what his avatar would be. It’d be really annoying. He’d have some annoying… Maybe –
Phil Christman: It’d be some fucking… It’d be some West Wing character.
Lyta Gold: Oh yeah. Yeah, he’d be Bartlet on your… That’s how you know him. That’s how you know he’s on your fan forum. Yeah, so talk a little more, if you can, about this relationship that they developed, this friendship.
Phil Christman: I don’t know her personally. I wish I did. I did do a Zoom thing where I got to interview her once, which was pretty sweet. So, this is speculation. First of all, I think Obama ’08 looks… Well really, first of all, let’s go back to ’08 and think where lots of us were. Obama did look incredibly refreshing at that moment. I remember feeling like he was going to reintroduce to the American people the art of having two thoughts in your head at once. Because he could do that in his speeches, factor that in.
So, Robinson’s politics are weird and interesting. She seems to definitely not think of herself as a leftist. She seems to think of leftists as sort of like ideological nerds. She uses the word ideology very pejoratively. I think the way she means it is something like you’re someone who is… Everybody has values. Everybody has morals that they’re committed to. Someone with an ideology is someone who is just too sure about the exact shape, too fanatical about the details. I think that is basically her picture of leftists. There’s a Marxist character who we meet at the beginning of Home, who is just this annoying, loud mouthed little hypocrite, and it’s like –
Lyta Gold: Which to be fair, we’ve all met that guy.
Phil Christman: We’ve all met that guy. I mean, but she seems to think that that’s most of what there is to the left in America. She seems to really buy into all of the… We are at our best when we debate and compromise, basically Tony Kushner’s script for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. She seems to really believe that. She believes that as deeply and intelligently as you can believe in it, and on as much reading and research as one possibly can. And I think Obama ’08 looks like that.
So, I remember she wrote a piece, I think in the NYT [New York Times] during the ’08 primary where she came out and endorsed Obama, and I was thrilled. I was reading this in my little grad student office, pumping my fists like, yes! Yes, she’s on my side! I’m on her side.
Lyta Gold: Were you logging onto the forum then to like, guys, guys. Or is this before the forum?
Phil Christman: The forum didn’t exist yet, but I immediately was like… I was talking to all my other Marilynne Robinson stan friends like, she endorsed Obama. We’re right. We’re right. I remember him at some point returning the compliment, saying that Gilead was his favorite novel, which was another… I was like, see, he’s going to be the best president in my lifetime. Think how refreshing that was after eight years of George W. Bush’s dumb ass.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, we forget how bad that was. Enough time has passed that people forget. It was a bleak… 2000 to 2008 were bleak times.
Phil Christman: It was such a bleak cultural moment. Yeah, I don’t remember… They do the series of conversations.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, that was like 2015, I think November of 2015. They had these [inaudible] –
Phil Christman: Somewhere in there he’d given her the National Medal for the Humanities or something like that. He gave that medal thing to a whole bunch of writers who were to my right, but I like them. I think he gave it to her. I want to say he gave one to Dillard. He gave one to Wendell Berry, my one conservative intellectual that I allow myself as a treat. The dude has or had good taste. I mean, at this point it just feels like there’s an intern curating all his lists, so I don’t feel like I know what his tastes are, but I mean he’s not a dumb guy and he has good taste.
Lyta Gold: His role as an arbiter of taste is… That’s kind of what he’s become. And it’s almost, as he felt that his presidency was meaningless and not working, he seemed to slide more and more into that.
Phil Christman: Do you remember right around when Trump won, there was this n+1 article about Obama as the national narrator. If you think of him as a president he’s a huge failure because he didn’t do shit, and what he did do, a lot of it was bad, like causing a famine in Yemen for some fucking reason. But if you think of him as the nation’s narrator, which is how he seems to conceive of himself, yeah, he’s nice. He is the voiceover in the background of the story of America. This is better than the thing you hear at the 4th of July picnic. I think the cultural arbiter thing fits in with that. Like, I’m choosing what is the best in the churn of history that our country is still committed to, or whatever.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. In many ways it’s editor-in-chief of the US, that would’ve been a better role for him in many ways. These good vibes, he was good at, what are the nicest vibes in America? And Maryland does have wonderful, nice vibes, but yeah, these conversations that they had in November 2015, if people want, I think they’re freely available online. We’ll link them in the show notes if we can. I found them really illuminating. And you mentioned when we talked about them that you find them absolutely dire.
