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More on Housekeeping and EPJ

There's much more to say about _Housekeeping_, including the particular ways that the novel begins to wander and drift about, approximately from chapter seven until the end. Because the material world can no longer answer the questions Ruth poses in its directions, much less satisfy her needs and longings for it, some other world has to be found. This is the route of transfiguration, a spiritual or religious or meditative path. (This may be why the novel moves out of narrative into meditation.) The novel knows, and Marilynne Robinson knows, perfectly well that most of us are Lucille and not Ruth: i.e., we're more or less satisfied with the material world as given to us, and we want the usual things: money, a career, someone to love and/or to love us. But somewhere in us--this is Ruth's appeal--there is a part of our selves that is unsatisfied, permanently unsatisfied, with all this, that wants to be free of it. We feel our own weirdness and don't want to be a part of the human community that is satisfied by what it can obtain at Circuit City. Some small part of us wants the essences; we become neo-Platonists.
I think Marilynne Robinson's long silence after _Housekeeping_ had to do with the fact that she couldn't see a way to make an advance on what I'd call the novel of meditation. She tried it (I heard her read from a novel she discarded) but it didn't work. What she turned to were novels of overt religious thought in a context of American history and racial politics.
The transition from MR to Edward P. Jones may seem difficult but won't be if you notice how EPJ's stories often have to do with losing direction, wandering, getting lost, losing something precious to you, a general disorientation associated with his characters' experiences of their lives. Again, the passion in the stories is not based on Eros but on something else. Does anyone want to be the enabler next week, btw?

Comments

The few stories I've so far read often end at a point where this disorientation is almost released for something more ethereal. Betsy Ann does this by following one of the pigeons flying off in the first story. "The First Day" also has this moment of moment. There are the voices of all the children of the world and her mother's footsteps. In the title story, Lydia forces the wandering. The taxi driver wanders around DC with no purpose than to let Lydia explore her memories, and it may be that because the story ends on a memory, some ethereal quality is had. The stories I've read so far resist ending some place where the character can orient himself or herself. MR ends Housekeeping this way.

There may still be a few who haven't kicked off a discussion...

At first I didn’t think I would like the Jones—I loved Betsy Ann and her pigeons, but the ending was just too restrained for me; I felt like it barred my emotional investment, and started the book off with a tone of removed genealogy/taxonomy of this community, rather than sustained emotional engagement. I think each story, singly, actually does retain that trace of remove. But read through, the emotional weight accumulates until, by the final story, any less remove would feel ornamental and perhaps self-consciously emotionally manipulative. This collection did not feel baroque to me, but perhaps its opposite. On the one hand, yes, the stories don’t often have a discernible plot, they don’t have anywhere to “go,” they pick up and drop in the middle of lives, and--as Charlie mentioned--their characters kind of aimlessly wander. The engine of “Pigeons” seems to chug toward some great breakdown on Betsy Ann’s part that never really happens, leaving a reader in a kind of suspension. But the prose itself is so spare and exact, and the abridged OED defines “baroque” as, chiefly, “highly ornate and extravagant in style.” Jones takes certain leaps of perspective that could be defined as, at least, extravagant (“exceeding normal restraint or sense; unreasonable, absurd”) as when readers find themselves briefly and unexpectedly in the cab driver’s perspective after setting up and maintaining only Lydia’s (“Lost in the City”). It would seem that any baroque stylistic attention would almost lift these characters from their gritty realness into the realm of mythic decoration, which Jones works tirelessly against. He wants these characters to obey their environment and their simple lives, a simplicity that becomes haunting in its own right. He wants to make invisible people real, and the baroque seems absolutely unreal, or a heightened version of reality that employs self-consciously aesthetic language, characters, situations.

I will happily lead the Edward P. Jones discussion.