From the outset Robinson reveals her subtle mastery of both character and language ... Striking too to read this novel in 2020, during a global pandemic and the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement: Robinson’s timeless prose, her Romeo and Juliet story, have an eerily timely ring. Jack and Della advance towards their love and retreat from it at the same time: the narrative pull of the book is in entering their troubled dance. Jack fits beautifully into the subtle weave of Robinson’s Gilead books;
that said, it could perfectly well be read on its own ... Her clear, fluid language is laced with the work of writers who have come before, with references to Shakespeare and Frost and Whitman ... Robinson reminds us that the world is ours to make.
... with the sublime Jack, she resumes and deepens her quest, extending it to the contemplation of race ... Robinson masterfully allows her protagonists to do the heavy lifting of the storytelling and employs deceptively simple dialogue as her primary tool. But make no mistake—there is richness and depth at every turn. The odds are stacked against this lovestruck couple. But Jack calls to mind what 1 Corinthians 13:7 says about love: It always protects, hopes, and perseveres.
This is the era of Jim Crow and strictly enforced miscegenation laws, a milieu Robinson evokes with small, deft strokes ... When Jack opens his mouth, he tends to say the same six or seven things, as if Robinson were pulling a string in his back ... This is probably the place to say that, like a lot of readers I know, I’m divided about Robinson’s novels. On the one hand, there’s Gilead, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 and which patiently accrues grace and power. On the other hand, to open her other novels, including this one, is largely to enter a remote, airless, life-denying, vaguely pretentious and mostly humorless universe, where it is always Sunday morning and never Saturday night, where the same bespoke arguments about religious feeling are rehashed, where a lonely reader enters, sniffs the penitential air and asks: Who died? ... Jack is a charmer who is seldom allowed to charm. We’re told he plays barrelhouse piano in bars, that he cuts loose on payday, that he’s a gifted and inveterate criminal. His motto might be carpe noctem. 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 ... 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.
Anyone who has read these radiant novels, I think, will be interested in reading Jack Boughton’s own narrative, and seeing how and why he has changed ... I am looking forward to a fifth volume that will fill in their saga, and I hope it will be called Della.
... particularly dependent on those previous books. If you’re tempted to read them out of order, be warned...Jack rests on what came before, and its poignancy arises from what we know lies ahead for these characters ... ferociously restrained ... Jack is a distinctly Robinsonian bum: genteel to the point of parody and well-versed in the conundrums of 16th-century theology ... It’s Della’s ability to see through Jack’s persona that saves him — and this novel — from pretentiousness ... I only wish we got to see more of that fire in this novel. Robinson remains so focused on Jack’s ruminations that whatever Della may be thinking by loving him back is exalted as an ontological fact beyond scrutiny. Sweet as their affection for each other is, the story’s asymmetrical insight into their motives makes Della feel flat. That’s particularly surprising since a peripheral character watching out for her interests is more fully drawn, more conflicted by the complicated rules of success in a racist society ... But Jack is wholly Jack’s story. And Robinson cradles his love for Della with the tenderness of a gracious creator.
The novel doesn’t quite live up to the high standards set by its predecessors. The dialogue is burdened with too much of the philosophical and theological debate ... Robinson is a wonderful, wise writer and there are lovely things here ... If it’s your first time in Gilead, start with any one of the other three novels, and leave Jack until last.