Phil Christman: Nails on a chalkboard, yeah. They’re painful for me. The thing that actually broke my heart a little bit, because I don’t know, it’s like seeing your dad sneak money out of the church collection plate or something, is The Nation did a big wrap up on Obama’s presidency as he was leaving office. And her piece for it, I don’t remember all the details, but it’s basically like defending his legacy mostly from the left because it’s The Nation.
And at one point she literally makes the argument that my right-wing dad makes about the fucking nuclear arms race. She says of drones, and he’s been terribly criticized for his use of drones by people who have proposed nothing to replace them. That nothing to replace them line, that is a sign that apologism has driven you crazy. Because I mean, that line only gets used about things where like, well, let’s replace it with nothing. Let’s replace it by not doing the thing anymore. You think you’re really clever the first time that occurs to you when you’re 13. That’s literally what my dad used to say about arms reduction talks in the 1980s. Oh, you don’t like nuclear weapons? What are we going to replace them with? I don’t know, how about not killing ourselves? How about that?
Lyta Gold: Not potentially destroying the world by… Even through accident, let alone intention.
Phil Christman: Yeah. So hearing Marilynne Robinson sound like my right-wing dad, it broke something in me. I still love her. I’m still going to buy every book she ever does. I think it’s just a cautionary… I don’t think there’s any insincerity in it. She’s not climbing. She doesn’t clout chase. She said of Housekeeping that when she wrote it, she kept telling herself, this will never get published. This is just an experiment I’m doing while I’m raising my kids. And then she sent it to a friend who said, I’m going to send this to… Oh, I can’t remember who the agent was. I’m going to send this to so and so, and they’re not going to publish it, but they’ve just got to see it.
And then the publisher was like, we’re going to publish this, but nobody’s going to buy it. And then Anatole Broyard gave it a rave review in The New York Times, correctly, because it’s one of the greatest books [inaudible] the 20th century. And he was like, this is a classic and nobody’s going to buy it. And then it’s been in print continuously since 1981. And then her second book is about… Nobody ever talks about Mother Country from 1989. It is a book about the nuclear pollution of the English countryside by the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, which is apparently a huge… If you go to the UK, it’s like saying Three Mile Island –
Lyta Gold: Oh, really?
Phil Christman: People know what you’re talking about, but it’s never talked about here. And she lived in the UK in the mid ’80s, and wanted to bring people’s attention to it. But then to answer the question, I mean, you alluded earlier to her not publishing fiction for a long time. This is one of my favorite parts of the backstory of Marilynne Robinson. She was trying to answer the question for herself of how could the UK government be stupid enough to pollute its own countryside in this very short-sighted way that doesn’t make sense if you’re even looking 20 minutes into the future? How did this happen? And so she just starts reading up on the whole history of English poor law and English economic and social thought to figure out what is now the consensus opinion on the left, which is that it’s a horrible little island full of rich cousins treating everybody else like absolute shit.
Lyta Gold: Sorry to our UK readers, but maybe [crosstalk].
Phil Christman: I’m not throwing that spitball from a position of superiority, here.
Lyta Gold: It is funny how the US and the UK are like the two worst countries, and that we had a revolution against them only so we could be the worst, or to compete for that title for eternity.
Phil Christman: Colonized mentality, you know?
Lyta Gold: Yeah.
Phil Christman: Like, let’s suck like they do. And at some point in all the research on, gee, how did the English upper class become so terrible? She apparently read all of Marx’s Kapital and then checked all the footnotes to see how –
Lyta Gold: Goddammit, she’s so thorough.
Phil Christman: Yeah, she rules. I mean, that’s so heroic to me. She’s talked about this in interviews, that she’s pursued this kind of course of self-reeducation, because she felt like what she got in college and graduate school was a lot of truisms from people who were fronting. And she felt like she had to actually read the cannon to find out. They fucked around, she found out. So her second book is about nuclear pollution, and I think it’s brilliant, but it’s not very sexy. I mean, it makes you feel really bad to read it. The only thing that makes it enjoyable is how witty she is when she’s really, really angry, and the complete rightness of her anger and who she’s angry at. It’s a viciously anti-Thatcher book, beautifully anti-Thatcher book. But it’s also beautifully dismissive of the idea that wages must always inevitably fall to the level of subsistence. I mean really the whole history of political economy, the only writers on political economy that she doesn’t hate are Marx and Smith, interestingly enough.
