‘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:
I’ve never been outside the web, never been in extreme circumstances: danger, degradation, absolute abandonment. I have two children and they’re both healthy. That’s the only thing I couldn’t bear. If anything should happen to them. A lot of people don’t get that: to be spared the one thing they couldn’t bear.
The woman has acclimatised herself to a state of functioning apathy. ‘Do you know what it’s like when you give up the idea that you’ll ever again be prized? In a way it’s not so terrible ... You feel a bit self-pitying, a little angry, but it passes, it’s not so terrible, many people live that way ... I expected to live that way the rest of my life.’ But then she meets Clement and tastes desire again, and sexual pleasure, and risk, and the consequent fear of loss. Clement is a priest, a 43-year-old virgin, the immaculate man of the title, who, like the narrator, works with abused women. After Clement, the thought of having to return to a half-life is unbearable, though all too likely, the woman feels. ‘I try to make things better, or at least not worse, but the worst seems bound to happen. I often wonder whether the worst will happen anyway, whether it’s useless to try and stop the worst from happening.’
There is something deliciously comic about this dogged lugubriousness. It is a technique that allows Gordon to prod at morbid subject matter without being morbid. She is seriously funny. She uses the self-puncturing, depressive, Woody-Allen-like voice with immense skill to examine two sexual subcultures that are (or so it would seem) polar opposites – the desolate world of the sexually abused and the intricate obsolescence of the celibate Catholic priesthood – in a way that is at once satiric and affectionate, sharp-eyed but compassionate.
Clement, the narrator notes, ‘lived in a world that managed, for quite some time, to replace sex with a desire for pure emptiness. They took these young men (Clement was 16 when he entered) and convinced them that by heroic effort they could rise above sex. They could replace it. By what? This is what I try so hard to understand.’ The structure of the Church itself, she concludes, made this unnatural way of living possible, ‘and the structure held for a remarkable number of years. It held itself up outside history. Then it collapsed ... Clement must have wondered what he would do next. I think that I was the next thing. I was in the right place at the right time.’
Emotional cripples both, Clement and the protagonist construct a cocoon that seems, to the narrator, as miraculous as it is bound to be fleeting. ‘Clement and I held hands. We were proud to be part of it: the human race that had sex and liked it.’ But there’s the baggage of a life of celibacy. ‘Sometimes the seriousness of our lovemaking is a burden to me ... Clement’s always serious about sex. This is a legacy of poverty: he was sexually poor, and he wears his legacy like a winter coat passed down by a dead brother. Sometimes I want a romp: athletic, careless and desanctified ... this will never happen with Clement. He’s reverential about my body.’ The narrator has a sharp, cold eye for ironies. ‘Oh, the terrible sexual bravado of ruined children,’ she sighs. And of Clement: ‘There’s no better way to describe the extreme strangeness of his life: he believed that no one he’d ever known could buy pornography.’ And then comes one of Gordon’s dazzling insights, a conjunction of the sexually pure and the sexually abusive. For the reader, it’s like watching contrary planetary bodies swim into alignment. The woman observes her immaculate Clement lose his temper with the dog who dotes on him, the dog he had rescued as a starving pup from the streets:
Clement loves that dog as much as he loves anything ... And yet I’ve seen him violently angry when Buddy misbehaves ... He hits the dog over and over with a rolled-up newspaper. He’s furious; he’s out of control. He does it too long and too hard. The dog whimpers and cowers. Afterward there are tremendous reconciliations. The whole thing makes me sick ... Buddy is so obedient, so anxious in his desire to please he nearly trembles with it. Of course he brings out the sadism in people who would otherwise be decent human beings, who might otherwise be called good. I’ve never understood it, but I know it’s very strong. This instinct for abuse.
Gordon’s epiphanies are always anchored in this sort of specificity and come with the shock of the oblique. They give her writing a subversive moral power that is never preachy.
In ‘Living at Home’, connectedness (to others, to place, to language, to the world of objects) is examined as both anchor and shackle. All the characters exhibit varying disorders of connectedness: they are too needy for it, or they are pathologically wary of it. The autistic children are at one end of the spectrum, unable to relate to people or things without the intercession of private magic. Yet the female psychiatrist who treats them notes: ‘I feel so often the similarity between the children and “ourselves”. Whoever we are.’
The psychiatrist, who is the narrator, has a German-Jewish background and a geographically dislocated life. ‘I still haven’t quite got the knack of English speech ... My language always places me as somebody without a place. Like the children I work with, I cannot trust the English tongue.’ Nor can she bear to stay with any one man or in any one place for long. ‘It wasn’t just that I felt out of love with the men. It was that I could only go on loving them if I hadn’t yet grown tired of the place ... I’m telling you this so you’ll understand why, though I’m far from irresponsible, I’ve left so many men, and why with Lauro I have been so happy.’ Lauro, a journalist who covers revolutions, is addicted both to movement and to danger. He is fearless in the face of riots, tanks, landmines, armed insurrections, yet a visit to the dentist can reduce him to the state of a whimpering child.
