How Not to Keep a House

I am scattered enough that I want to do housekeeping. I am scattered enough I want to throw on some Chopin, turn it up loud enough that the neighbors know what good taste is, and wash some windows. I might even vacuum, my most dreaded of dreaded chores.

I do this when I am feeling stir-crazy. The type of crazy where if I sit any longer my head my explode. I somehow manage to get everything done. At the worst periods of my life, I managed to come home and clean for several hours straight, both to the amusement and horror of my housemates. When I lived in Scotland and the loneliness was about ready to kill me, I found a ritual in doing to the dishes. It was a moment in which I did not have to care or remember or even really try.

I wonder if this is what housekeeping really is: that scatteredness igniting a misplaced passion. I finished Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping the other day, read mostly either before I went to bed or during a prolonged journey on a train (a two hour trip on the Los Angeles MTA is definitely a long journey in my mind). It was gripping enough I did not fall asleep at bedtime(sorry Gogol) and I managed to almost miss my stop, as in the doors almost closed on my as I jumped out (that was a first).

This is strange because the book is not really about housekeeping and is one of the calmest, most lulling pieces of fiction I’ve read in a long time. It’s an exercise in how to master the lyric and a prose poem. But if this novel is poetic, it is also equally fictive, drawing the best components of the art – interesting characters, a striking setting, and a strangely possible situation – and conquering them in less than 250 pages.

The novel is narrated by Ruthie, the daughter of tragedy in every sense of the word. When I bought the book, people commented that it sounded “dramatic” after reading the back. But considering the amount of tragedy and drama elicited by the editor’s summary (this is already sounding like NBC’s Olympic Commentary – see Slate’s Sap-O-Meter), this book is the least dramatic thing I’ve read in awhile. Before the novel begins, the narrator’s grandfather dies in an unexplained accident in which the train he drives ends up in the glacial lake it is crossing. This lake is the same lake that her mother eventually drives her car into in order to commit suicide. And just by chance, her grandmother, who is the first of a series of relatives to raise her, owns a house on the outskirts of a town next the same lake. I think we already have an Olympic contender for sob story. But I can also hear Robinson’s American ancestors cheering her on to master the true American literary landscape: that of the isolated stoic, somehow surviving amid a brutal nature; although the real question is, When will nature overcome?

This is easy terrain to become sappy, but somehow, Robinson manages to navigate the landscape in a purely unsentimental way. In this barren land complete with a frigid lake, there is no room for runaway emotions. As we eventually see with the narrator’s sister Lucille, it only makes you an unsympathetic and superficial person.

The title, Housekeeping, may seem inconsequential at first, but throughout the progression of the novel it becomes apparent that it is the little rituals of life, in this case keeping a house, that are in every sense an effort to survive in an unforgiving world. But no one is successful, whether it be the townspeople who are plagued by the endless flooding and devestation by mud or the narrator and her aunt Sylvie who just can’t quite conform to the town and Lucille’s standards. Robinson, through language, makes it apparent how the mundane can be a most beautiful chaotic struggle. It is what creates the lulling tide in which all falls apart, not the broken rituals. The train crashes into the water. The mother drives her car into the lake. They sweep out the house and all goes on.

***

Things must be awfully normal here if I am so bad at housekeeping. I could not listen to Chopin or wash the windows. Instead, I decided some Arturo Sandoval was a better musical choice as I didn’t want to go downstairs and try to resurrect some hidden CD. It was a mistake. I thought about making marmalade and decided to put if off until tomorrow. The world must not be falling apart. It definitely is far from lyrical as a can hear an odd medley of the BBC News, the jingle from NBC, and my own choice of “Latin trumpet jazz.”

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