Lyta Gold: Interesting, yeah.
Phil Christman: They’re the ones she is least hard on. And then at some point she starts teaching Melville and she decides she needs to read the theologians Melville would’ve read to get a sense of his intellectual background. This is the other thing that is really going to turn people off besides her being Obama’s favorite novelist, she reads John Calvin and –
Lyta Gold: Oh, [imitates ominous orchestra hit], we need a Calvin drop.
Phil Christman: We need a Calvin drop!
Lyta Gold: Like fire and brimstone.
Phil Christman: And what she discovers, which I don’t think she’s… I will never, ever be able to like Calvin in the way that she does when there are Universalist Eastern Orthodox theologians that I could like instead. But what she finds I think is basically right, which is just that if you read him in his context as a 16th century intellectual, he’s no bigger of an asshole than a lot of people who are not remembered as terrifying. And specifically, he definitely doesn’t have the attitude toward the poor that you would expect him to.
Lyta Gold: Really? I am a heathen, so I don’t know any of this, tell me.
Phil Christman: Well, he’s a Christian theologian. So he basically has to tell you to give your money away and that Jesus is mad at you if you hoard. He doesn’t completely break with Christian tradition in the way that you have to wait for the 20th century in America for that to happen. And so she finds that he’s not really the great beast of intellectual history. Then she goes really far with that insight and is like, I like him, fuck you. So, a lot of Death Of Adam is her saying, if people actually read Calvin, but they don’t because they front. And that may sound really boring. It’s not, Death Of Adam is an incredible book. And then her next thing is the Gilead series, which is about an Iowa pastor.
She has an interview somewhere where she says, I have courted obscurity more than any writer right now. And she’s absolutely right. So, I don’t think her relationship with Obama… I think she is sincerely this wrong and she really likes him that much, which I mean, he is a historically charming person. I just think she’s a cautionary tale for how you shouldn’t let the president be friends with you.
Lyta Gold: It’s so funny, to circle back to that drone thing, because I just read Gilead, which I hadn’t read before and it’s a wonderful book. And there’s this complicated thread in it about political violence because it’s… So John Ames, the pastor, who’s near the end of his life, and this is set in like 1956 or ‘7. His grandfather was around during the Civil War and helped out John Brown, and then his grandfather and his father – And he comes from a long line of pastors, so they’ve all been pastors, all the various John Ameses – His grandfather and his father fought, not physically, but they disagreed over the uses of political violence. The grandfather was this fiery radical, and he believed that political violence in the service of abolition was absolutely justified. And he may have killed a guy, or at least injured a guy at some point. And then of course John Ames’s father very much disagreed with this. And this is this line of tension in the story, in the whole narrative.
But then to go from that, for this complicated, when is violence good? When is it justified? It’s messy. But in the service of liberation, maybe. And then to go from that to like, what are you going to replace drones with?
Phil Christman: Drones with.
Lyta Gold: And just, ugh. So disappointing.
Phil Christman: Yeah, she knows better. She knows better. Oh, Gilead is such a… I mean, I think that particular thread in Gilead, too, does such a nice job of illustrating what I really admire about her, which is that she, at her best, is an extremely non-binary thinker who is really happy to just let impossible paradoxes stand and to just… There they are. We have to affirm both of these things somehow. There’s a line in one of the essays in Death Of Adam, I think, where she says that Christian theology has always treated paradox as though it were resolution which –
Lyta Gold: I like that.
Phil Christman: …I think that’s true, and I also think that’s part of what is appealing to her about John Calvin. Because he does, if you read much of him, he does very strongly and violently insist on the idea that God absolutely and wildly loves everybody, and that you should treat any given person… We would expect, based on our stereotypes, we would expect Calvin to tell us, you should sift every person you meet into saved and damned and treat them accordingly. And he doesn’t say that. He says, you should treat every person you meet as though they were someone for whom Christ chose to die. That if they were the only… Your dumbest, loser cousin is a soul for whom… The worst criminal, whoever, anyway. Henry Kissinger. He didn’t say that, I say that.
Lyta Gold: Let’s not go nuts.
