It's typical of God's vanity that, after creating the heavens and the earth and all that goes with them, he had to go ahead and claim the word for his son's business. "In the beginning was the Word," the opening lines of the Gospel of John instruct, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Ever since, the power to capitalize the w has been the prize that nearly every writer would kill for—or die trying. If the poem is a salvo at the skies and the play a pincer movement, then the novel is a full-blown putsch. It creates its own firmament between two covers, divides light from darkness, fills the waters with odd life-forms, and chokes the earth with abundance. The novelist's word is almost the Word. One problem: What about the God who invented it? He must be killed, captured, or paid off handsomely and sent into exile. He must be dealt with.
The first volume of Susan Sontag's journals, edited by her son, David Rieff, and published last year under the title Reborn, begins with an entry dated November 23, 1947—Sontag was fourteen—listing the precocious Californian's core beliefs. At the very top, marked "(a)," is "That there is no personal God or life after death." Before Sontag has ever published a word, she has written God's death sentence.
This small matter settled, she follows up with her second belief: "The most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e., Honesty." Sontag is free to think her own way into understanding. Like the apostle Paul, she has learned to "put away childish things." She has turned to literature for guidance. The rest of Reborn—if not the rest of Sontag's life—is a testament to this. Sontag exhorts herself to read Stephen Spender's translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies, immerses herself in the work of the principled French libertine André Gide, judges Thomas Mann's novel The Magic Mountain to be "a book for all of one's life." She compiles laundry lists of novels, plays, stories, and books of poetry that she aspires to read like a mystic seeking out new and ever more demanding spiritual disciplines. In 1949, when Sontag joined some friends for an audience with Mann at his home in Pacific Palisades, her journal entry describes the encounter this way: "E, F and I interrogated God this evening at six."
Reborn, just as much as it provides a glimpse into a cultural celebrity's fiercely guarded private life (and we don't have many left that hold such fascination), gives us a record of how Sontag gained the visionary powers that every fiction writer covets. She approaches the novel with a certainty so fervent that it is clearly on par with religious belief—not even Gide, or Mann, would question the affinity. Sontag acknowledges this fact in one remarkable line from Reborn that could be adopted as the novelist's credo: "God, living is enormous!"
God, living is enormous. As a pure sentence, it is almost perfect. There is no end to its reverberations or bottom to its mystery. There is murder in the "God" but also reverence; fiction may be "the slayer of religions, the scrutineer of falsity," as James Wood writes in The Broken Estate, but what novelist can dream of competing on the playing field of the printed page with a Maker whose every word arrives as truth, whose every idea is fact, and whose pride of authorship extends to all creation? Despite the long odds, one of the novel's chief concerns from its beginning has been to try and steal a little thunder from the Divine— or at least his home office on earth, the church—through satire, mockery, and, at times, outright sacrilege. The trope had already been well established by medieval literature (see The Canterbury Tales); Cervantes, then Fielding, continued the ritual undressing. It wasn't until the late nineteenth century that Victor Hugo would stop the action of Les Misérables for a polemic against the institution of the convent, although his broadside makes a crucial distinction: "We are for religion, against the religions."
This stance, with its haughty backhand to the church for its hypocrisy and all-purpose endorsement of religious mystery—no matter what form it takes—kept the belief necessary for the novel's survival alive, while preserving a place for the novel as a kind of opposition party to scripture. Perhaps no novelist's work has embodied this paradox more than Fyodor Dostoyevsky's—and he managed it by virtue of an imagination so all-encompassing that it might have been a gift from God himself. He even offered his readers a prophetic taste of modernism in a speech the Grand Inquisitor gives to the returned Jesus in The Brothers Karamazov:
How many among those chosen ones, the strong ones who might have become chosen ones, have finally grown tired of waiting for you, and have brought and will yet bring the powers of their spirit and the ardor of their hearts to another field, and will end by raising their free banner against you!
