Grace rears its lovely head
Redhead by the Side of the Road, Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus.
Jack, Marilynne Robinson, Virago.
Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson are two of America’s important and much-loved novelists, but both are somewhat unusual in bringing Christian faith into their books (in different ways), offering gentleness and hope in an area (contemporary literary fiction) where bleakness or harsh humour often predominate.
Tyler’s Redhead concerns a neat-freak and IT consultant – computer handyman, really – Micah, whose clientele are often older women struggling with the arcane world of computers and the internet. Tyler gives him a happily silly, solipsistic inner monologue, to which we are privy, as he often cluelessly negotiates his love life and other impediments to tidiness and order. The plot might seem simple, even simplistic, affirmed in the curt prose, but Tyler hides deeper intuitions here, played out in the little interactions of daily life, (as usual) showing that quiet lives are worthy of literature, and that grace and hope are perennial necessities.
Grace also rears its lovely head in Robinson’s Jack, the fourth (and final?) book in her series centred on the town of Gilead (though none of the action here takes place there. Gilead is more the unseen gravitational force around which the plot spins). The series is distinct for the amount of theology, woven into its fabric, faultlessly. It helps that the characters are largely either clergymen or the children thereof. Thirty pages in, the characters are discussing predestination and nihilism while walking in a graveyard, which is a bit more philosophically heavy than anything in Tyler’s novel.
The book concerns the white drifter Jack Boughton and his relationship with a black woman, Della Miles, against the backdrop of mid-twentieth-century segregation. He is attracted to her love of poetry and literature, as well as her insistence on not judging him on appearances. She sees in him a kind of honesty in his heart-on-sleeve hopelessness. Tension comes from his (and others’) belief that she would be better off without him against their obvious connection.
Jack is a tragic and comic figure, his intelligence and pride clashing with his threadbare position in life. It’s not that he’s a lovable rogue, more that his tendency to, as he puts it, break anything fragile, engenders empathy. As a reader, you hope, despite the evidence of his precarious situation and past indiscretions, that something of lasting good will come his way, which is, I guess, what grace consists of.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com