We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Die
- Literature

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Die

On the fortieth anniversary of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: an unbeliever’s rereading of Christian conceptions of the afterlife.

Still from Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger (2013)

I took one English class in college. The theme was contemporary fiction and, dutifully enough, we read DeLillo, Nabokov, Zadie Smith, Beckett, Coetzee, and—this last author was not like the others—Marilynne Robinson, whose novel Housekeeping appeared midsemester like a kind of anachronism. It was markedly domestic, reserved, inflected with lyricism, not self-serious but definitely sincere in its wonderment. At its first appearance, in 1980, spellbound reviewers praised its humble poetry, its interest in the ephemeral, the fidelity to small-town life.

Housekeeping, now nearing its fortieth anniversary, has returned to me throughout my writing career. Like those enraptured critics, in my first encounters I read for language, for voice, for craft. I loved this book. In graduate school, in a seminar on the literature of travel and trains, my professor recited the opening line to the class with a kind of disgusted glee: “My name is Ruth.” What kind of beginning was this? How had such an otherwise beautifully written book gotten away with it? The declaration—harsh, direct—is perhaps more shocking in the context of the rest of the novel, which proceeds with the gentle indifference of understatement. That opening chapter describes a mass drowning as no more upsetting than an exploratory dive: a train “nosed” into a lake, Ruth tells us, as calmly as a “weasel,” claiming all the passengers within as the water “sealed itself” over their souls. The scene is so soft, so seductive, it may as well have been narrated by a ghost. I remember we spent the remaining hour of that class discussing whether drowning truly was the most romantic way to die. I wonder now if perhaps parting from one’s body becomes more appallingly beautiful when alibied by the suggestion of an afterlife.

Housekeeping was unique among major anglophone novels of the eighties and nineties, a counterpoint to the anxiety and irony of hysterical realism. But it has also proved an outlier in Robinson’s own, formidable oeuvre; unlike her subsequent essay collections and novels, it has not been enshrined as an explicit exploration of her Calvinist faith. It is “about people who have not managed to connect with a place, a purpose, a routine or another person,” wrote the New York Times in 1981. But the detachment goes much deeper than a failure to connect. Certainly Housekeeping “is not about housekeeping at all,” but it is about the “light work” we do to stay alive, on earth, as we wait to join the world beyond. I see now that it is about waiting to die, and embracing death as a return. “Ascension,” Ruth says, “seemed at such times a natural law.” At the heart of the novel lies an unmistakable preoccupation with Christian conceptions of the afterlife.

I myself am uncomfortable about death. I don’t know where to put it. At age nine, I almost died in the kind of freak accident that Housekeeping’s lyricism so gorgeously blunts, an experience that has had a subtle but profound influence on my life ever since. Perhaps I ought to have flinched from a book that muffles the raw mechanics of a death, having once been within hearing range myself. But in fact it is easy to dissociate from that close call. My own accident doesn’t seem like something that happened to me. The memory, like that opening chapter, is muted, a scene overheard a long time ago. I spent weeks recovering in the ICU attached to the university where my parents taught and worked. The blinds were always drawn, and patients tended to slip in and out of consciousness—it was hard to tell if it was day or night, metaphor or real life. Like the characters in Housekeeping, we existed somewhere in between. Perhaps this is why I first loved the book, for the way it made a seduction out of dying. However, I didn’t register its explicit fascination with liminality—its orientation toward death—in my first reads. And now that I do, I question it.

The year after my accident, a fourth-grade classmate was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. This, to me, is the more violent memory. I sat next to him in math. I watched him lose his hair, his composure, his ability to perform simple calculations. He had tantrums over his homework sheets, slamming his fists on the desk. It was a tantrum against the enormity of all that his own body was taking from him—there was no metaphoric potential in this. Then, one day, he gave up. And there, in the giving up, the stories and imagery began. Before he died, he sat beneath a night sky with his mother and pointed into the stars. Will I go there? he asked. She answered the only way a Christian mother can: Yes.

I write novels for a partial living. It should be no terrible leap of the imagination to believe: a little boy finally at peace among the stars. I suspect Marilynne Robinson is able to lean into this scene. But I’m afraid I can’t.