Sontag may have been a banner-carrying member of the literary mob proclaiming God's death in the name of freedom, but the novelist in America, as often as not, has been steeped in our inherited religions. This is God's country, after all. The first great metaphor in the American literary canon was written by a preacher, Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" ("The bow of God's wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood"); the tragic heroine that Edwards made of his parishioner Abigail Hutchinson in the popular tract A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God brought many hundreds to their knees to be saved or, as it was known to the Puritans, "converted." Rather than battle a religion turned dark by the lust for power, as in Europe, the novel in America has had to contend for souls with the holy terror of a religion that strives to conquer the individual heart. Sontag was getting it right, at fourteen, when she identified a "personal god" as the deity in need of snuffing out.
How does the novelist respond to scripture that is a direct address and to a God who is as portable as, well, a novel? There are as many answers to this as there are traditions in American fiction—and some are either oblivious or outright hostile to the whole idea of God—but one great constant has been the enshrinement of the individual. In a country where personal liberty is a secular sacrament, perhaps the greatest freedom of all is the ability to imagine life as having transcendent value on its own. In the words of Amory Blaine at the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise, "I know myself, but that is all." You can see this strain of self-assertion in everything from James Fenimore Cooper's frontier stories to the Harlem Renaissance's modernist revisionism to the Beat Generation to the immigration literature that still thrives today. At the same time, the holy terror of the Puritan forefathers has, through use, softened over time; it has also been joined by other faiths and encompassed by our fiction with an ease that would be unimaginable in Europe. Without the ravishing of belief, at least as a departure point, there would be no Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Richard Wright, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, J. F. Powers, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Edward P. Jones.
For these writers (as well as countless others I have failed to mention), faith is fiction, and fiction is faith. Their stories grow out of God-soaked ground, and they have a special resonance because of it. In any novel steeped in religion, the author must serve two masters: the real, which is the substance of fiction, and the unseen, which is the substance of faith. God, living is enormous. It is a perilous balance. Too much scripture, and the fiction withers on the vine; too much life, and the weeds blot out the grace that Edwards once called in a sermon "a spiritual and divine light, immediately imparted to the soul by God." This holds especially true if the fiction is about characters with faith. Marilynne Robinson's recent novels, Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), are rigorously cultivated to grow in this garden plot, and they are very much about the practice of faith. They are sun-dappled attempts to reclaim the authority of scripture for the novel. Together with Chris Adrian's second book, The Children's Hospital (2006)—a much wilder, heartier species of fiction—they give a primer in how belief can fortify, ignite, and at times overwhelm the novel's inborn power.
"For me writing has always felt like praying," the fading Iowa pastor at the heart of Gilead, John Ames, confides in the extended letter—an epistle—to his son that makes up the first installment of Robinson's best-selling prairie devotionals, "even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone." The year is 1956. Ames, in a nod to biblical plotting, is nearly seventy years his son's senior, and he believes that he is dying. "I feel I am with you now," he writes, "whatever that can mean, considering that you're only a little fellow now and when you're a man you might find these letters of no interest." Despite the intimacy of the project, the prose recalls one of Paul's letters to the emerging churches of his time, full of wisdom, practical advice, and encouragement. "Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed," Ames writes. "That is to say, I pray for you."
At the shabby parsonage where Ames has spent his life—for most of the time a widower, listening to the radio and churning out, by his own calculation, fifty sermons a year—his much younger, resourceful wife, Lila, is preparing for his exit; trouble is brewing in the form of Jack Boughton, a prodigal son (and Ames's namesake) who has returned after twenty years to trouble Ames's best friend, the local Presbyterian preacher, also fading fast; and the housecat Soapy is chasing bubbles in the yard, sending Ames's son into fits of laughter. "Ah, this life," Ames reflects as he watches the scene from his study window, "this world." Gilead has attracted a wide, enthusiastic readership for its ardent descriptions of simple pleasures, for its ruminative passages about the life of faith—a subject that is virtually taboo in recent literary fiction—and for the quality of light it casts on a setting that, however rarified, strikes a chord in the national consciousness. The novel arrives like a vision received by Robinson while sitting in a pew inside a modest Congregational church, a vision fully formed and ready for transcription. Ames sums up Gilead's recipe for narrative ripeness in one of the book's most lyric passages, about a sermon he delivered on Pentecost:
It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. . . . Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.
