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The Defector’s Secrets

George Orwell called the novel a protestant art form: and in so far as protestant means simply breaking away and declaring oneself, this is obviously so. The novel is a supremely handy kind of declaration to nail on a nursery door, a parent’s tombstone, a crucifix, on anything that has let one down.

But the protestant novel is by definition a tale told by a refugee. Protestants, once they have settled in, are not really more interesting to write about than other people, although their lives may shape themselves into neater stories (that being the point of individualism—to be a self-contained story like Pilgrim’s Progress, with a single Judgment). They have only the one unarguable advantage, which is the freedom to tell the story in the first place.

Conversely, such communal orthodoxies as communism, Judaism, and Rome may actually provide much richer subjects than Bunyan’s nuclear pilgrim, but they cannot be used, except on the way out. A parish or apparat will simply not be itself in front of spies and informers, so talented believers must bite their tongues as the material glides by. It’s enough to make one defect, just to write a book. Because the wealth of oddity in any group can only be secured by what Graham Greene calls “the novelist’s duty to disloyalty”: i.e., a duty to betray friends and family and all the confidences ever placed in one, in return, if all goes well, for fame and money.

Hence the ex-believer’s natural advantage: and hence his usefulness. Just as the world needs spies to keep the balance of leaks at par, so even a Church needs its James Joyces to tell it its own secrets and complete the story. Of course there are certain things you always have to watch out for with defectors: all their secrets will be shameful, to justify their telling them at all, and all will be sensational, to catch your attention. A history of the world told entirely by defectors would be an Inferno; and so is a literature. The liberalized Church (if one can give a concrete name to an impulse) at least seems to realize this, and the message a young Catholic writer gets nowadays is that perhaps you don’t have to be an exbeliever to talk, and if you are an exbeliever you don’t have to go away mad.

Mary Gordon’s Final Payments is much more than the latest thing in Catholic novels, and I hope preambles such as this do not accompany it everywhere it goes, but it does show brilliantly the effects of the new dispensation on American Catholic fiction. It gives a picture of certain Catholic lives (its aim is convent-school modest) more ambiguous than anything either a loyalist or a heretic would have had a mind to produce a few years ago. In the European manner, the Church is seen not as a good place or a bad place, with batteries of the best lawyers to prove both at once, but as a multilayered poem or vision which dominates your life equally whether you believe it or not: which doesn’t even seem to need your belief once it has made its point. Santayana once called himself “a Catholic atheist,” as if there were a rubric even for that, if all else fails.

Gordon’s heroine, Isabel Moore, is an ex-Catholic who still carries the vision on her person like radiation. She has sacrificed her life from nineteen to thirty to a fanatical right-wing father, nursing him through strokes and dotage, like a nun presiding over the last days of the pre-Vatican Church. But, like such a nun, she doesn’t regret a minute of it. By secular consensus, the old man sounds as murderous as Jaweh (God is not a liberal): a McCarthyite reactionary, who accepts his own and other people’s sufferings with inhuman serenity—placed next to the City of God, they are less than nothing. And unblinkingly, he has broken his own daughter’s life, driving away her first boyfriend with Jove-like curses, and accepting her sacrifice as if he were God himself. The worst of him is that, senile or not, he knows exactly what he is doing.

Yet astonishingly he emerges as the most impressive and attractive character in the book—especially astonishing since he is never on stage but has to dominate from the clouds, and from memory. Gordon has conveyed his merè emanations, his perfectionism, his intelligence, his sheer size of spirit so well that the reader too half-sees that after him the outside world would seem trashy and pointless. The religious vocation has been made incarnate.

Which means that Isabel cannot begin to explain it to her friends. Her father the Church dies at last, and she finds them waiting for an explanation. Where has she been all these years? A father fixation? Female masochism? She finds the questions themselves trashy and unanswerable. Her answer must be acted out. The novel is an exploration of whether the years with God were wasted.

The nun-parallel needn’t be pushed too far. But it pushes very well, even on a prosy level. For instance, after her father’s death, Isabel becomes dazzled by the clothes women are wearing, as if she had been literally locked in with the old man. Although she had been seeing a wordly friend all that time, they had apparently never once talked fashion. Likewise, she is suddenly perplexed by the minutiae of housekeeping, although she has been doing it herself for eleven years, albeit sloppily. If all this does not make her a nun-in-disguise, it might as well. If Gordon’s point is that all Catholic girls are nuns in disguise she certainly goes to extremes to prove it.