*

Today, while I still admire Housekeeping, I find its impulse toward the Christian afterlife makes me uneasy—unreasonably uneasy. I do not mean that my sensibilities exist at cross-purposes with the politics of the middle of the country, as the stereotype so often goes. I am from the middle country, from towns not unlike the Idahoan village of Fingerbone in which Housekeeping takes place, a town “chastened …by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” I mean instead that I have experienced a sort of spiritual gridlock with the kind of person who holds certain ideas about the afterlife, and who might claim jurisdiction over a stranger’s soul; the kind of person who might divulge the unsolicited opinion that you, an unbeliever, are destined for Hell. The implicit corollary to Ruth’s fascination with ascension is, for me, the promise of descension, however hysterical this may seem.

Housekeeping’s relationship to Final Judgement is quieter, more polite, than the evangelic fervor I grew up around—it makes a lullaby of Armageddon. Even still, Fingerbone is brimming, quite literally, with apocalyptic imagery; the lake floods the town once a year, bestowing all its baptismal and destructive promise. The novel opens with the dashed-off deaths and departures of the better part of Ruth’s family—a mother, grandfather, grandmother, and two great-aunts all disappear, more than a few of them to the depths of that lake, a domino effect that leaves the orphaned Ruth and her sister, Lucille, in the care of Sylvie, the whimsical aunt who eventually comes to raise them. “Time that had not come yet,” Ruth says of her most recent guardian, “had the fiercest reality for her.” The year Sylvie arrives, the annual flood is so totalizing that “if we looked at it, the water seemed spread over half the world.” Ruth wonders, “Why must we be left, the survivors picking among the flotsam, among the small, unnoticed, unvalued clutter … that only catastrophe made notable? Darkness is the only solvent.” She longs to dissolve into that darkness, too, to “let the darkness in the sky become coextensive with the darkness in my skull and bowels and bones.” It’s an appealing metaphor. If the afterlife had been presented to me as a kind of dissolution, perhaps by now I, like Robinson, would be a devout and open Calvinist.

I came about my uneasiness with Christian theology of the afterlife as honestly as one can. My parents, themselves raised Catholic, did not baptize me; my father objected to the involuntary nature of the rite; my mother wanted “nothing to do” with an institution that denied the use of birth control and same-sex marriage rights. My mother’s extended family is Jewish (my aunt converted when she married), but they live across the country, and so I was raised without any formal religious education at all, and certainly without the prospect of damnation. At best, faith floated through my life on holidays, and even then in only performatively secular ways. One Christmukkah, after my mother accidentally swapped the salt and the sugar in my cousin’s kitchen, both in jars labeled in Hebrew, we sank our forks into saline apple streusel with a groan.

I do not remember encountering any resistance to my heathenism until we moved from the Adirondacks, where I was born, to Burlington, Vermont, where, as fate would have it, I attended a Catholic school. My parents had chosen it for its proximity to the university where they were employed in research laboratories, and for that fact that no other elementary school in the area offered after-school care past five. (Since both my parents worked, we were reliant on these so-called after-school programs.) They took turns walking me to and from class at the bookends of a day. The school, not especially rigid in its catechism, was interfaith, but I was notably religiously illiterate, and my ignorance made of me the most offensive student in the class by far. For the third-grade poetry competition, I tied for first place but was barred from performing at the assembly after my submission was deemed too blasphemous to be shared before the nuns. My friend Katharine read aloud, and alone, a nuanced verse about practicing Judaism in a Catholic school; for my part, I’d appropriated the rhyme and meter of the Hail Mary for a propagandistic ditty promoting shorter school years and extended recess periods. It was also Katharine who warned me, later in the year, that, like her, I was not allowed to follow our classmates through the pews for first confession, baptism being a prerequisite—indeed, the priest expelled me from the booth, along with the notecard of sins I’d prepared. My science teacher was a nun who once asked us each to state before the class our favorite of the eight Beatitudes. I responded to this invitation with the announcement that God helps those who help themselves. It seemed a fitting and wrathful punishment, a month later, that my terrarium was the only one to grow mold and die. But overall, aside from the occasional suggestion of divine intervention, religion remained adjacent to my experience, something to which I did not and was not expected to belong. I didn’t quite respect it, perhaps in part because I wasn’t yet afraid. For all the time I spent in Catholic school, no one had yet impressed upon me the fact that I was bound for Hell.

