Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping”

housekeeping imae

I’ve tried reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Housekeeping several times in years past and have gotten bogged down a couple of chapters in each time. But I seem to have found my stride this week, or maybe I finally picked the right season to read it. I’m almost done, but not quite, though I still want to consider this story a little before I dip back into the final pages. So, I’m considering this book in ignorance and anticipation….

Housekeeping undoes the notions we have of what “housekeeping” means. Not just about the literal acts that exert control over our living environments. At first, I thought it was more about lack of keeping a house, more about neglect, and deterioration: the women and girls in the house go about their normal activities during a long flood season with a foot of water in the kitchen; leaves mulching in the corners of every room; crickets chirping in the pantry. But that is partly because I equate “housekeeping” with “good housekeeping” and I begin by focusing only on the humans that keep a house in a certain way. There is, of course, the house that keeps us in certain ways despite our fragility, our constant needs, our tendency to neglect each other, our own deteriorations.

The novel is entitled Housekeeping, and the house is central to the story, but I’m more drawn to the weighty presence of the nearby lake and that railroad bridge that crosses it. The still palpable presence of those who have drowned in its depths, the unrecovered bodies of families and friends, and the other detritus that has fallen below its surface give the lake a gravitational pull that works almost every page of the novel. How does a reader move on from the description of that train of unrecovered corpses that we learn about on page 6?

“…It was not, strictly speaking, spectacular, because no one saw it happen. The disaster took place midway through a moonless night. The train which was black and sleek and elegant, and was called the Fireball, had pulled more than halfway across the bridge when the engine nosed over toward the lake and then the rest of the train slid after it into the water like a weasel sliding off a rock.”

The story returns to the lake now and again–to the hoboes that live under the bridge, and when one character ventures curiously out onto the bridge as if flirting with the looming presence of death (one of the central big ideas this novel is exploring).  My favorite section in the book (so far) is a rapturous passage that takes the image of a net sweeping through the entire eternal landscape:

 “Such a net, such a harvesting, would put an end to all anomaly. If it swept the whole floor of heaven, it must, finally, sweep the black floor of Fingerbone too (the name of the town, and the lake). From there, we must imagine, would arise a great army of paleolithic and neolithic frequenters of the lake–berry gatherers and hunters and strayed children from those and all subsequent eons, down to the earliest present, to the faith-healing lady in the long, white robe who rowed out and tried to walk back in again just at sunrise, to the farmer who bet five dollars one spring that the ice was still strong enough for him to gallop his horse across. Add to them the swimmers, the boaters and canoers… There would be a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles of neighbors and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole… If one added to it a law of completion–that everything must finally be made comprehensible–then some general rescue of the sort I imagined my aunt to have undertaken would be inevitable. For why do our thoughts turn to some gesture of a hand, the fall of a sleeve, some corner of a room on a particular anonymous afternoon, even when we are asleep, and even when we are so old that our thoughts have abandoned other business? What are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?”

There are a number of passages like this one that transform this seemingly smallish story into a vast and glorious symphony.


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