[Jack] lives in a mostly miserable haze, which in turn gives the book a hazy quality, ungrounded and restless ... That Jack doesn’t fall in with the prevailing white-supremacist worldview is another of his inexplicable 'deviances'—one of the only redeeming ones—and it’s difficult to read Robinson’s intentions regarding this plot point. Jack is hardly an anti-racist visionary or a noble political dissenter, though in the previous novels he has prodded family members to reevaluate their own prejudices. He doesn’t examine with any acuity the bigotry of the world he lives in, or his failure to subscribe to it. Like so many of his personality traits, this, too, seems innate and immovable rather than learned or chosen. Yet why does the Blackness of his beloved, whose life has been marked by white supremacy, come up in his mind and in their conversations only insofar as it’s a material obstacle to their shared happiness? Why does our sensitive protagonist fail to imagine that this difference between them may be spiritually substantial and worthy of his curiosity, not because their souls are racialized but because their lived experiences have been? Is it his failure to see complexly, or Robinson’s? One begins to sympathize with Della’s relatives in their frantic attempts to shield her from him. Their refusal to see Jack’s love for her as at all moral or redemptive furthers the uneasy sense that if one is to root for these two characters, one would root for them to part, or for them to find, as Della says on one of their long nighttime walks, a world where only the two of them made the rules ... Robinson here enters Jack into the tradition of tragic heroes. To render his often-sordid path in this way dignifies a character who is routinely deprived of his dignity, which feels like a kind of authorial grace. It also makes him archetypal, his existence a parable ... Because large portions of this book occur in dialogues between Della and Jack—their voices drifting toward each other in the dark—and because Jack’s senses are often dulled or confused by misery or alcohol, Jack lacks some of the lush materiality of Robinson’s past novels. Here, as Robinson predicted, Jack proves an imperfect vehicle. Robinson’s signature is her suffusion of love and poetry into the everyday business of human beings...Each of her novels has celebrated the fact that the ineffable is inseparable from the quotidian, and rendered the ineffable, quotidian world back to us, peculiar, luminous, and precise. If Jack feels somehow less like a world and more like a morality tale or thought experiment than her other novels, that is perhaps because its central character is so ill-tethered to the world ... Still, there are passages when Jack’s eye glimmers so clearly on the moment, when his dream logic feels so apt, that the whole world Robinson has illuminated with such care and attention reappears, and we are returned to the prophetic everyday.
I’ve sometimes wondered whether Robinson originally intended to set her series in the 19th century — a time when emancipated people set up free communities, giving Iowa a substantial Black population. It’s always seemed to me that Robinson’s heart is there — in the era when the Great Awakening inspired a prophetic, utopian Christianity — rather than in the rigid 1950s, when these Black communities had disappeared and white rural churches promoted lock-step patriotism and anti-communism, not introspection and spiritual unease ... On this small scale, Jack is a tender, surprising, poignant, subtly funny story that would make a great arthouse adaptation, directed by Barry Jenkins and scored by Tom Waits. It doesn’t matter, from this perspective, that the novel hardly seems to take place in a city at all, just as the previous books in the series hardly seem to inhabit a town ... the Gilead novels are supposed to inhabit a concrete historical moment. No trace of the civil rights movement exists in Jack. No news of any kind enters the novel, in which Black people and the Black churches of St. Louis play a central role. Also no music, no radio or television, no movies — no textures or gestures of popular culture ... It’s true that when people are intensely in love, that rush of blood in the ears itself can drown out all other signals, which is why, to me, Jack is more compelling and recognizable than Robinson’s other Gilead novels. But it doesn’t change the fact that as a work of American literature, Jack is, like the other books in the series, an act of wishful or even magical thinking. It works as a story about individuals transcending their racialized world only by treating racism as a vague evil perpetuated offscreen, to be overcome by virtuous intentions. Anyone who’s witnessed the last four years of U.S. politics knows better than that. Marilynne Robinson is so committed to acting as a majority of one, in Thoreau’s phrase, that she’s willing to gloss over a century’s worth of inconvenient facts — from the racial history of Iowa to the doctrinal splits in Calvinist denominations that have produced today’s conservative extremists — in service to an idealized common Americanness that fades as soon as you try to bring it in focus.
Jack is not a novel that offers answers to the urgent moral question of American racism. Nor should it ... [Robinson] traces a relationship from its complicated inception to its immensely troubled and moving maturity, and, in so doing, asks American readers to consider both the cruelties of our country's racist recent history and the utter potential, for white Americans in particular, of accepting that we are intrinsically able to do harm.
The book is a particularly welcome arrival in this time of upheaval: It's as quietly thoughtful, human, and heartrending as Robinson’s earlier work, while illuminating the blatant racial injustices of a not-so-distant era.
This is not a book that has been designed to please. Its pace is deliberately slow, and character is sometimes overwhelmed by a weight of significance that verges on the allegorical ... Those who are willing to grant the imaginative patience that this novel requires, however, will find themselves rewarded.
In its simplest sense, Jack is about salvation, though of a more earthly kind than that theorized by the Gilead elders. Even so, the obstacles are as daunting as any pilgrim’s progress ... her fiction is transcendent in its compassion and generous subjectivities. Ms. Robinson eschews absolutes not only with those gaps and silences in her storytelling but on the more intimate level of the sentence. I have never read another writer for whom qualifiers were such constant companions ... her series is so big and rich and open-ended that it is impervious to closure. These novels honor creation by affording us something we only occasionally find in the vastness of existence: a glimpse of eternity, such as it is.
