With a Dying Catfish as Witness
Meadow in Giverny, Claude Monet, 1894
From Review 31:
Robinson’s latest novel, Lila, turns our attention to Lila Ames, who wanders into Gilead in search of work and soon becomes Ames’s second wife. In Gilead, Lila is a mysterious, much loved, but ultimately marginal figure: through Ames’ first-person narration, we learn very little about her, except that she is almost half the preacher’s age and unaccustomed to the minutiae of parish life. She rarely speaks, has no job, friends, or family of her own, and is named only once by the disgraced Jack Boughton whom Ames believes is trying to seduce her.
By comparison, Lila employs a closely focalised third-person and Robinson records events as only Lila sees them. Narrative episodes overlap, frequently, with the timeline of Gilead and significant moments in the life of Ames and Lila are repeated from the perspective of the latter. The experience of reading Gilead and Lila is therefore disarmingly different and most keenly represented by the intimacies that Lila and Ames share. The moment in which the two become engaged, for instance, is a great relief and a surprise for the elderly Reverend in Gilead. Until that point, Ames says, he barely hoped that this strange woman could love him and, when he discovers that she does, his heart swells and quickly calms. The event is brief, for Ames, and purely celebratory: a reward for his long years of study and seclusion and the culmination of a lifetime’s loneliness.
Told by Lila, however, the scene is nauseatingly uncomfortable. What for Ames unfolds in a luscious garden, overflowing with roses and symbolism, for Lila occurs on a dry and dusty path. ‘You ought to marry me,’ she stutters, before retreating to the other side of the road: ‘the flush of anger and shame so hot in her that this time surely she could not go on living.’ After several days apart, a period that the Reverend does not recount at all, Ames arrives at Lila’s cabin with a pendant that once belonged to his mother and performs a baptism which, when told from Lila’s perspective, is the most erotic moment that Robinson may ever have written. Finally, through Lila’s caveats and protestations, with a dying catfish as witness at the side of the road, they are engaged.
Robinson’s talent as a novelist is not to invent, in this instance, but rather to recycle. Through Lila’s perspective, the story of their engagement gains a vulnerability that Ames, despite his ailing health, cannot evoke. Similarly, Lila’s personal history far predates her marriage to the Reverend but it is the presentation and integration of this history within the context of the Gilead ‘trilogy’ that demonstrates Robinson’s skill for point-of-view narration.