"The abdication of Belief," Emily Dickinson observed, "Makes the Behavior small." But Robinson's follow-up to Gilead, the companion piece Home—a finalist for last year's National Book Award—shows how the presence of belief can make fiction small. The God who breathed life onto the embers of Gilead has grown too insistent, too enormous, to do anything but blow out the fire; animated by the spirit of forgiveness and an overwhelming reverence for her fictional town on the prairie, "Gilead of the sunflowers," Robinson stitches life onto burlap like a psalm, frames it in something rummaged from the attic, and gives it a place of honor on the parlor wall. Boughton is back on the same conflicted errand narrated from Ames's perspective in Home: to torment his father with his faults and remind the dying man of his failure to live up to the standard of forgiveness set by the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He is also, as the title implies, looking for a place to end his restlessness and find acceptance. This time, the intersecting family dramas are filtered through the vision of Glory, his upright daughter, who is back home again in her thirties after an engagement came to a humiliating end:
What does it mean to come home? . . . She had dreamed of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiancé, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent. She knew, she had known for years, that she would never open a door on that home, never cross the threshold, never scoop up a pretty child and set it on her hip and feel it lean into her breast and eye the world from her arms with the complacency of utter trust. Ah well.
Ah well? There is something inhuman in Glory's note of resignation, telegraphed by the high-pulpit "fustian" and "oppressive tabernacle" that precede it. Robinson is responsive enough to the call of the real—to the urgency of life—to endow Glory with a predicament of her own and lend her disappointments a compelling depth and contour, but then the author smothers her with the probity that she longed to escape. Glory has the makings of an indelible character and ideal guide for this return journey to Gilead's parsonage kitchens and front porches; instead, she is another agent of the generosity and repose that are the author's miracles of choice when she animates her characters—an angel from '50s Iowa. "I believe in the holiness of the human person," Robinson wrote in an essay for the American Scholar, "and of humanity as a phenomenon." In Glory's Ah well, this holiness takes the form of an almost superhuman restraint, an ethical refinement that no doubt flatters her maker but drains her character of life. Even Paul would have had a hard time living up to it.
This instructional quality to Robinson's fiction is what has led James Wood to refer to Gilead as "less a novel than a species of religious writing." There are echoes of Emerson's Over-Soul in Robinson's deity, as well as the refining fire of the revival tradition that preceded the Transcendentalists. ("The idea of grace had been so much on my mind," Ames reflects at one point in Gilead, "grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials. There in the dark and the quiet I felt I could forget all the tedious particulars and just feel the presence of his mortal and immortal being.") But the tedious particulars, nowhere less than in the recesses of the heart, are what make for satisfying, full-blooded fiction. Compare Glory's acceptance of her fate under old Boughton's roof in Home with the simmering revolt of a character like Hulga—a Ph.D. with a heart ailment and a wooden leg who changed her name from Joy—in Flannery O'Connor's story "Good Country People." O'Connor's fiction is no less devotional than Robinson's, but being a Catholic instead of a liberal Protestant, she has more sympathy for the devil—or, as Paul called it, the flesh.
Chris Adrian's second novel, The Children's Hospital, is a creation myth for a new century, infused with a holy rage that stretches back from Edwards all the way to the Old Testament prophets. Quite literally, it leaves Gilead, Iowa—as well as the rest of the contemporary fictional landscape—under a deluge of water seven miles tall. This marvel of a book is, among other things, a time capsule for the age of TV medical drama, big pharma, managed healthcare, and drug-resistant pathogens even as it aims for a mode of storytelling more deeply unsettling than mere realism; it is an apocalyptic allegory sung by a quartet of angels; it is an anatomy of human grief and frailty so detailed and forgiving that its vision seems divinely inspired. In a perfect world—that is, one with an appetite for stories equal to its horror and its beauty without dilution—The Children's Hospital would be stocked in the bedside table of every hotel room in the country beside the Gideon Bible. It is the literary equivalent of the full, terrifying Gospel—visions, dreams, healing, holy fire, snake handling, and all.
