Being a Girl
You’ve seen the film: a man looks behind an office filing cabinet to find a portal into another man’s consciousness – someone who turns out to be a famous actor. The intruder remains inside this other life for a quarter of an hour or so before being ejected onto the side of a busy road. Then he commercializes this newfound facility, charging people $200 a time to go through the portal. There is no shortage of takers, for it seems everyone wants to be someone else, if only for a little while. Being John Malkovich (1999) has to be one of the trippiest mainstream films ever made, one that performed very well at the box office for something so close to art house.
As zany as the concept is portrayed in Being John Malkovich, the truth is that portals do exist into other people’s worlds, though rarely in such a literal sense, of course. I was reminded of this some time ago while reading Marilynne Robinson’s acclaimed debut novel, Housekeeping (1980). Never before had I stood inside a narrator’s mind to the extent that I did in that of Ruth, the girl whose unusual upbringing is the subject of the story. As much as I might have identified with characters in favourite novels over the years, e.g. Holden Caulfield or Jay Gatsby, I never actually felt that I was one of them. There was no sense of indwelling. In fact, the only precedent I have for my experience of Housekeeping is how I feel when I listen to Hounds of Love (1985) by Kate Bush, when it seems that her voice is not something out there but somehow within me.
I’m hardly a dainty wee slip of a lad. And yet, when I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel or listen to Kate Bush’s album, I become for a time a teenage girl – albeit one without the hang-ups and the hormones
Just to put this in context, I am a man of a certain age. I drink too much beer, I shout at football matches on TV, and I when I go to the barber, he discreetly attends to hair growth other than that from my scalp. And I could do with shedding a few pounds, too; I’m hardly a dainty wee slip of a lad. And yet, when I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel or listen to Kate Bush’s album, I become for a time a teenage girl – albeit one without the hang-ups and the hormones. I am compelled to wonder how either of these artists carried off this feat; whether or not they meant to; whether it’s purely subjective on my part, a chimera of my Jungian anima, if you will. Completely ignorant of feminist critical theory or gender studies, I could concoct some half-baked theory about female capacity for accommodating other lives within your own, of letting others inhabit you or whatever (NB not in a Captain Howdy kind of way); I could even hark back to the portal in Being John Malkovich and say it was reminiscent of the birth canal (as if I had a background in midwifery or obstetrics). But no, I’m not qualified to discuss such stuff, and anyhow, I’m convinced that Housekeeping and Hounds of Love contain a particular brand of magic unrelated to their authors’ gender, one that can be objectively defined.
Housekeeping is set in the American northwest during the 1950s. An example of the Bildungsroman genre, it tells the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, following the death by suicide of their mother during their early childhood. A succession of guardianship sees them in the care of their Aunt Sylvie, a transient who rides freight train carriages and sleeps on park benches. The first-person narrative charts Ruth’s movement towards Sylvie’s irregular lifestyle and Lucille’s rejection of it. Lucille settles within conformity and convention while Ruth becomes a drifter under the tutelage of her aunt.
Housekeeping has been voted one of the 100 greatest novels of all time by readers of the British Sunday newspaper, The Observer. It is celebrated for its technical virtuosity – the poetry of its language, especially – as well as its pathos and humour. Of course, I recognize and salute these elements (I wonder sometimes if the author didn’t drive herself mad in the monumental effort to construct such perfect sentences), but what intrigues me is how Marilynne Robinson made the narrative so inhabitable for the reader – because for me, that’s the most striking aspect of the book.
Ruth and Aunt Sylvie are kindred spirits, both of them mystics (well, the former a proto-mystic and the latter fully formed) and as such, there is no place for them in the society of Fingerbone, the small, remote town by the lake amid the vast hinterland. Presumably, both characters are visionaries, but the one who presents her vision to us is Ruth. It is a vision so charged and presented with such immediacy that the reader cannot fail to succumb. The poetry of the language is meditative and mesmerizing, drawing the reader ever onward into its magic and away from the mundane.