When I was ten, my family moved from Vermont to Indiana, where all our neighbors were believers and pushier about their faith. That first summer, the heat was a shock—I spent June playing tennis against myself inside the shuttered garage. One afternoon, I ventured out into the street, where I met two kids riding bikes. I had never encountered evangelists before, which is to say I didn’t know how to read the subtext of a casual invitation: when they asked me over I responded with an only child’s desperate yes. I realized the gravity of my mistake when I arrived at a homeschool Bible study, where the pastor awarded my hosts with plastic toys as a reward for luring me to their living room. I was an impish, arrogant kid, and so I immediately divulged that I was not baptized, assuming this would release me from the lesson, just as the priest had once evicted me from confession. Rest assured the effect on the pastor was quite the opposite. I remember he had picture books depicting graphic, Dantean scenes. He held them aloft as he narrated the images therein, further animating suffering. He made frequent eye contact. I remember he seemed to speak specifically to me.

The promise of the afterlife—and, in my case, the promise of damnation to Hell—became a specter of my adolescence. My fate was brimstone, and I was fascinated and afraid. I asked everyone I knew: Did they truly believe I would go to Hell? I nagged my born-again babysitter over midday meals at Wendy’s or Pizza Hut. I trusted her—this was the woman who’d taught me milkshakes are better when you use them as a dipping sauce for fries. Now she was assuring me God had an umbrella over children, which only led to further questions about diameter, circumference, and at what age one officially left childhood behind. I must have been, as the euphemism goes, a test of faith for her.

Everywhere, ideas of salvation seemed to erect a screen between me and the people I loved; it was as if they’d already died and moved into another realm. There were girls in my classes with whom, through all four years of high school, I never had a conversation about anything other than the assignment for AP Lit; they were members of the Right to Life Club and I was not. I was half in love with a family friend—she was a few years older than I, she drove me to school, did psychedelics, played guitar (of course!)—who returned home from a year of college in Iowa transformed. She perched in my kitchen with an electric, apocalyptic glow: Jesus will reign among us for a thousand years, she said. I spent my lunch periods that year with another friend, scheming over how to join the ranks of Reform Judaism: he because he was gay, and I because I was still too proud to cow to the fear of Hell. Years later, when my Hindu partner and I began to joke about having children in the way couples do, he paused, looked at me. You’re not going to want to baptize them, are you? I felt a profound recognition for the panic on his face. All my life, there had seemed to me something inexcusably aggressive in the act of “saving” someone else. It stole people from themselves. Like a deep lake, it swallowed them whole and sealed over their souls.

*

Growing up, I sometimes felt around believers the way the orphaned sisters in Housekeeping feel about their itinerant aunt. In one sense, Sylvie is a dream mother, a Wendy out of Peter Pan: she serves baked apples for dinner, buys flimsy glitter shoes and ribbons, fails to enforce a bedtime or notice that the girls have been skipping school—to be so out of touch with consensus is the very source of her charm. But as the novelty of neglect begins to wears off, Lucille and Ruth become resentful that Sylvie is no better than a child when it comes to keeping house, which is to say the basic business of survival. Lucille demands a change. Why doesn’t Sylvie buy real clothes, eat real food? Why doesn’t she act like someone who wants to stay put, stay alive? There’s something incurably transient about Sylvie, something restless and erratic, as though she were a compass drawn to an alien and undiscovered pole. One day, when the girls are playing truant, they find Sylvie balancing unsteadily on the railroad bridge some fifty feet over the surface of the lake—the same bridge the train “nosed” over in the opening—looking as if she’s considering leaping in. When she notices the girls, she nonchalantly waves and returns to shore. Lucille requires an explanation:

“What if you fell in?”
“Oh,” Sylvie said, “I was pretty careful.”
“If you fell in, everyone would think you did it on purpose,” Lucille said, “even us.”
Sylvie reflected a moment. “I suppose that’s true.” She glanced down at Lucille’s face. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I know.”
“I thought you would be in school.”
“We didn’t go to school this week.”
“But you see, I didn’t know that. It never crossed my mind that you’d be here.” Sylvie’s voice was gentle, and she touched Lucille’s hair.