Jack is suffused with the virtues that make Robinson one of our greatest thinkers on matters of spirituality, love, and family. Thoughtful, subtle, probing, it glows with wit and wisdom. But, against its siblings in the series, it casts a cloudier light, with fewer flashes to bring tears to the eyes or an exclamation to the lips. That is in part due to the fact that Jack relies much more heavily on dialogue, which hurries Robinson’s prose from its typical patient unfolding. But it’s mostly due to its titular character ... By granting us access to Jack’s thoughts, regrets, pangs, and longings, Robinson casts a warm glow of forgiveness and mercy over a man whom others would disparage or deride. There is something beautiful and worthy in her giving him his own novel, his own opportunity to win our sympathy, our admiration, our tender regard ... But Robinson was also right to be apprehensive about the approach. Jack’s head is a place of excoriation, self-loathing, and intermittent inebriation—abiding there is fascinating but ultimately taxing ... the reader can’t help but feel that a novel called 'Jack and Della'...would have made for a better, more capacious and moving book. Though Della is a vivid presence and has some of the book’s most arresting lines, her motivation for loving Jack is never entirely clear ... Only if we see them as figures in a strenuous Christian parable—she the embodiment of charity, patience, and mercy, he the struggling sinner yearning for love’s transfiguration—does their love feel right.
... an evocative and suggestive idea. It also shows up unannounced two-thirds of the way through the novel, rather than running as a theme through the whole story. Although structure has never been Robinson’s main concern, at times Jack meanders. For instance, the first scene is a tight six pages on the aftermath of Jack and Della’s disastrous first date The second scene is 70 pages of them talking in a graveyard. The universe of this novel could use a bit more fine-tuning ... But few read Marilynne Robinson’s novels for plot or social commentary. She belongs to the American tradition of visionary Protestantism (and post-Protestantism) that runs from John Cotton and Jonathan Edwards to Emerson, Melville, and Whitman. Their stylistic extravagance and metaphysical daring all makes sense in light of (Robinson’s understanding of) 'Calvin’s metaphor—nature is a shining garment in which God is revealed and concealed.' There is no register too exalted to do creation justice ... There are plenty of revelatory moments.
The writing is starkly memorable and chilling because of Robinson’s magisterial approach to character and destiny, to sinfulness and the possibility of redemption, but also because of her skill at delineating minute feelings and ordinary, small gestures ... What emerges at the end of Jack is the extent of Marilynne Robinson’s command. She shares with George Eliot an interest in large questions and also a fascination with a wildness in the soul, with a sensuality and a spiritual striving that cannot be easily calmed, and can be captured only by the rarest talent.
Jack, the latest novel from Robinson, has ample pleasures, rarely separable from the potent spiritual and existential concepts and stirring emotions conjured by her narrative. Jack achieves something of a singular beauty ... It’s a powerfully moving book, and a reminder that no visit to Robinson’s Gilead—even when it never sets foot in that town—is a wasted visit.
Reading Jack at this turbulent moment in national and world events, particularly this juncture in the continuing struggle for racial equity and justice, is like taking a deep drink of cool water ... The reader ... may — whether familiar with the series or meeting Jack for the first time — want to return to Gilead, Home, and Lila rather than say goodbye.
In a way similar to teaching, writing—fiction and poetry especially—is offered up, offered beyond the limit of any moral doctrine and any community, beyond any name. For this impossible, defenseless gesture of writers and teachers, Jack makes a lasting refuge.
The relationship is beautifully developed, and Robinson carefully unpacks the particular struggles of interracial relationships in mid 20th century America, but she stops short of confronting the very real threat of physical violence that would have challenged them both, especially Della. For the most part, the threats in this novel remain theoretical; uttered, but benign ... Robinson makes it clear that neither Della nor Jack think highly of these appalling societal restrictions, but the truth is only one of them is in mortal danger. For that reason, Jack’s ruminations about his own 'troubled' nature sometimes fall flat. Love alone would not have conquered the racial problems in St. Louis in the 1940s, and though Robinson is one of our greatest contemporary prose writers, Jack’s story feels inconsequential compared to Della’s plight ... Racism provides Robinson with fertile ground for a discussion of predestination and grace, but grace has yet to save Black people from discrimination, nor their neighborhoods from white developers. Grace may have saved Jack, but one also ends up questioning, vis a vis the obvious contrast between being born white versus Black during that period (and even today), who is conveying grace and who is denying it, and who is the one doling it out in such inadequate, arbitrary thimblefuls? ... The book ends with the notion that loyalty and love are a type of grace—a small one perhaps, but one that does offer some comfort from the storm.