Phil Christman: Yeah, let’s not go too far with this Christian charity stuff. I mean, this is a problem that runs through… This is me putting on my David Bentley Hart hat, all Western Christian theology after Augustine, Eastern Christians, especially the Universalists, don’t run into this as much because they just say, well, eventually everybody will go to heaven. But he also affirms double predestination in its starkest form. He says simultaneously that we should love everybody as though Jesus had died just for them and also, but Jesus didn’t actually die for lots and lots of people. God actually foreordains lots and lots of people to damnation. Aquinas also makes this point, but he makes it in passing. Calvin just gets really, really dug in on it.
Lyta Gold: We can be here all day about it.
Phil Christman: That sucks, by the way.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, we can be here all day, we can be all day. I’m just curious. How would you somebody square that with like a just and loving God, that He would also –
Phil Christman: You don’t square it. I mean, as I say, I can’t square it, and so I have ultimately drifted in a very different direction theologically. But if I’m trying to be generous to Robinson and her reading of Calvin, I would say she’s someone who really believes that sometimes reality just seems to say A and not A at the same time. And that we can see this in science, she really loves any weird, fucked up physics fact. We can see this in our ethical and emotional lives. I love you and hate you at the same time. We also see this in the way that God relates to humanity, if we take the Calvin pill. And so, I think that her attraction to paradox is part of what she loves about Calvin. And even though I think you have to reject double barreled predestination, as we used to call it back in undergrad. I think it’s a horrible idea. And I think Jesus died for all of you losers, but –
Lyta Gold: But some of you are losers and should know it, is what we’re saying.
Phil Christman: Yeah. No, look, Jesus died for losers, of whom I am first. That’s in the Bible. But I also think, aesthetically, this capacity for saying, oh, sometimes reality is so complex that our language completely breaks down and we have to just starkly contradict ourselves. That accounts for her sometimes too accepting attitude toward John Calvin and most of the most beautiful passages in her fiction.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, I’m Jewish, I am generally not very attracted to extremely Christian writers just because they’re operating with a different language, a different way of looking at the world, and I find it not fun. But she really believes in the beauty of the world and the transcendent… There’s a great Ursula le Guin line that I just love, which is something like, fiction says in words what the writer can’t say in words. And I think Marilynne, more so maybe than anybody else, maybe even more so than Ursula herself, really puts in words the ineffable beauty of the world in a way that cannot really be described.
Phil Christman: Yeah. And a lot of how she does that for me is through the affirmation of paradox. I mean, you were asking which of her books are my favorite. Lila is way up there, and it’s because –
Lyta Gold: I think that’s my favorite too. That’s so good.
Phil Christman: There’s so much I could say about how beautiful that book is. But there’s this great section where Lila, who is John Ames’s wife, who is, for those of you following along at home, she’s someone who’s grown up in actually terribly dire poverty, and is someone who, by the ’40s, ’50s when these books are taking place, she’s been drifting for some time and she washes up in this small town. She and Ames meet and fall in love. That was one subplot by the way, that I wasn’t sure I thought Marilynne Robinson was going to do that good of a job of. I’d never seen her do a romance before, and now she’s written two very successful, aesthetically successful, romance plots in Lila and Jack. But there’s a thread running through that book of Lila talking about how you want to put the good and the terrible into some sort of ledger and make it all balance out. And maybe they just go in different books. I think, yeah, that’s it. I’ve never seen anybody put it better than that. I mean, that is life to me.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. It’s funny to look at Lila and Gilead side by side, because Gilead in many ways is about sinners. It’s about people who have done bad things to other people, specifically men who’ve done bad things to other people. And then Lila is someone who has been sinned against. So she’s had this terrible life, a terribly difficult, frustrating life, but also with some lovely things that happened in it because even terrible poverty isn’t… You find people who are interesting and take care of you sometimes. Then she’s met and fallen in love with John who, by the way, is way older than her. And if the internet ever finds out, he is canceled, we’re canceled for life [inaudible] –
Phil Christman: Not only is he older, he’s her pastor. I just live in dread of the day –
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk].
Phil Christman: …That progressive Christian Twitter, which is actually some of the worst hall monitors on the internet, that they just decide to be like, John Ames is exploiting a parishioner, but y’all ain’t ready for that conversation. It’s going to happen.
