All the nations of the world

“She made Bisquick batter, and stirred the berries into it while we attempted to list all the nations of the world.”

The “we” here is Ruth and Lucille and their aunt Sylvie, the triad who make up the main characters of Marilynne Robinson’s outrageously good debut novel, Housekeeping. I love Marilynne Robinson. Certain authors have colonized certain words or phrases for me, in obvious ways (“purity” is yours now, Franzen, for better and for worse) and in less obvious ways (thanks to the ending lines of Beloved, I think of “clamor” as belonging to Toni Morrison). Most weather words put me in mind of Shakespeare, whether herein imitating the sun, or putting up with winds that crack their cheeks. But to me, I am reminded of Marilynne Robinson by an entire grammatical person — the second person, because of her brilliant novel Gilead, which is written as a very long letter from an older pastor to his very young son, and in which the tone of loving address so suffuses the novel that it takes only a suggestion of such apostrophized care for me to think, “oh, like in Gilead“. While it hasn’t happened yet that this has occurred to me while reading an empathetic car manual, I can easily imagine it.

this, with a filter, was one of my more popular instagrams

But now I am not rereading Gilead (or either of its good, third-person followups, Home or LilaLila is a sort of prequel to Gilead, and Home a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of same); I am, for work, rereading Housekeeping. My work, which I have talked a little bit about here, consists currently of reading novels about what it means to do work and then trying to arrange those meanings, which are idiosyncratic to their novels, into an amalgamation such that, taken together, people might learn to think about their own work differently. It’s a living, kind of.

Aunt Sylvie’s mode of having a living is unclear. We know that she is interested in keeping up a kind of minimum appearance of domestic labor, because when she shows up we hear a lot about her establishing her eponymous “housekeeping”. She doesn’t seem to have a real good handle, however, on what this should consist of; she doesn’t make Ruth or Lucille go to school, she doesn’t seem to mind much when the house floods, she goes out during the day and seems like a constant flight risk; she does spend some time arranging cans. And one day, when Lucille and Ruth skip school, she comes across them by the lake on whose bottom, somewhere, are the bodies of both Sylvie’s father (Lucille and Ruth’s grandfather) and Lucille and Ruth’s mother (Sylvie’s sister). She doesn’t yell at them; they go home, and they make pancakes with blackberries in them, from Bisquick.


My father once made weirdly salty Christmas cookies, Christmas cookies that were more like dog biscuits than the cookies built according to the family recipe of which my father is the custodian. And it turns out that Bisquick was the culprit: he had used that stuff instead of flour, a move somehow fatal to the cookies. I guess there’s a lot of salt in Bisquick. I myself have more successful Christmas related Bisquick memories, namely that I used to make cheddar Bisquick biscuits smothered in melted butter with garlic salt, a thing that is, unlike Christmas cookies, more or less impossible to screw up. The two things that I most remember about these biscuits was an idiotic sense of accomplishment I felt at believing my mother’s claim that I was uniquely adept at creating these unfuckupable blobs, and the squeals of delight with which I would eat glumps of the stuff, uncooked, particularly after demonstrated to my grandmother that I was not likely to die because of this since the recipe called for no eggs.

So that’s what’s what on Bisquick. Ruth and Lucille and Sylvie don’t stop at Bisquick though; the other major component of that sentence from Housekeeping is the recitation of all the nations of the world. The nations that make the list are Liberia, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Andorra, and San Marino, the last four of which are invoked because they are the ones that Lucille and Sylvie always forget. The one that I always forgot, until I started to remember that I always forgot it, was Kiribati. There is some question about when exactly Housekeeping is set, though it is certainly set before Kiribati became independent of the United Kingdom (which was in 1979, only a year before Housekeeping was published). So Lucille and Ruth and Sylvie would not have forgotten Kiribati, much less always forgotten it. Of course, they don’t forget Latvia, Liechtenstein, Andorra, or San Marino, either. Once you know which one you always forget, there it is.

The most common way to describe Aunt Sylvie in the literature about Housekeeping is as a transient: Sylvie is transient, she is the cause of transience in others, and the principle threat she offers to the keeping of house is that she may at any moment become acutely transient (that is, she may bolt). Apart from anchoring my egomaniacal Christmas tradition, there’s something transient about Bisquick as well — it’s a powder for people who can’t be bothered to biscuit slow, for people who need to get onto the next thing. And, I think, remembering which one you always forget is a way of being transient too, of acknowledging that eventually the whole manifold of intuition is hovering liminally between the things you can think of and the things you can’t, leaving you with the things you always forget. A list of all the nations in the world is one thing, and a biscuit is another thing. Stirring into the batter, trying to name all the nations in the world, are transient things, and I am glad they are stuck together in that sentence.


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