More seriously, if we take the nun away and make Isabel’s father too much less than God, we land at the level of her friends’ questions, and find ourselves reading yet another book about female masochism. The surrender of the soul to God knows no sex, but looking after a cranky old man usually does. And this is decisively not a book about that. Or not just a book about that.

The author’s problem here is to get the book out of the heroine’s head, where everything works perfectly, and into situations where her actual existence can be verified. Since Isabel is telling the story herself, her outside self has to be deduced from the looks on her friends’ faces, and their stabbing conversation, which is perhaps the hardest task in fiction.

For this reason, many first-person narrators never develop an outside at all. Isabel develops plenty, almost as if Gordon had started from the outside and worked her way in. Isabel comes across as an overgrown schoolgirl, in equal parts snippy and ardent. Her friends find her vaguely “strong,” masochism or no, and wise in an unfocused sort of way. She seems extravagantly both to need help and to overflow with it. The question, as with the wisdom of LSD or opium, is whether the experience of a religious love can be applied to anything else, or must constantly return to itself. “My father is dead,” she repeats grimly to herself. She cannot return to that. Her love, fastidiously fashioned for one purpose, one sacrament, is at large now, ravening for an object. And so the book begins.

The world of sex fails predictably—but rather more, owing to an author’s lapse, than it has to. Gordon’s own master is Jane Austen, and she shares some of Austen’s difficulties at depicting young men. Most writers can at least render you a passable cad, but Gordon (put this down to her art perhaps) seems edifyingly never to have met one. Her villain is too awful to be true: although he is some sort of social work administrator, and a good one, he hasn’t a decent bone in his body. When in a fit of muddled ardor she allows him to seduce her, he responds with all the grace of a tire salesman: “You were really dying for it, weren’t you…. I was afraid I was going to have to pop your cherry,” etc. And later when she decides that it is high time to repel his brutish advances, he goes off vowing vengeance like Dick Dastard in “Tied to the Railroad Track: a drama.” There is no need for this even in plot terms; he could have had his vengeance without ever calling it that.

Her Mr. Right fails more by omission. Outside of a “classic back” and a walk that demands nothing (I had trouble picturing this), he is hard to get a handle on. His fits of petulance are less masterful than they are presumably intended to be, and indeed verge uncomfortably toward the cad’s childishness. The only explanation, outside of lateblooming sex, for the man’s fitful hold on Isabel is that he reminds her of her father—but this is a tactic of despair. Someone had better remind her of her father around here, or she’ll boil over and fling herself into his grave.

Fortunately the men take up very little space, and are perhaps about what you’d expect on the first day out of the convent when everybody you meet seems a little more significant than they ever will again. In fact, Gordon seems less sure with her own generation in general. Isabel’s two women friends, though adequate, are respectively too pale like her hero and too narrowly drawn like her villain. But she makes up for this triumphantly with the people Isabel really would know well: old people, who replicate her father, in that they’re dying and helpless, and teeming with strategy.

She takes a job with the swinish social worker, which entails visiting these people and checking on their nursing care. Now at last she can use her eleven years of wisdom. The Christian proposition is that you must love the unlovable, or it doesn’t count. Anyone can love the lovable, it is like sending money to the rich; but Christ has located himself like a Hans Andersen prince in the sick, the poor, and the ugly, the people who actually need it, and who have a million ways of warding it off.

Mary Gordon’s gallery of addled old people is funny, exact, various: her intense, humorous prose, which gets her over some thin ice with the other characters, here finds its subject, and seems magically to become more mature and sure of itself as if the author became older around old people. Having sacrificed her youth once, Isabel seems anxious to get on with her own old age, and her concept of sacrifice oddly includes getting fat, slatternly, and helpless. Yet for all her introspection, she sees this as duty, not as a contagious disease like leprosy.

That senility is catching might be called an accidental theme, strong but not quite the point. Nor is the book precisely about Isabel’s scruples, encyclopedic though these be. It is more about such matters as the arrogance of loving the unlovable, and the resourcefulness of the latter in breaking their saviors: hence the hard-faced nurse and the wily invalid, the survivors of the nursing home wars; hence their victims.