Lyta Gold: It’s going to. And back over in Gilead, there’s a story about John Ames’s godson, who’s named Jack. Jack is the protagonist of the novel Jack later. And Jack got a very young girl pregnant. He’s kind of a bad person when he was a younger guy, he’s aggressive, and he did some bad things, and he got a fairly young girl pregnant. And then the kid ends up dying, there was a lot of stuff. So, he’s a bad person, but the bad person who’s looking for redemption.
Phil Christman: [inaudible].
Lyta Gold: Yeah. But he’s very canceled. He’s extremely canceled. Jailed for a thousand years. But what’s so great about Marilynne, of course, is she doesn’t put people in jail for a thousand years. She’s interested in them and interested in what happens to them next.
Phil Christman: Yeah, I mean, she writes like a universalist. She writes like somebody who really believes that if you perceive people carefully enough, you’ll see the good in them that can be the spark that can be blown on until it suffuses their whole being. Part of what’s really impressive about the Gilead books is that I keep thinking she’s written herself into a corner, and I really thought that she had done that with the character of Jack. In the first book, John Ames is looking at him as this wayward, returned prodigal son, and what are his intentions? And, oh, he’s young and good looking, is Lila going to drop me for him? Because why wouldn’t she, I’m old? I’m dying. I’m writing a letter to my seven year old son because I’m probably going to be dead.
And yeah, he’s very ambiguous. He’s very morally ambiguous now, with some absolutely terrible things in his past. And then in Home you feel bad for him, the second book, because you’re seeing him come home and try to rebuild some sort of relationship with his own father. It turns out to be his own father’s racism and unwillingness to accept… Or to present himself as someone who might even be ready to learn about Jack’s Black wife, that precipitates Jack having to leave again. Home is just one of those quietly emotionally savage novels. I don’t know if I will ever reread it in full. It has some of my favorite passages of Robinson, but it permanently scarred me to watch some of the fights between Jack and his father.
And then Lila, I just thought, do I think that Marilynne Robinson can do a convincingly working-class drifter narrator? And, yes. The answer is yes. The way she finds a language in which Lila can express thoughts that are as complex as anybody could ever have, but using metaphors that make sense and that would be available to her. I think it is such a small D democratic novel, in that it’s a novel that really believes that Marilynne Robinson, with her PhDs and her Orange Prize and her Pulitzer and her award from the American academy, is not more intelligent than this extremely poor, shy, self-effacing woman.
And then Jack, the last book, I was like, okay, Marilynne, I love you, but there’s no way you’re going to be able to do this because this involves… We get to see, A, Jack’s Black wife and her milieu, and her dad, who’s a Garveyite, and I’m like, oh, how is she going to do [it]? I thought she did pretty well. I thought those characters were rich and convincing. They sounded like people I would actually meet, they were completely sympathetic. But I really didn’t know how she was going to make Jack make emotional sense, because we’ve seen him behave really terribly.
There’s this beautiful line early in Jack where she says something… It’s almost like he’s morally… You know that feeling you have where you’re on top of some sort of tall building or precipice and you think, what if I threw myself off?
Lyta Gold: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Phil Christman: You don’t actually want to do it, but you’re transfixed by how vulnerable everything suddenly seems. He’s that, morally. It’s not that he wanted to do all that harm, it’s more, what’ll happen if I fuck everything up again? And then fucking everything up becomes his story. He believes it’s this unavoidable fate for himself, which just increases the pressure. He doesn’t actually want to be this terrible person who brings harm and wreckage everywhere he goes. She pulled that off. She made him convincingly someone who has done really terrible things without being thoroughgoingly terrible.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, and it’s fun because in Gilead, just from John Ames’s point of view, he doesn’t really know why Jack acts that way. He keeps saying, oh, there’s a meanness in him. There’s a meanness. And you find out when you see this story sort of [Jack’s] point of view, at least you hear him talk more, you see that’s not what it’s like for him. Especially once you start going down a bad path, and he was like this from when he was a kid, a small kid, just doing mean pranks. People start to expect that of you, and even if you’re surrounded by people with nice Christian forgiveness, there’s a certain forbearance and judgment in it. There’s a certain, obviously you are being bad, but we forgive you because we’re good. Which is agonizing, and which is a terrible thing, and he’s trying.
Phil Christman: It just makes you feel worse.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like, oh, you hurt me, but I’m too good to be really hurt. It’s like, oh. But he’s genuinely trying to put himself together. And then Della, his wife – And this is about their courtship – Is just not at all sure what to make of him at first because she is a normal person who is trying to live her life, and he is so screwed up.
