First, Robinson really is a master at her craft. Her prose is casual, conversational, comfortable but never mundane, never boring, never so elusive or evasive to become frustrating. And yet she is not a tell-er but a show-er. Sure, she’s telling all the time, words, thoughts, but it’s really quite impressive how it’s little by little without dragging, without feeling teased or mocked. Robinson knows how to respect her readers while respecting the integrity of her characters. She is a modest writer, and I mean modest in the most elegant and attractive sense. I found myself unconsciously prepared for a number of moments in the story where I realized she could say very little but with all that had come before, the little was actually quite a lot, quite momentous, and I understood. It’s like those rare moments when you look across the table at your spouse or a close friend and with hardly a nod, eyes lock and paragraphs, maybe even many chapters, are well known and shared between the two of you. Robinson did that several times in Lila. And it was very satisfying.
Second, and here comes the critique, for what was a setup for a wonderful Ezekiel 16 story, a story of a love for the loveless, a story of compassion for an orphan left out in her blood, I came away realizing that Robinson and I are on two very different trajectories. I suppose I should have known better, and perhaps I need to go back and reread Gilead the first and only other Robinson fiction I have read (which was wonderful to me at the time), but when Robinson finally pulls all the pieces together, her story of grace (which is what Lila is) is a much different picture than I or the Bible (or Calvin for that matter) ultimately have. In fact, it feels like perhaps one of the most glaring oversights in her otherwise masterful narrative, the routine nods to John Calvin, the ongoing conversations, the allusions, the references, and then for all that her picture of grace is one which Calvin would not recognize. Now on the one hand, giving her all the benefit of the doubt I can muster, I can imagine her explaining the story as a radical personalizing of grace. God’s favor is extended through other people, through kindness, through extravagant generosity. Which is true of course. The problem though is that Robinson has gutted the world of the sharpness of sin. The problem is that she has not simultaneously radicalized the personal offense of sin. Men and women are not engaged in high handed defiance against the God who made them and loves them, they are for the most part merely lost and confused and really only deserve our pity. Of course that is one important angle on the problem, but unfortunately that’s the only angle we get. And so we’re left wondering about the Jesus Mr. Ames is constantly talking to, the Jesus who was flayed and crucified on a Roman cross. Why did he have to die anyway? Was there anything to atone for? Any sins to bear?
Grace is unmerited favor. Grace is the personal, unswerving, determined love of the Triune God for individuals, for the world. But grace is grace precisely because sin is sin. And so what might have been a truly profound meditation on the nature of God’s grace stopped short and left us with a well-written but nevertheless warmed over liberal chick tract.