The frustrated logic of this exchange recalls the conversations I used to have with believers. The afternoon I found myself hoodwinked into attending Bible study at the evangelists’ house, I followed the brother and sister down the street connecting our two neighborhoods, trading little facts about our lives. I was a runner, I told them, and very good, to the detriment of everything else—I lacked hand-eye coordination and any intuition at all for team sports. The sister, who was my age, pondered this for a minute. “God didn’t make me out to be a runner,” she said, almost defensively. “He made me a swimmer.” This statement was profoundly perplexing to me. As was my babysitter’s unliturgical claim that God had an umbrella over children, a proposition that implied adults who did not get themselves saved would be damned to Hell. Both of these deterministic outlooks seemed avoidable to me; one could learn to run, could practice and improve. One could pick and choose from ideology, retaining a faith in charity while skipping over the idea that fellow human beings will burn eternally. At age twelve, it seemed to me that we talked past and around one another, avoiding the articulation of something terrible—my own damnation—in the same way Lucille and Sylvie talk around the possibility of Sylvie’s suicide. Only one party acknowledges how avoidable is all this harm; it would be so easy not to leap from the bridge, not to wander into that death trap at all. At the same time, Sylvie’s motive is innocently transparent, blamelessly cruel, and undeniably attractive; she casts a spell. You cannot reason with a mother like this, just as you cannot reason through a belief in God. Like Lucille, as a child I was at first hurt, then angry, that believers could not put their affection for me before a conviction in the Second Coming and the inevitability of Hell.

Distant, distracted, eschewing company, terrible at keeping house, in some ways Sylvie recalls a writer deeply absorbed in the making of a book. “Step out of it,” my partner gently chides, when he finds me deep in the throes of despair over some problem in a story, unable to communicate about anything else. Like a fixation on the world beyond, reading or writing novels draws one into another realm in a way that competes with existing in this one; it requires a kind of conviction in another world. As an adult, I’ve found writing fiction to be solitary-making and brain-addling, tending to siphon away all common sense: you put your sweatshirt on inside out (even upside down), miss appointments, leave your keys in the fridge, forget people cannot hear you nodding on the phone. To have faith, maybe, is to adopt a profound obsession with a clandestine realm that rivals the world—it’s difficult, I hear, to be a mother and a novelist. Perhaps these resonances between faith in the afterlife and faith in literature should establish common ground. But while readers may become evangelical about books—indeed, Housekeeping is one such novel—a passion for literature, unlike a passion for Jesus, tends to stop short of proclamations on the eternal fate of others’ souls. To have faith in Christian conceptions of the afterlife is to believe in a story, sure, but one that projects itself not onto other worlds but onto this one, where it demands to be received as universal truth.

In some ways, I admire this certainty about other people’s souls. There have been times in my life when I’ve suspected that, like Sylvie, I lack appropriate conviction and interest in daily life or human affairs. Strong conviction—on even minor topics: whether to dip fries in milkshakes, the source of one’s talent for swimming butterfly—carries for me a profound charm. I dislike uncertainty as much as anyone, and so it is refreshing to bask in the glow of sureties and stable predicates: I am a writer, I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a Christian; I am a swimmer, because God made me so. But these narratives also carry a hint of deception, precisely because they are presumed to be immutable. In my experience, we are erratic, self-ignorant, constantly shifting beings. We presume stability in our beliefs, and about our compendium of predicates, not because this stability is true or justified but in order to allow a day to take shape; noon morphs around the falsehood of fixity. In other words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But this idea is too often invoked as a kind of celebration and rehabilitation of literature, rather than as a simple statement of fact. In the flotsam of social media, it suggests that narrative is a call to self-absolution and confession, rather than a deluded attempt, as implied by Didion’s original context, “to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” What was meant to be a diagnosis has been mistaken for a cure.

To freeze life in stable narrative—to suspend the Brownian motion of human behavior so that we may better understand what is going on—is to lay grounds for delusion. We delude ourselves in order to live. I believe the novelist’s vocation is to cast illusions, not delusions, and that there is a great difference between these two necessary spells. It is the novel’s prerogative to trap experience in the form of a book, but never in such a way that it ceases to morph and shift within the boundaries of its container. The illusion of stability—of “freezing” life—exists precisely to throw uncertainty and ambiguity into greater relief. This is the difference, for me, between the stories we tell ourselves to organize a day and the stories we tell to induce a literary experience. Religion belongs to the former category, while religious texts themselves—including a novel like Housekeeping—belong to the arts.

