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21 Essays She

The achievement of Robinson’s novels has been how elegantly she folds questions of faith, ethics and eschatology into fiction, and presents them to us as human dramas, in language bright and bare as bone. She has been compared to the Dutch masters for her sense of silence and light, for the quality of patient attention that gilds the most modest moments. But she also has a gift for wit and metaphor that turns the ordinary on its head.

In nonfiction, Robinson approaches her quarry directly, with frank combativeness (or ranting, as her critics have it). She worried about this once: “My writing has perhaps taken too much of the stain of my anger,” she wrote in “Mother Country,” her 1989 study of nuclear pollution. No more. She opens the new collection telling us: “I am too old to mince words.”

She is democratic in her censure, flaying the left for its “slick, unreflecting cynicism,” the right for its “unembarrassed enthusiasm for self-interest.” She upbraids the religious for their fear and willful dismissal of science; scientists for their juvenile understanding and dismissal of faith.

But back to the original question. How did Robinson end up here — with an orientation so open to the world that it feels less cosmopolitan than cosmic? Was it libraries?

Mostly. Robinson came to the habit of self-scrutiny early. As a child, her teachers told her, “You have to live with your mind your whole life”; they taught her the value of building it, making it worthy. It was, she has said, the most important lesson she ever received. She kept at it, following the publication of “Housekeeping,” with one of the more interesting silences in American letters. She published no new fiction for 24 years, devoting herself instead to deep study of Marx, Darwin and the history of political thought.

In many ways, “What Are We Doing Here?” is a response to those years of study, a repudiation of Marx and Darwin, of powerful ideologies of any stripe that simplify the world. “Our ways of understanding the world now, our systems and ideologies, have an authority for us that leads us to think of them as exhaustive accounts of reality rather than, at best, as instruments of understanding suited to particular uses,” she writes. No argument here. But when she says that ideologies are to be avoided because they come with conclusions baked into them, I begin to fidget. This sounds an awful lot like some of Robinson’s own nonfiction. For a book that so espouses the virtue of mind interrogating mind, there’s not much evidence of it in this book. Her arguments unspool neatly, like silk off a spindle, because they are frequently arguments she has made before.

When Robinson warns against historical amnesia, her regular readers will know exactly where she’s heading: to the Puritans — caricatured as “cankered souls” but actually “the most progressive population on earth through the 19th century at least.” I was very persuaded by the case she makes for their importance. I was even more persuaded by it when I first encountered it in her 1998 essay collection, “The Death of Adam.”

Most of the essays in this new book were delivered as speeches, and some repetition is inevitable. But so too is our desire for more — for the refinement of her ideas instead of the rehashing — especially since the final essay, which takes an unexpectedly personal turn, delivers like no other.

“Slander” is the story of Robinson’s strained relationship with her mother. “With a little difficulty we finally reached an accommodation, an adult friendship,” she writes. “Then she started watching Fox News.” Her mother and her fellow retirees began to share “salacious dread over coffee cake,” fretting over the rumored “war against Christmas.” “My mother lived out the end of her fortunate life in a state of bitterness and panic, never having had the slightest brush with any experience that would confirm her in these emotions, except, of course, Fox News,” Robinson writes. The essay brings all the abstractions home, makes real and painful the cost of ceding an independence of mind. It’s composed in a rare register: mourning and fury counterpoised by humor and a refusal of despair.

Robinson tells us that old scholars would speak of being “ravished” by a text. “I think they were held to their work by a degree of fascination, of sober delight, that we can no longer imagine,” she writes. She’s wrong. I know exactly what she means.

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“I relished this book. From its clash between mother and son emerges a fortifying love, which (I guess like all parental love) has its casualties along with its lush victories.” —Richard Ford

“The gravitational pull of the child toward the mother is so powerful that it persists even in the face of cruelty or neglect. What is finally most affecting about this book is not Frances’s story but her son’s pained efforts to confront it.” —Ruth Franklin, The New York Review of Books 

"[A] fascinating and deftly constructed book." —Jerald Walker, The New York Times Book Review

“Lucky for us, the cassettes collected dust in a shoebox in the closet until he was ready to write this entertaining and moving book, which is equal parts reflection, reconstruction, police interrogation, psychiatric evaluation, and, ultimately, tribute to his mother.” —Annabelle Gurwitch, Los Angeles Review of Books

“By offering readers a candid portrait of his mother, Lopate manages precisely what he must: he takes a personal story and turns it outward, and in doing so, he makes it our story, too.” —B. J. Hollar, The Los Angeles Review


 “Lopate, who’s made a life out of language, listens back to the woman who first taught him to speak.” —Hayden Bennett, San Francisco Chronicle


A Mother’s Tale is a nonfiction book that gives Frances a lot of time in the spotlight. . . . Lopate’s mother was a ‘monologist’ who understood the power of narrative, and a person who could captivate and frustrate any audience who was willing to listen to her.” —Michele Filgate, Barnes & Noble Review

A Mothers Tale shines with pain and laughter. . . . Lopate’s book is an antisentimental tour de force.”—Benjamin Taylor, author of Proust: The Search

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