Diagnosed last week with strep throat, I was forced into bed with back issues of The Atlantic and a novel (Home, by Marilynne Robinson). (If only all days were so unfortunate.) Robinson is not maybe what some would call a prolific writer, but of the three novels she’s produced so far, they have each, for starters, either won the Pulitzer, been nominated for the Pulitzer, or received some other fancy, literary award. Not too shabby. Housekeeping, her first novel, was written in 1980. I read it in college (and gosh, I wish I remembered more about it). Gilead, her second book published almost 25 years later, is a friend’s FAVORITE novel of all time (and she’s my smart friend, so I consider that a reliable recommendation). I read Gilead and liked it, although I’m sure my having only “liked” it has more to say about me as a reader than the quality of the novel itself. (I noticed on the back cover of Home that one reviewer had said of Gilead that it deserved to be read slowly, reverently.) But Home, Robinson’ third novel, the book that kept me company last week, is a treasure: it’s poignant and profoundly beautiful.
This is not a full-scale review of Home: I’m hoping I can say just enough about it to make you read it. (And by the way, this would be a fantastic read for a book club.) Jack Boughton, the main character of the book, is a troubled man. As a child, he felt himself to be a stranger in his own home and to his own family. He was always disappearing, and as we come to find out later, he was never far, hiding and hoping to be found. As an adult, Jack took to the bottle, got drunk on regret, and after a twenty year estrangement (during which time he saw this inside of a prison and missed his own mother’s funeral), Jack finally comes home. He’s again down on his luck and hoping for second chances in Gilead. His father is dying (the man who served for decades as the Presbyterian pastor of their small Iowan town), and his younger sister, Gloria, by her own unfortunate circumstances, has also come home. The book is intensely theological, and Robinson asks the hardest questions about grace. Jack, who is now “incandescent with hope,” (he’s been sober for more than seven years, and he’s loved a good woman), can he whose compulsive habit it is to shine his shoes, comb his hair smooth, and soothe his loneliness with a bottle, can he escape what feels to be the sad inevitability of, well frankly, his sin? Home gives complicated answers, and I guarantee you will cry.
Like Robinson’s character, Jack Boughton, Jon Blow has had his own experiences of alienation. I read about Blow as I was plodding my way through all of my back issues of The Atlantic last week. (Oh, the misfortunes of strep throat.) Blow’s story is not one that would ever typically interest me: the brilliant, steely-eyed forty-one year old video game developer made millions off Braid, a video game he developed, which is supposedly impossibly cryptic in its symbolism. Blow won’t tell what the game really means, but suffice it to say that it has neither machine guns nor scantily clad women, which is the more typical fare of most video games today. (I wouldn’t know firsthand.)
Blow is a genius: he made his mark with Braid, and he’s reinvesting his millions to develop and produce a new game called The Witness. On all levels, Blow wants his games to blow (no pun intended) the current categories of gaming: their narrative capacity, artistic detail, and psychological intrigue.
But the guy is lonely. Jon Blow has that typical story of feeling abandoned as a young child, his parents present but emotionally distant. “Early on, I detected that there weren’t good examples at home, so I kind of had to figure things out on my own. I had to adopt a paradigm of self-sufficiency.” Now, this intensely private man, Jon Blow, is putting on public display his own sense of alienation through his video games. Although he doesn’t admit what his first game, Braid, really means, most agree that it has something to do with the creation of the atomic bomb. Taylor Clark, the author of the article, goes a step further, however, to venture aloud (with Jon) a guess at the game’s even deeper meanings. “The atom bomb itself is a metaphor for a certain kind of knowledge. You’ve been chasing some deep form of understanding all your life, and what I think you’ve found is that questing after that knowledge brings alienation with it. The further you’ve gone down that road, the further it’s taken you from other people. So the knowledge is ultimately destructive to your life, just like the atom bomb was – it’s a kind of truth that has a cataclysmic impact. You thought chasing that knowledge would make you happy, but like Tim [the main character of Braid], part of you eventually wished you could turn back time and do things over again.”
Side by side, Home and Braid would seem to have so little in common, and in many ways, the story of Jack Boughton and Jon Blow are different. Both are alienated figures, but Jack Boughton has the restraining force of home and family in his life. While it’s hard to immediately say whether or not the novel is completely hopeful, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve begun to conclude that it is a story of hope, not because Jack is as reformed as we want him to be at the end but because we know that in another twenty years, when he’s again down on his luck, he has somewhere to make his return. It is the story of the Prodigal Son: the son may again “come to his senses,” and this change of mind, this repentance will largely be owed to his memories of home. Home and family: Robinson means to clearly say that they are means of grace in each of our lives.
Jon Blow’s story is infinitely more tragic: there is no home to which he can make his return. There would not seem to be any apparent means of escape for his sense of alienation: even the self-knowledge that he sought in the hopes of muting his inner estrangement has proven explosive in his life.
Our world is peopled with Jack Boughtons and Jon Blows. I am Jack Boughton and Jon Blow. The cover of last month’s issue of The Atlantic bore images of two naked people, embraced in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of their cell phones they each held in their hands. “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” And the answer is no. We don’t need facebook to make us lonely. Our alienation predates our technologies. In fact, this estrangement – from ourselves, from one another, from our Creator, and even from our physical environment – is the oldest story of the Scriptures. The man and woman God had made and commissioned with the care of creation: they chose doubt and mistrust, and so begins the longest running story of human alienation.
I can’t help but see that the Christian story offers the greatest hope for answering that alienation and reconciling us: to one another and ultimately to God. It teaches us both the source of our alienation and the solution to it: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us.” If we’ve failed to understand our alienation, I’d argue it’s because we’ve lost the best language by which to talk about it: sin. Jack Boughton is a sinner. Jon Blow was sinned against. Whichever it is, sin chosen or sin absorbed, all sin will unravel us: our inner selves, our conscience, our relationships. The Bible proclaims a return home, a reconciliation to wholeness, and the path has been cleared by Jesus, whose intentions are to bring us into His family.