Unlike Glory in Home, Jemma Claflin, the third-year medical student at the center of The Children's Hospital, doesn't wear her disappointment lightly enough for Ah wells. The victim of something like a biblical curse, watched over since birth by an overinvolved recording angel who judges her, pines for her, and cheers her on, Jemma, when the novel opens, has suffered four great losses—and is bracing for another. First, her brother, Calvin (yes, there are echoes of that Calvin), committed suicide and left her with a manuscript recounting his pain and tortured love. Then her father died gruesomely from lung cancer ("Free at last!" her mother says), followed by her mother—a house fire—and then her lover, Martin Marty. It is typical of Adrian's imagination to borrow the name of a famous Lutheran scholar, make him a romantic hero, and then kill him in a fiery car crash. The resonances in The Children's Hospital usually run much deeper, but it is a relief that Adrian is not above providing a laugh by going shallow as well.
"The great crisis" hits the Children's Hospital one night while Jemma and her attentive boyfriend, Rob Dickens, are stealing a moment for sex in a break room—their colleagues are on their rounds. It starts as a rainstorm, but the rain never stops. The hospital, specially designed by the famed architect John Grampus to withstand the coming flood and carry the passengers to land, floats free of its foundation and metamorphoses to more comfortably support life. The census of survivors includes 699 sick children—many of them gruesomely, insanely ill—37 siblings, 106 parents, 152 nurses, 20 interns, 15 residents, 18 students, 10 fellows, and a "single itinerant tamale vendor." The bruising rounds continue. The hospital is a floating raft of survivors who seem to have been chosen for their incurable diseases and painful symptoms, their syndromes and hangups, their inability to bond and tendency to turn abusive toward underlings. The recording angel is brought to tears by the varieties of suffering and petty cruelties kept afloat by Jemma's Ark—a flicker of its old humanity—even as it knows that tears from an angel are futile. Still, it watches, and it listens. And behind the din of the floating hospital, the beating of the water against the windows, there just might be a song:
Maybe, like the wise woman says, in eternity the old world is Troy, and the everyday existence now drowned and lost is in fact the ballad they sing in the streets of Heaven. . . . It is background to every noise in the hospital—underneath the chiming alarms and the huffing respirators and the conversations, whispered or shouted, underneath the fornicators sighing Os and underneath the merely human weeping that is constant from dusk till dawn.
Discerning a heavenly ballad behind the "merely human" weeping in this life is not just the task of the recording angel in The Children's Hospital—it is the work of fiction. God, living is enormous. In the case of Robinson, that ballad becomes a set of marching orders that simplifies and sanitizes life to redeem it through the devotional act of gathering it in a novel. But for Adrian, there is no affliction of the flesh too monstrous, no nighttime cry too plaintive, no bowel too obstructed, no sex act too disturbing, no prescription drug too powerful, no palate too cleft, no graft too infected, to be incorporated into the novel's song of earthly love. It is a love tinged with rage, and it has been from the start; for we each come equipped, like Jemma, with a gripe: "that everyone she loved must die." It's an obscenity of the lowest, most primitive order—and it is often the first item in the affidavit of complaint when people turn away from God. As conditions to live under go, it is intolerable. But we can fight back. Here's how Jemma does it:
There was a hospital floating in her mind as surely as there was one floating out in the world. The hospital in her head was shaped the same as the one in the world, and inhabited by the same people, and sometimes they happened to float almost in the same place, so her image of the hospital was superimposed upon its subject. Then she thought she knew everything that was happening inside, what everyone was doing, even how everyone was feeling. She could hear the humming and clicking of the great toy in the lobby, and the unexhausted wonder of a child standing here or there around it, trying to comprehend how all its gears and spokes and pistons fit together.
You can call it dreaming, or a hallucination, or a fiction for Jemma to take refuge in while the hospital lurches on beneath her to an uncertain shore. Or you can call it something else: writing a novel.
Benjamin Anastas is the author of The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).