Phil Christman: Yeah. She says this great line to him, “I never knew a white man to get so little good out of being a white man.”
Lyta Gold: And it’s true. Actually, I didn’t think about this until now, but in the whole arc, because most of the characters in the books are white, but there’s this long arc about abolition and civil rights and Blackness that’s going on mostly in the background. John Ames’s grandfather was like, okay, well everybody in town needs to give up everything and go fight the abolitionist cause and literally shed blood, and that’s the appropriate thing to do. And then they’ve got John Ames’s friend Boughton, I don’t know how you say his name. But anyway, Jack’s father. Jack’s father who is this seemingly nice guy pastor with these racist ideas. And that’s why Jack can’t admit that he’s got this Black wife and Jack is almost like where all that evil goes to live, the screwed up way that the town treats Black people, all the sins of racism go into him and twist him up in, again, these really odd ways.
Phil Christman: Yeah, he’s the town sin eater.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, yeah, that’s a much cleaner way to put what I was trying to say, yeah.
Phil Christman: Well, and we were talking about Robinson and paradox, which I mean, I guess I experience the world very much that way, and so it feels to me like she’s expressing something very true there. But I think that the different generations of the Gilead men, which is what you started out by observing, and of the Ames family men, they illustrate that as well. Because I mean maybe if I were an ethicist, I could square all this neatly, but I’m not a professional ethicist. I’m the average intelligence guy in the meme. I look at John Brown and I go, yeah. I hate violence. I hate violence in my soul. I hate violent rhetoric. I mean, I don’t always feel like a very good leftist because the word revolution, it doesn’t make my nipples hard [inaudible].
I just think, and what are the prison camps going to look like? Who are we going to shoot? Am I going to be shot? Am I going to have to shoot someone? I don’t know, man, you’re talking about a type of war. I hate fucking violence. If I look at John Brown, I’m like, yep. Yep, you can hide in my basement, buddy. You are right. Fuck the Confederacy.
Lyta Gold: You heard it here, folks.
Phil Christman: Yes. Yes, the very hot take of the year 1815.
Lyta Gold: It is still a hot take and it’s still fun to say.
Phil Christman: That’s what sucks so much about now. We won the Civil War and then lost the peace, and we’re still losing the fucking peace.
Lyta Gold: I think you make this exact point in your book, actually. Yeah, that’s a very good one.
Phil Christman: I was right about that. So, that’s my response to the first generation of the Ames family. And then comes the Civil War. And it’s horrible. I mean, I don’t care if the officer class of the Confederacy, I don’t care so much about them suffering or getting shot. But millions of people died, man. It was a war, it was a war. It sucked. Rejecting all violence, I think that’s the right response to seeing that. And of course, for an American, the next major, major war and the major war of Ames’s father’s generation is World War I. And actually saying, fuck war and fuck violence, more people saying that would’ve been very good in that instance, because World War I was just an obscene slaughter that continued for four years for really no good reason after a certain point. I can’t say that either of those people are wrong. And yeah, I’m just left going, I agree with both of you, and that feels really like a stupid thing to say, but it’s finally the only thing I can say.
Lyta Gold: I think there’s a great moment in Gilead where John Ames describes how his father and his grandfather only really got along when they weren’t talking. So, if they could sit in silence and like shell black walnuts together, then they’d be great. But sometimes that’s how you have to keep these completely contradictory ideas going at the same time.
Phil Christman: You can’t make them all balance out in the same book. You just have to have different books, yeah. That’s Lila‘s thing.
Lyta Gold: Lila, I think again, really is my favorite of them. Probably more so than any of the others, I want to just get into this really briefly because you do work in prisons, and you work with prisoners to help them with writing and helping them express themselves. Marilynne’s books are so much about sin and forgiveness and a radical way of looking at people who have done wrong, and people who have been wronged, and trying to see another way out of it. I mean, do you see a connection with the work you’re trying to do and Marilynn’s work? Is that a piece [inaudible] that you think about?
