Body Maps

Janette Turner Hospital

  • The Rest of Life by Mary Gordon
    Bloomsbury, 257 pp, £15.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1675 8

‘It’s not so easy, just living a life,’ says the unnamed female narrator of ‘Living at Home’, second of the three novellas that make up this collection. The narrator is a psychiatrist who works with autistic children, lives with a man who is mostly away, and copes with a mother who is sliding gently into senility. ‘Going through my mother’s decline,’ the narrator says, ‘simply widened the scope of what I’d guessed at all along, what I seemed to be born knowing ... the extreme difficulty in managing the details of ordinary life.’

The novellas address this issue with what one might call a languid obsessiveness, or perhaps an easily distracted tenacity. The stories seem to drift, meander, proceed by tangent, then are yanked back again and again to their central concerns. The autistic children, says the psychiatrist, ‘remind me every day how difficult it is to keep alive. The minimum for existence requires an attention we wouldn’t agree to if we understood its scope.’

For Gordon’s compulsively equivocating narrators, ‘ordinary life’ is a baffling country for which they must keep drafting provisional maps even though the topography forever shifts, resisting categorisation and dissolving its own signposts. The narrators keep filing cartographical memos to themselves; how very ordinary the unthinkable is once you enter its cul-de-sac, they muse. How disturbing and disorienting are the nooks and crannies of the ordinary when you study them closely. ‘It isn’t hard,’ one of the women notes fearfully, ‘to slip out of the circle of the acceptable.’ ‘There was a fence,’ another reflects, ‘one of those awful cyclone fences ... with barbed wire on top ... That’s the kind of thing Clement and I talk about ... why it is that cyclone fences, especially the barbed-wire tops, always make me think of the Rosenbergs.’

A woman is at the core of each novella: a woman not quite anchored to her own life. Each woman is obsessed with one particular man, who is, or has been, her lover. All thought radiates out from the lover and back towards him, though he remains foggy for the reader (deliberately and properly so), very much other, glimpsed from many angles: a complex being, obscured always by the haze of the woman’s thought. In these stories, the protagonist’s consciousness and the world are one, and the reader feels both claustrophobic and mesmerised, caught in a small space crammed with hyperrealist minutiae and dissociated personalities who seem to sleepwalk through their own lives. In other words, it would appear this is the familiar minimalist turf of much American short fiction, whose tone and style are so relentlessly and assertively modest: no syntactical complication, no splashes of imagery, please; improprieties such as symbolic allusion or the faintest whiff of metaphysics will not be tolerated.

But Gordon’s fiction subverts its pareddown puritan surface. It is full of sinew and sly wit and unabashed moral inquiry and subtle ornamentation (a drowning woman experiences her fear as surrender to ‘an overpowering scent: the scent of freesias in a cold room heated by a fire’). This is fiction, moreover, that hankers openly after meaning. It is teeming with the kinds of old-fashioned question Tolstoy used to ask. What is a morally acceptable way of living? What constitutes being? And these questions are not asked idly or rhetorically. Each story takes as starting point and paradigm some way of being which (it would seem) can be clearly designed as extreme, beyond the pale, defective: the sexually abused in ‘Immaculate Man’; autistic children in ‘Living at Home’; a suicidal adolescent poet obsessed with grand gestures and death as poetry in ‘The Rest of Life’. In what ways, the protagonists keep asking themselves, are these lives different from the ‘ordinary life’ and the ‘good life’? Are they so different? ‘The children I treat,’ says the psychiatrist of the second story, ‘have trouble understanding the idea of what makes up a person ... The odd thing, to me, is how wholeheartedly the rest of us pretend to understand.’

In ‘Immaculate Man’, the first novella, the unnamed narrator works with abused women. She is 48, her mother is dead, her father has Parkinson’s disease, her husband left her some time ago for another woman. But she knows this about herself:

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