I once read a story about a man scurrying furtively home from work, and trying not to draw attention to himself. He hears a group of people call derisively after him in a language he doesn’t understand. He passes a racial slur in graffiti on the wall of his building. As he hunkers down to his family meal in a squalid, noisy apartment, he reflects on his beautiful home (a place of familiar languages, and of plenty), and the tickets in his pocket that will finally take them back. I can’t remember the name of the story, but I remember how well it caused me to imagine the insecurity and the unhomeliness of this man’s life as a refugee.
Some time later, I thought about that story again when I found myself addressed in 1 Peter in these words, “Dear friends […] aliens and strangers in the world” (2:11). Another version renders it “foreigners and exiles.” I acknowledge I have never been a refugee, and apart from borders closing behind me if I leave this country to go home, I have not experienced being trapped somewhere against my will. But I do know what it is to be an exile and a stranger in this world.
Oh, how I know it.
What drew me first to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead books was how well she seemed to know it too. What I read that day in 1 Peter, in those oddly reassuring words, was that there was some deep reason—beyond depression, beyond heartache, beyond burn-out—that I felt an ache of un-belonging, of being crucially out of sync. It thrums deep in my very soul: not created for this world. Home is somewhere else.
As it happens, my home is another country, and I will be packing to leave this one soon, possibly for ever. So, when I first picked up Robinson’s much anticipated 2020 novel Jack, my touch was light: I was careful not to mark the book, withholding my loyalty and usual pencilled engagement (because it had a cover I did not like and I was not too conflicted about replacing it once I got home with the version that matches the rest of my set). But it pulled a response from me. I began using bits of paper to mark pages (never have a bookmark on hand), and then committed to underlining phrases in a light pencil. Soon afterwards I was literally writing the questions that the text raised in its margins. It was like a conversation, with my contribution beside the text, and scribbled all over the receipt that came with it. My mute feeling of strangeness in the world thrilled as I read an author that gave it voice again.
Although the novel gave me much cause for reflection, not least of which is a commentary on race relations, I found myself instead pondering the loneliness that comes from pursuing harmlessness as a virtue. Loneliness is a global pandemic—and in times of COVID-19, I do not use that word lightly. Robinson’s books always seem to resonate with that old friend.
During the pandemic, the world has internalised this vocabulary of harm and consequence in a way that we never have before. We “may not worry so much for our own sakes,” for example, but we would hate to harm someone else by accident. Jack’s modest ambition is to live out his life without causing harm to others. He’s the prodigal son of a small-town preacher, and yet it seems that “harmlessness was more than he could aspire to” (Jack 138). He just seems to cause harm wherever he goes. It is a heart-breaking self-portrait. It made me wonder if harmlessness is the goal of many people. Of course, it isn’t put across in so many words. When people speak about what kind of legacy they might want to leave behind, their answer is more the positive statement of that idea of harmlessness: I’d like to do good, to be remembered as good, to leave the world a little better: essentially, not to do bad. To be, in effect, harmless. To cause less harm than good so that whatever imprint of you is left, good or bad, the result is balanced.
Robinson seems to suggest, however, that there is inevitable collateral damage. Even Jack’s efforts to keep himself aloof, unattached, and cause no ripples, leaves him lonelier. We are irredeemably and hopelessly human, brushing up against other irredeemable and hopeless humans. Harm is an occupational hazard. As John Ames mused, “a thing that does not exist in relation to anything else cannot be said to exist itself” (Gilead 54). We exist in relationship, however flawed or redemptive these relationships may be.
I first met Jack in Robinson’s first book in this series, Gilead. Like John Ames, its narrator, I was a little suspicious of Jack at first. In the sequel, Home, I cried over him—for his lostness and desperation to belong, irretrievably (and unaccountably) outside. Home, the emblematic location where one is supposed to feel most “at home,” is strange and alienating to Jack—so much so that one day he is halfway through a suicide attempt before his sister Glory catches him. Although this distressing episode serves to make her even more empathetic to Jack’s tortured state, it simultaneously estranges them further. Glory is stripped of any illusion she may once have had about her impact on him; to hold in contempt all her efforts to love him out of his loneliness, his actions even strike her as uncommonly selfish.
To Ames, Jack is only the agent behind a spate of premeditated and malicious pranks. These acts, which are to Ames incomprehensible, hamper his compassion for Jack: they are “sly and lonely” mischief (Gilead 208). Only many years later, he at last begins to ask himself “How lonely would a child have to be to have time to make such a nuisance of himself?” (208). Yet the reader is never without some modicum of compassion for Jack. In him the loneliness of the world is writ large. Robinson seems to suggest that loneliness is both inherent and unavoidable, something which, despite human effort, can never quite be overcome.
If, as Henri Nouwen has written, loneliness is the 'deep incision on the surface of our existence,' then there is something beautiful in that we all share the same scar. Amy Stimson
Despite his aspiration to harmlessness, Jack feels a desperation, as do we all, to mark “a sort of ‘I exist!’” (102) on some corner of the world, to be heard, to be met there and acknowledged. Though he is terrified to be known in all his wretchedness, at the same time he is longing to be seen. In some way, even his acts of self-sabotage, that preclude him from all manner of relationships and employment, are a kind of confession. Those petty thefts and fickleness, his misdemeanours, are a showing and a self-declaration. They are meant to shatter the illusions of those who think too well of him. He cannot bear to enjoy a person’s love or good opinion, believing it to be built on delusion. Even what he wears tells this story. Clothes make the man just as actions do. He reflects often that his clothes make a hypocrite of him. The first time he meets Della, she mistakes him for a pastor. So he covers himself with wretchedness, thinking he has spared anyone having better reasons for hating him than he had already given. Painfully aware of his traitorous appearance, whatever he wears, he is nevertheless a naked man in his clothes, a literal and figurative fabrication of himself or (something he fears more) a full revelation of the very worst of him.
In Jack I read the deepest fears of broken humanity, but also of my own heart.
I was reminded of something Timothy Keller once wrote, that “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known but not loved is our greatest fear. To be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God” (The Meaning of Marriage). I am always aware of the gaps Robinson leaves, so that where human relationship and interaction fail, the reader feels the need for the God who steps into the breach. Keller’s observation touches the tragedy at the heart of Jack’s story. Jack refuses love on the grounds that anyone who really knows him could not love him. Yet he clothes himself with mystery, enjoying various guises—a reverend minister, a professor, a stranger named Bradshaw, “Slick,” or “That White Man”—afraid of his deepest unloveliness. But to be truly known and truly loved?
In some ways, Robinson writes grace into Jack’s story so profoundly that everything can be viewed as grace. Jack’s brother Teddy is an unflinching source of remedial grace. Della is the embodiment of unconditional love that gradually loves Jack a little out of his obscurity, the same Christlike way that Ames loves his wife in Lila. There is a kind of redemption for Jack in his own book—and even the events in this narrative shed light and bring beauty to bear upon events in the others, especially in Home.
It makes me think that if, as Henri Nouwen has written, loneliness is the “deep incision on the surface of our existence” (The Wounded Healer 84), then there is something beautiful in that we all share the same scar.
The Teddys and the Dellas (and even the Ameses, to some extent) hint at the hope that even if we have other scars, deeper wounds, greater wretchedness, there is One who looks even on those, and loves, despite it. Jack’s tragedy, and perhaps ours, is that we don’t trust the “despite.”