It smacks of condescension to call religion a delusion. That’s not quite what I want to say. But what I mean is perhaps even more offensive: that in fact religion is literature—is metaphor—and that I am able to worship only up to that point where its figurations become literal, become delusions, become claims about damnation and ascension. “So this is all death is,” Ruth thinks as she falls sleep in a quilt wrapped “warm and soft around my arms and shoulders and my ears.” I am uncomfortable about Housekeeping’s coziness with the afterlife because I cannot separate it from the echoes of those who would confuse literature with a dogma of the soul: We tell ourselves stories in order to die.

*

What is the religion I grew up around but a story about how to part from ourselves and from one another? As a child, I never realized that these stories are all the more important for those left behind. After I was released from the ICU, I learned that while I had been away, the entirety of my Catholic elementary school had gathered in the same gymnasium where I had once been barred from reading my poem to hold a prayer service in my honor. I was vaguely horrified by the idea. I did not want my classmates to know anything about me, did not want them to consider me a freak. When people told me they’d prayed for me, I offered a blank stare. Their appeals to God, I thought, were presumptuous and invasive. This now seems to me misguided, the product of a child’s perceived immortality: I wouldn’t really have rather died alone, I don’t think, with no one to pray for me.

It also never occurred to me, at nine, to wonder how my parents had survived my accident. Where did they turn for comfort as I was wheeled in and out of the OR? Today, when I think of them waiting for me to recover, I am troubled to find that I have no more to offer them now than I did then. No tales about rising to join the stars. No delusions at all. Of course I don’t—in that story, where they are in need of more potent narratives, I’m already gone.

Science, Robinson writes in her most recent essay collection, The Givenness of Things, has offered “the greatest proof of its legitimacy” in having “found its way to its own limits.” It is the kind of Trojan-horse claim that I recognize from my childhood, the kind that puts me reflexively on guard. But there is value in acknowledging the boundaries of any faith, and perhaps my own secularism reaches its limits at the limit of a life. I can imagine a believer addressing me in the same tone in which Lucille addresses Sylvie: Why not simply believe? There is no reason to stroll along the railroad tracks and peer down into the water, terrified, no reason not to accept Jesus into my heart. In return, he will allow me to ascend. But I have never found my way in through that open door. What remains beautiful, to me, in Housekeeping is not that death might be gentle, but that Ruth and Sylvie’s longing is so profound: “When do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?” Ruth says. Her conviction throws my own utter lack thereof into relief. She believes that “to crave and to have are as alike as a thing and its shadow … to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it.” When I wish for a hand, I feel its absence.

But I have known smaller comforts. After my classmate’s death, after the tumor sank its deep roots through his brain, his funeral mass was held in a cathedral on the far side of town, near the woods. The stained glass behind the pulpit rose in vibrant purples, and the coffin lay open before the pews. My father has often reminded me of the extraordinary thing that happened next: as the priest prepared communion, a deer appeared in one of the low windows at the back of the church and lingered, looking in at the congregation with its wide, wet eyes. The way my father tells it, the doe must have stood there for five or ten minutes, until the end of the service, before leaping away into the woods. He tells it with an air of disbelief, but also reverence—it seemed to him a sign of something approaching the divine. I never saw the deer, or if I did, I don’t recall.

My father has always been a storyteller, the liturgist of family legend. I can see him telling this particular tale at the pulpit of the kitchen table, his arms wide for emphasis, his face alive with boyish wonder. And for whose benefit, that wonder? He used to keep me entertained like this for hours in the car, spinning elaborate yarns he’d invented just for me. Fairy tales. Meandering jokes. He told stories about Detroit, my great-uncles, my grandfather’s penchant for pickled pig knuckles and an antiquated Polish pegged to nineteenth-century slang—stories that resurrected in the blind spots of my memory all the relatives who’d died. It never occurred to me to question the veracity of these private histories. I have no idea where truth lies. I am still waiting to find out. I ask my friends, my partner. I look over my shoulder, to make sure my parents are still there. When the time comes, I suspect it will no longer matter so much, whether the deer appeared.

 

Marilynne Robinson’s story “Connie Bronson” appeared in issue no. 100 of The Paris Review. The Art of Fiction no. 198 was published in issue no. 186.

 

 

Jessi Jezewska Stevens is a writer and itinerant freelancer. Her debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in March. She has published two stories in The Paris Review, Honeymoon” and “The Party.”

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