This is how Ruth experiences the loss of her grandmother, her first guardian after her mother’s suicide:
I was simply alarmed. It suggested to me that the earth had opened. In fact, I dreamed that I was walking across the ice on the lake, which was breaking up as it does in the spring, softening and shifting and pulling itself apart. But in the dream the surface that I walked on proved to be knit up of hands and arms and upturned faces that shifted and quickened as I stepped, sinking only for a moment into lower relief under my weight. The dream… created in my mind the conviction that my grandmother had entered into some other element upon which our lives floated as weightless… as reflections in water. So she was borne to the depths, my grandmother, into the undifferentiated past… (Page 41, Faber & Faber, 1981)
Housekeeping is full of such moments, of otherworldly interpretations of human experience. The narrative warps the dimension of time, pulling the reader to a remove from his more usual (or linear) expectations. It can be dizzying or disorientating, but to be in it is always to be elsewhere. Time moves in the novel but not as one would expect: Ruth’s time is full of eternity.
That’s not to say that Housekeeping is one vast poetic vision; it is also a very human story, very moving. Ruth and Lucille are real girls growing up in unsettled circumstances. They struggle at school, they fight with each other and they’re friends with one another, and you couldn’t but feel for them. Their rivalry and affection is captured in snappy dialogue, a key component which saves the narrative from insupportable weight.
“I’m not mad any more,” said Lucille.
“Neither am I,” I replied.
“I know you can’t help the way you are.”
I thought about that. “I know you can’t help the way you are either,” I said.
Lucille looked at me evenly. “I don’t have to,” she said. “I’m not like that.”
“Like Sylvie.” (Ibid. pp. 129/130)
The novel’s title pertains ostensibly to the keeping of house, of keeping a home together after Ruth’s mother’s suicide. Ruth refers severally to Aunt Sylvie’s strange style of domestic organization and her growing attraction to it, but there is a sense throughout the book of housekeeping being Ruth’s own job for herself, a kind of cosmic housekeeping, an ordering of life, death and the universe. Again, this is partly how the reader finds himself within Ruth’s psyche, situated by the narrative in her need to overcome trauma, to put something between herself and chaos. The reader stands in the deepest part of her emotions, and Ruth is a very deep girl. For example, there is her curious recounting of family history in the early part of the novel. Speaking of her mother and her two sisters after the death of Ruth’s grandfather, she says:
Of course they pressed her [Ruth’s grandmother] and touched her as if she had just returned after an absence. Not because they were afraid she would vanish as their father had done, but because his sudden vanishing had made them aware of her… Sometimes they cried out at night, small thin cries that never woke them. The sound would stop as she started up the stairs, however softly, and when she reached their rooms she would find them all quietly asleep, the source of the cry hiding in silence, like a cricket. Just her coming was enough to still the creature. (Ibid, pp. 12-13)
The prose is so seductive, you almost forget to question its veracity. How on earth could Ruth know all this? The answer is she couldn’t: she wasn’t there! She’s made it up. Why? Because she needs to. She needs to tidy everything into a context that she can comprehend. There has been too much into her life that hasn’t made any sense, most glaring of all her mother’s suicide. So when Ruth envisions the past (or the future, for that matter), we stand within her trauma and her attempts to heal it. We get lost in her.
That’s not to reduce Ruth’s narrative to the anatomy of a defence mechanism. Had this character been born into different circumstances, she would always have been a mystic, a contemplative of some sort – an anchoress, a poet or a druid, something along those lines. But we see her in this life, the one where she has lost her mother in early childhood and had to go on without her, struggling and haunted. Her articulation of this is what reveals her soul to us, her innate profundity. In the novel’s climax, Sylvie takes Ruth on a rite of passage further up the lake from Fingerbone, leaving her alone with her thoughts. Ruth’s largely unspoken grief, the force that has shaped her life, is at last permitted a voice:
I thought, Sylvie is nowhere, and sometime it will be dark. I thought, Let them come unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart. It was no shelter now, it only kept me here alone, and I would rather be with them, if only to see them, even if they turned away from me. If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve. There was no more the stoop of her high shoulders. The lake had taken that, I knew. It was so very long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished. She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished. (Ibid. pp. 159/160)
Such words would touch anyone’s heart, even that of a beer-swilling football fan.