Worse yet, Isabel discovers that loving the unlovable is largely a charade one plays for one’s own benefit: because for all her quivering sensibility she doesn’t seem to be helping them in the least. The happy ones would be happy anywhere, she decides, while the mean ones would still be trapped in their meanness. “People were happy, people were unhappy, for reasons no one could see, no one could do much about.” And what one could do was so random and intellectually unplannable. She shows an old man her breasts on request, and bureaucratically facilitates the death of an old woman—not the things she was raised to do, but the things that need doing. Charity is small and tactical and has nothing whatever to do with any conceivable government program she is supposed to be working on. It is, as she always thought, one person sacrificing everything to give just a tiny bit to another, with the only reward being the cold comfort of being thought “good.”

With her father’s cranky absolutism (he is a jealous god), she finally rejects even this reward as a stain on Charity and moves in with an old woman who hates her and who gobbles love without tasting it like a tapeworm, the reductio ad absurdam of her father. Margaret Casey used in fact to be her father’s housekeeper, and had wanted in a dim, crafty way to marry the old man, and Isabel had gotten her fired years ago. So our heroine can be punished for this now too. Miss Casey even does Isabel the kindness of bad-mouthing her so that nobody can see her by-now spot-free sacrifice. Her humiliation is as thorough as anything in The Story of O.

Yet sacrifice for its own sake is idolatry, and she cannot enjoy even that, like a good pagan, for long. Her father, her justification, is dead: she cannot see his face any more. Which means that this is not religious abnegation and transcendence, but vulgar masochism, something the old man would have despised. A nun without a God is a fool. Isabel comes to see this by way of an interior monologue—and as anyone knows who has tried it, it is terribly difficult to show a convincing change of heart in this form. In Gordon’s case, it might be a little more convincing with a little less talk. Because the novel has been so sturdily set up that it doesn’t need captions. Isabel’s doddering pastor, Father Mulcahy, indicates that such super-Christianity is wrong, and a boozy shake of the head from him is quite enough.

In the end, Isabel seems to accept the regular world of loving the lovables, who will certainly give her as much chance to sacrifice and suffer as all the old people put together. But she still carries her strange, pseudo-nun’s equipment with her. For instance, she cannot understand property, or why people should be collectors; she has no patience with nature, a quirk common to those who have once seen nature as a mere shadow of God. Even with her girlfriends, she is happiest talking of schooldays when they were all Catholics together. When that narcotic is used up, she will be as hard on them as she is on herself, a pain and a comfort like religion itself. In any plausible sequel one pictures her at permanently perplexed odds with the secular world, still going about her father’s business.

It is entirely appropriate that Final Payments should be written in a comic mode. “She was performing her Catholic high school girl trick of comedy instead of intimacy,” Isabel says of a friend. And this is the convention Isabel herself must work with, where danger is marked by jokes, and it is no accident that her model is Austen, the patron writer of the cloistered. The Austen method which seems so cool is not that far removed from eighteenth-century bullying: it will sacrifice anyone for a laugh. And the convent and the Catholic family need laughs too. Thus, if Isabel’s ultra-monster, Margaret Casey, seems a bit too horrible, too infallibly horrible, to swallow, it is partly because of Isabel’s burning attention and need for a joke.

The heroine’s chaste bitchiness adds a little something to each miserable character until we have a comedy: as Austen made comedy of the puddingy gentry of western England. And when the characters flag, Gordon takes over herself, like Austen, and makes them funny. “Never once in those years did I wake up of my own accord. It was Margaret, always, knocking on my door like some rodent trapped behind a wall.” “Father Mulcahy was clean as a piglet bathed in milk. His black hat was brushed as smooth as the skin of a fruit; his white hair, so thin that the hard, pink skull showed beneath it like a flagstone floor, looked as though the color had been taken out of it purposefully through a series of savage washings.” The cadences are grave, unfacetious: a tragedy could be written in such prose. It is as if the jokes are being paid for even as they’re being made. Even at her most carefree when she has one of her old ladies cheerily piping, “blow it out your ass,” Gordon’s effect is reverberantly sad.

These are the conditions Mary Gordon has set herself—that the story must be sad, the telling funny—and they appear quite inevitable. This was the style of the sardonic priest and the wry nun of the period, the ones who hid their feelings because they were so tumultuous. If God really has died as a presence to many Christians in this century, even as a grouchy demanding presence, this still seems like the best way to talk about it.

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