Paradox and ambiguity and the willingness to tolerate them, Gordon’s fiction quietly insists, lie at the core of wisdom. A fixation on things, for example (ritualistic in the case of autistic children; emotionally suffocating in the case of the narrator’s mother and her slavish devotion to house and furniture), makes for a demonstrably unsatisfactory way of living. And yet: ‘To live a continuous life a person needs to be in relation to the world of objects. Why does everyone assume this is an easy thing, an accomplishment not worthy of praise? In the blink of an eye, we can be overtaken by or else abandoned by the things we live among.’ By way of disturbing proof, the narrator observes the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in her fastidious mother. She watches the obsessive subservience to objects turn into equally obsessive disregard.
All things mutate toward their opposites, the novella suggests. People are drawn, inescapably, toward that which they most fear and most loathe. The narrator herself, who cannot tolerate much connectedness, charges her lover Lauro with the same offence. ‘I told him he didn’t know a thing about the world, that he lived in it as a visitor, the world was a hotel for him and he was always skipping out before the clerk made up the bill.’ Lauro gets into bed and faces the wall. ‘“You have said about me what I always fear,” he said.’
In ‘The Rest of Life’ an elderly American woman is being taken by her son and his lover back to Turin, the city of her youth. She has passively consented to this trip, as she has passively consented to most of the events of her life, though it is in fact very much against her wish to return. Her son wants to restore to her the gift of a past she has spent much energy expunging. ‘She’s always surprised at how free people feel to speak of memory ... Only those who haven’t known the sight of horror think of memory as amiable, nutritive.’
The old woman, Paola, had been the adored only child of an affluent, scholarly father. She had been bookish and passionate, and at 15 had fallen in love with Leo, another misfit, a passionately intelligent 16-year-old poet modelling himself on Leopardi. Paola’s father disapproved. There was a suicide pact, a stone tower, a shotgun. Leo held the gun to his head and pulled the trigger; Paola changed her mind about dying. His family blamed her for the death; her father was shamed; she was sent away to America in disgrace and never returned. In America, she lived, worked, married, bore children, had grandchildren, and outlived her spouse – always in the half-alive sleepwalking mode familiar to us from the narrators of the first two stories.
Connection, the narrators intimate, intense, vivid connection, when it is passionately sexual, intellectual and emotional all at once, is like a supernova. It may burn you up. Afterwards there may be nothing but a black hole of loss and shame. And yet without these conflagrations, there would be nothing in the first place, no life, no meaning at all. And ordinary life – which requires gargantuan and exhausting effort – can only be achieved by the clear-sighted acceptance of this risk, the recognition that opposites cannot be reconciled but must be tolerated in unstable and usually painful co-existence. Metaphysically speaking, this is a movement away from the Catholic Church’s Manichean opposition of good and evil in the first story to the almost Buddhist enlightenment experienced by the elderly Paola at the end of the third story, an ecstatic moment of embracing joy and pain, light and dark, ‘everything, all things, the living and the dead’.
In spite of the considerable power of the ending of the last novella, it is the least successful of the three, while the first two stories (though not without problematic aspects) are quite stunning. The narrators of these two stories sound extraordinarily alike. They are more or less the same woman with different careers and different men, and they share an odd contradiction: both occasionally allude, with a kind of voluptuous joy, to their adolescent children, but most of the time they seem to forget they have any. The children are absences who are flashed now and then as exhibits of successful childhood and of devoted but self-congratulatory mothering. There is something unconvincing and precious about this, but it is one of the few false notes in the first two novellas. The narrating women are – well, intelligent flakes, and their lovers are wonderfully odd, but their worlds are so convincing because we experience them from the inside. And the women know they are being strange, indulgent, coy. There is a sly self-puncturing tone that pre-empts our exasperation. This is exactly what it would be like, we realise, to be that kind of person: definitely eccentric, and yet – we have to keep wincing and admitting it – so alarmingly like us.
In the third novella, the self-mocking note is missing. The narrating voice is that of the omniscient author, and although there are first-person interpolations of Paola’s consciousness as 15-year-old, they read like overheated extracts from a teenager’s diary. We never experience the lives of Paola and Leo from the inside, so the florid tale of their love has the overwrought quality of soap opera. Leo is stagey, posturing, never really credible, nor is Paola’s passion for him, so that when, in old age, she comes to a sense of him as a poseur, ridiculous and pathetic, the realisation has no dramatic impact. He has never been anything else for the reader.
These are small quibbles, however. What lingers are Gordon’s finely honed ironies, her probing intelligence, her wit, and her unsettling insights. ‘I wonder how we ever learn anything,’ she has her psychiatrist muse.
I think of the woman who trained me. I love her, but I believe her to be wrong ... I learned from her; I put myself in the position to learn from her. And I wasn’t wrong to. I don’t know how I learned what I learned, because, although she claimed to have a method, if you followed her method, which many of my colleagues tried to do, you didn’t get her results. The results, if you followed her method, were very bad. Her method was rigid, but her rigidity was helpful to her because of the flexibility of her intuition.
Just as Gordon’s brilliantly muddled and unforgettable narrators make their point by compulsively straying from it.