Phil Christman: Well, yeah, no, I think she’s deeply influenced me, and I find myself using her language a lot in regular conversation when I’m talking about all sorts of things including that work. In her nonfiction and in her fiction, really, she talks a lot about perception and what lies outside of our strategies of perception and all that kind of stuff. And there’s that beautiful line in Housekeeping where the narrator, Ruthie, talks about sometimes you see a person, and it’s as though you were seeing them at a bus station in the middle of the night ,and they are perfectly mysterious and you have no idea where they’re going or what they’ll do, and you perceive them as something completely inexplicable, which is to say you perceive them truly.
That’s my credo. That’s what I’m constantly trying… So, when I work with my students to read the work that writers in prison send to us, we get submissions by people who have MFAs and they went to prison for some reason. So, people who have learned to write in ways that are recognizably excellent according to my strategies of perception and my students’ strategies of perception. And then sometimes we get work that has an excellence that is outside of that tradition. We don’t get enough of it, but it does happen. I don’t love the phrase outsider art, but that kind of vibe. You know?
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Not CIA Iowa Writers Workshop approved.
Phil Christman: Yes, correct. So, what I’m trying to do when I read stuff that looks like it might just be bad, is try to see whether it’s actually good in a Sun Ra way that doesn’t make any sense at first. I’m trying to train my students to also do that. And then I’m also, I’m trying to train them to see… This seems like a simple point that you wouldn’t have to keep making but unfortunately it’s not. Ending, using Zs to make a word plural, like to make a noun plural, that’s not a mistake, that’s part of Black English vernacular. That’s not wrong. You’re not being big and magnanimous by overlooking that and saying, oh, I thought the poem was really impactful anyway. No, this person is correctly using a different vernacular than your own.
So, just trying different ways of seeing other people and really treating human social life as an imaginative experience and a challenge to your generosity. And your generosity being something that needs to work hand-in-hand with your intelligence and your imagination, that the highest work that intelligence and imagination can do is to team up with generosity to find the way of seeing somebody that will really allow you to see them, you know?
Lyta Gold: Yeah.
Phil Christman: I feel like that’s an ethos that I just absorbed from her books very directly. I mean, if we want a simple pitch for why leftists should read Marilynne Robinson despite her sins, that’s why. I think that that is morally a left and certainly a small D democratic way of approaching social life. She communicates it so powerfully and so memorably in ways that stay in the reader’s heart.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, there’s a wonderful line in Gilead, something like every person is their own civilization, and they learn to understand each other.
Phil Christman: Yes, [inaudible].
Lyta Gold: My jaw dropped reading that passage, because it’s such an extraordinary… You were talking about her as such an original thinker, and that is not a concept I think I’ve ever encountered anywhere with anyone. Just an incredible image. And she’s right, we do communicate with each other as strangers from different civilizations across distances, every single individual does. It’s wild.
Phil Christman: And half of what people complain about, the boredom and badness of everyday life, and like when guys complain about, oh the ball and chain, I hate my wife. What is the problem there? Well, some of the problem there is just straight up misogyny. But some of the problem is also you think you know this person just because you’ve been married to them. Or you think you know this person just because they’re your best friend. You think you’ve thoroughly explored this civilization. You have not, and you haven’t fully explored your whole inner kingdom either. I mean, it’s profoundly challenging, but it’s also profoundly hopeful.
Lyta Gold: Yeah.
Phil Christman: It means I never have to just give in to middle age ennui, because what that is just me thinking that I thoroughly understand myself and all the people around me. And thank God, that’s always a mistake.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. It’s funny, we recently got a dog, as you well know. And one of the things that’s been very interesting is that we’re now part of society because we have a dog, people talk to us, which they didn’t before. Because we live in Queens, it’s big, there’s lots of different people. Our neighborhood, supposedly it’s like a hundred languages spoken in a square mile. I mean, a lot of people don’t speak English but having this dog, he’s like the universal language, people want to talk to us. And it’s been remarkable how the whole world has lit up around me.
People are not just like random people I’m walking past. I’m getting to know people, and speaking to each other in the limited ways we can with the different languages, and all because they love my dog because he’s perfect. Which I understand, clearly. It can be so easy to get used to the world around you and to think that there’s something [inaudible] it, there’s nothing new. And to think the people at the grocery store are… There’s a David Foster Wallace essay that people quote that I really hate. And it’s like, you know how you’re in the grocery store and everybody seems like a terrible mutant and you hate them? Yeah, I don’t know about that. But he has a point that sometimes you do feel that way, but that really is not. Everybody is fascinating. And if you talk to people, and it’s a part of organizing and a part of being a leftist and belonging to a community, you start talking to people and you find out that the world is gigantic, it’s gigantic all around you. Again, maybe every organizer should get a cute little dog. I mean, maybe that’s the lesson that we’ve learned.
