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Book Review: ‘Jack,’ by Marilynne Robinson

Yet we’re not allowed to see whatever jubilation he finds on the night side of life. He’s a moth, ostensibly drawn to flame, yet rigid because there’s a pin through his thorax. We witness only the hangover, moral and otherwise, the downcast eyes on the morning after. In this novel, he’s the dullest bad boy in the history of bad boys. He’s made to sit perpetually in the corner, facing the wall.

I thought about this dead spot (life) in Robinson’s novels during the scenes in which Jack and Della talk about “Hamlet,” and in those in which Jack later reads and considers the play. Jack and Della are both big readers; they dabble in verse; their courtship includes conversations about poetry.

Their “Hamlet” discussion takes place during an implausible overnight the two of them spend in a locked whites-only cemetery. They consider some of the plot points and ideas in the play. Jack later sees similarities in their predicament to that of Shakespeare’s Gertrude and Claudius. Can deep love triumph over, and in some sense negate, crimes and sins?

This is all interesting enough. But the reason we still read “Hamlet,” and the reason its ideas remain worth talking about, is because the play is acid-bright on the page. The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, in her journals, remarked that Shakespeare speaks intimately to us across centuries because he was, in her indelible phrase, a “cheerful, nose-picking whoremaster.”

That is, as Murdoch’s biographer, Peter J. Conradi, explains, paraphrasing her thoughts, Shakespeare “created not out of simple high-mindedness but, genius apart, out of an intimate and humble understanding of base emotions, of lust and rage, hatred, envy, jealousy and the will-to-power as well as astonishment at ordinariness.”

You rarely sense base emotion of any variety in “Jack.” Jack and Della, unlike Stanley and Stella, are not allowed, for example, to revel in anything as simple as lust. They shyly titillate only each other’s souls.

Della, in her deep need to shake off the expectations of family and society, is a fascinating character, and should resonate far more than she does. Neither she nor Jack seems to have independent life. You sense them placing their heads directly into the halters the author has made for them.

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