Like all of Robinson’s Gilead novels, Jack is a novel about goodness and godliness, and about how America’s great and small cruelties obstruct them ... Through Jack, a character whose anxious psychology she delineates with exact, exhausting yet winning detail, Robinson stages an American morality play in which her characters sweat under the spotlight, struggling to hit their prescribed marks while also telling the story they’re destined to star in ... The Gilead novels are concerned with morality in a more old-fashioned way: they’re religious, for one, but perhaps more important, they are about characters who actually make enormous effort to be good ... These early conversations between Jack and Della read like scenes from a play, capturing the oddly intense intimacy of two people speaking alone but gazed upon by an audience ... Much of the novel takes place in Jack’s tortured psyche, where he wallows in self-loathing and games out the possible consequences of his actions ― which should be claustrophobic and exhausting, but is somehow, in Robinson’s hands, difficult to look away from.
...should stir a host of emotions ... Jack doesn’t clear up every mystery, but it does provide some backstory ... [A] peculiar opening sequence, a 70-page stretch in which the two are locked overnight in the city’s historic Bellefontaine Cemetery ... the scene feels more like a potted and stiff one-act play than a nuanced portrait of what connects this unlikely, troubled couple ... The misstep is all the stranger because the remainder of Jack shows why Robinson is a singular figure in American fiction. She writes about faith without piousness, art without snobbery, and when she gets deep into her characters’ heads, gives their emotional crises complexity and contours ... Robinson also conjures a sense of hard-won possibility.
Jack Boughton is probably the most interesting character in the fictional world of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels ... along with being a disreputable, inveterate rotter, Jack is delightful—funny, brilliant, extraordinarily perceptive and so deeply erudite that the poetry of the Bible and Shakespeare (for instance) thread inextricably through his thoughts ... What is in fact most powerful and poignant about this love story is how at once hard and permeable is the boundary between the 'marriage of true minds' and the real world; and in Jack’s case, how internal that boundary also is.
Despite the novel’s title, it is surprising to find that Jack is its only real character. Della, present nearly throughout the story, sadly lacks any actual presence. At times, she is the philosophical mouthpiece of her author ... At others, she is spectral, a half-presence, as if real only to Jack, though never real enough to have wants or needs that might meaningfully collide with his own ... It is possible to read this Jack-centrism as a deliberate narratological manifestation of Jack’s solipsism. But if we concede this point, we should also concede that the novel, its plot, its characters, its intellectual problems, are poorer for it. And to give the benefit of the doubt would lead us to miss all the ways in which Jack works quite hard to be a good person, or at least a better one. Della’s flat character is a problem in its own right ... Jack wants to take us there, past the sphere of the self; but Jack holds us back, keeping us from the straight and narrow.
It’s no surprise then that I admired Robinson’s latest novel, Jack. It continues the story begun in Gilead and elaborated upon, from different angles and in different styles, in Home and Lila ... The temporal layering is delicate. The novel starts with a terrible dinner date ... If we’ve read Robinson’s earlier novels, we know where things are headed. The promise of Jack and Della’s union will be thwarted at every turn; Gilead, Iowa, a town with an abolitionist past, will not be paradise reclaimed; Jack will continue to sabotage himself and America will continue to sabotage any dream of racial redemption ... Yet, at the end of Jack, these characters’ futures also seem radically, beautifully open. America’s endemic cruelties abide. So does Jack’s loyalty; so does Della’s bravery; so does the hope that history might bend toward love.
Her plots are simple and the voices of her characters both indelible and compelling ... What is new about Jack is that here Robinson has excavated the story head-on. Whereas in the earlier novels the deeply affecting stories are felt most painfully through Jack’s attempts at reconciliation and his difficult but entrancing waywardness, here Robinson has moved outside the familiar frame of contemporaneity ... In its better moments, Jack is undoubtedly a beautiful book; nevertheless, it requires a fair deal of perseverance.