Phil Christman: Every organizer should get a cute little dog and a complete set of Marilynne Robinson. Including the bad stuff. But for me, I benefit from having all my heroes disappoint me at some point, because it keeps me from getting too dependent and it helps me be more forgiving when I think something’s stupid. I think there’s something important about that too.
Lyta Gold: I’m imagining you guys having a Marilynne Robinson fancon where you all dress up as John Ames or something, but this stops you.
Phil Christman: I would dress up as Marilynne Robinson. I’d put on a big gray wig. And have you ever seen a picture of this woman? She’s so intimidating.
Lyta Gold: She looks great. She’s so terrifying, it’s like the big caftan situation.
Phil Christman: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know if you’ve ever watched her do a speech. Marilynne Robinson speeches, if there’s any clips on YouTube, very worth watching. Because every time she says something really, just devastatingly witty about another writer that she doesn’t like, she does this hair flip.
Lyta Gold: That’s savage.
Phil Christman: Always does it. And okay, Marilynne Robinson is… She’s pushing 80 and she looks like Gandalph. I have to say this because my wife is half convinced that I want to leave her from Marilynne Robinson. I keep having to be like, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not that kind of vibe. But I will say when she does the Marilynne Robinson hair flip –
Lyta Gold: You’re feeling it.
Phil Christman: It’s pretty hot.
Lyta Gold: This is the reverse plot of Gilead, actually. Your wife is worried you’re going to leave her for an older woman, a much older woman. Incredible. She’s got the jewelry, the glasses, the big clothes, big hair. Oh my God, I went to look for that hair flip. That’s brutal.
Phil Christman: The hair flip is brutal.
Lyta Gold: I love it.
Phil Christman: So yeah, if there were a Marilynne Robinson convention, I would dress up like her, but I would look like her dumb, nice cousin who’s not intimidating at all because I have an agreeable Midwestern kid face. And I would just do the hair flip until people recognized me. That would be my sartorial contribution.
Lyta Gold: I’d like to see this, I think [inaudible]. But anyway, we should wrap it up. But this has been a delight. If people are interested in reading more about your delightful Midwestern childhood, Midwestern values, as we say in Ann Arbor, they should check out your book, book of essays, How To Be Normal, which is great. Again, they’re not really about how to be normal, not really a self-help, teachy thing, but they’re about how normal is impossible because the world is big and complicated.
Phil Christman: That’s right.
Lyta Gold: And anyway, they’re remarkable. Everybody should read them, and they should all read… You should have that and Marilynne Robinson in a big stack and just carry it around the street.
Phil Christman: Yes, yes. I endorse this plan.
Lyta Gold: Yes, along with a little dog. And then everyone in the whole world will talk to you.
Phil Christman: This is the Gold Plan. You’re going to primary Biden, this is your…
Lyta Gold: The Gold Plan. This name has some real great pun potential that I really haven’t explored. Because you can also do a Silver and a Bronze Plan. Once you get the Gold Plan going, you can always be like, yeah, tier down a couple steps.
Phil Christman: Yeah. Now I’m trying to think what the Silver and Bronze Plans are. The Silver plan is the Green New Deal. I don’t know.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. The Bronze Plan is just highways. Fix the fucking highways.
Phil Christman: The Bronze Plan is that you teach all of us how to sound good on the radio. Vocal coaching, K12 for everybody.
Lyta Gold: Again, I was telling you before we started, it does not sound in my head like this at all. Completely, I sound stupid in my own head.
Phil Christman: Well, yeah, better that than the way it is for most of us, which is the opposite.
Lyta Gold: But that’s how it is inside your own civilization, you never really know. So you have to go to other people’s civilizations to find out.
Phil Christman: Great.
Lyta Gold: But yeah, so thanks again for joining me.
Phil Christman: Yeah, thank you for having me, and thanks everybody for listening.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. If you’re listening, you’re probably a subscriber to The Real News Network. If not, you should be. We have so many other great shows besides mine, although mine is the fun one. Don’t tell the others. Yeah, we’ll see you next time.