... it is difficult to imagine any other contemporary writer who could achieve so improbable a conflation of doctrine and feeling ... Occasionally Della appears too virtuous by half, sanctified by love to an extent you’d think would put her beyond the touch of any human hand, still less that of a ne’er-do-well. But since the entirety of the novel is placed within the consciousness of Jack, we conceive of her as he does: the arrival of an unsought and unmerited grace ... Robinson’s style...has been refined into a restrained and occasionally almost casual lexis, concerned with a penetrating engagement with psychological realism and the lasting import of apparently small acts. Of all her novels, this is the most frankly amusing: the deep moral seriousness of Robinson’s vision is frequently leavened with set pieces that almost approach farce ... The reader may well feel subject to a sermon, but the sermon is necessary and rarely heard.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, profound novel Jackwill not be for every reader ... it's a slow read ... If you allow yourself the time, you could easily spend a month reading and thinking about Jack, about old-time Christian debates regarding grace, redemption and love ... spirit-boggling ... [a] glorious new novel.
As is her habit, Robinson keeps going over the emotional ground, edging backward and forward in time, in slow scenes with many passages of repetitive, inconclusive dialogue ... It is extremely claustrophobic. All the same, this method of attentive close-up does painstakingly illuminate a strange and difficult character ... Jack is not only a personal story of 'apophatic loneliness.' It opens out into a social and political history of painful significance and relevance ... She has always written with great tenderness and delicacy about the very poor, people at the bottom of or on the margins of society. And there’s a great deal of feeling in Jack (an urban novel, unlike her other books) for people living under adverse circumstances.
Robinson shows the dynamics of privilege: alone on the street, Jack’s shabbiness leads both Black and white people to mistake him for a beggar. For Della, meanwhile, clothing offers transformation on a painfully limited scale ... The opening pages of this novel are full of exclamation points, a kind of excited urgency neither party can bear to subdue. They form a marriage out of language. Della is pregnant at the close of Robinson’s novel, and the pair agrees to leave Memphis, where she’s visiting family, together; Jack positions himself in the bus station so that he can 'see a part of the colored section of the waiting room.' A distressing and sorrowful place to leave them: together and not, married and not, occupying a space they have carved out of nothing.
... [a] glorious work of metaphysical and moral inquiry, nuanced feelings, intricate imagination, and exquisite sensuousness ... Myriad manifestations of pain are evoked, but here, too, are beauty, humor, mystery, and joy as Robinson holds us rapt with the exactitude of her perceptions and the exhilaration of her hymnal cadence, and so gracefully elucidates the complex sorrows and wonders of life and spirit.
A sometimes tender, sometimes fraught story of interracial love in a time of trouble ... Robinson’s storytelling relies heavily on dialogue, moreso than her other work, and involves only a few scene changes, as if first sketched out as a play. The story flows swiftly—and without a hint of inevitability ... An elegantly written proof of the thesis that love conquers all—but not without considerable pain.
The mixed results suggest Ms. Robinson should have stuck to her inclination ... a terrific opening ... Unfortunately, the scene, which goes on for 60 pages, doesn’t explore their lives in depth. Readers may wonder why they should care about them. The scene is written almost as if it were a play. As is often the case in a printed script, the writing is pedestrian, with a surprising amount of stage direction ... The novel, which goes back and forth in time, strengthens considerably after they leave the cemetery ... Especially strong are sequences that show the responses to Jack and Della’s deepening relationship ... If Jack doesn’t portray its protagonist with the same nuance Ms. Robinson has shown for earlier characters, its release in the year of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and protests against systemic racism is timely. 'So many of earth’s grievances could be soothed by a little consideration,' Ms. Robinson writes. Decades have passed since the period in which Jack is set. As this book shows, enduring prejudices can be hard to shake.
... it is that the same thoughts recur on a loop for 300 pages, virtually all of which contain at least one sentence that sounds like a Marilynne Robinson parody ... Worse, this taste for the punishingly theoretical doesn’t really illuminate the human aspects of the story so much as completely smother them. Even Jack and Della’s racial divide, for example, seems more like an abstract question of moral philosophy than anything properly felt by them, Robinson or us ... There’s also the fact that much of the ground has been covered in previous Gilead books, making Robinson’s abiding fascination with these characters increasingly difficult to share. JD Salinger once wrote of his similar obsession with the Glass family in his later fiction that 'there is a real-enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms'. For Robinson, you feel, that moment has long since arrived.
... stellar, revelatory ... Robinson’s masterly prose and musings on faith are on display as usual, and the dialogue is keen and indelible ... This is a beautiful, superbly crafted meditation on the redemption and transcendence that love affords.