Men and Angels
by Mary Gordon
(Random House: $16.95; 241 pp.)
Whether art's deep purpose is to imitate life is one thing; but it is not to imitate the current received discourse about life, except by way of illustration or parody. There are genuine and engaging emotions in Mary Gordon's "Men and Angels," and the problem of a woman's balance between maternity and autonomy is real and fairly put. But the emotions and the problem lack hosts with voices that are precisely their own. Gordon's relationships are better done than her characters. The moral algebra is fine; it's the apples and oranges that I have trouble with.
Anne, the protagonist, is a pretty, intelligent woman in her 30s with a passion for art, a Harvard Ph.D. in art history, and no opportunity to use them. She is a devoted mother and wife in a college town where her husband Michael is a professor. Her creative abilities have no place in their life; people "invent her awry," seeing in her mainly a graceful and charming domestic creature.
Then an old friend and mentor asks her to write catalogue notes for the works of a forgotten American woman Post-Impressionist, a friend and contemporary of the Fauves. To take the assignment, she cancels plans to accompany Michael to a year's work in France. And to take care of the children, she hires an odd, religiously obsessed young woman as her housekeeper.
"Men and Angels" takes Anne through several sorts of adventure and ordeal. First, there is her exploration of the character and work of the painter, a flinty genius who broke with her family, lived in Paris for herself and her art, neglected her illegitimate son and died in an unfathomable mixture of pride and regret. Anne is transported both by her subject and by the joy that she takes in her own craft, so different from her domestic swamp.
Helped and befriended by Jane, the painter's daughter, and--a formidably autonomous figure in her own right, Anne puzzles over a character and destiny. At her own center, she muses, there is "not something hard and brilliant but something soft and flat." Yet for all her bedazzlement, she can't come to terms with her subject's maternal callousness.
A second strand in the book is Anne's attraction to an electrician who comes to re-wire her house. Adrift in her confusions, she tries comically to seduce him, and fails.
Finally, there is the gradual and terrifying encroachment of Laura, the housekeeper. Soft-mannered, ungainly and infinitely helpful, she was savagely rebuffed by her mother as a child and has turned to a religious dementia that she tries to conceal. Anne, occupied with her other crises, fails to notice the madness until in a final and finally bloody scene, she storms to the defense of her endangered children.
She has not been able to protect them completely. They have seen a terrifying violence and, she reflects, it will always mark them. No more middle-class security; henceforth, "they would grow up like the children of the poor." Unsheltered by illusions, she means. And she goes on to weave the uncertain balance between maternal duty and maternal limitations; and conversely, between the need for autonomy and the limits of autonomy.
The moral is inconclusive but thoughtfully done. It is the story that suffers; partly, perhaps, out of Gordon's need to balance her thematic points.
There is some graceful and acute writing. Her description of a museum reading-room with its row of busy heads and two-thirds empty air overhead is delightful. The complexities of maternal feeling are explored thoroughly and with some originality. Reflecting on her bright but awkward son, Anne feels a faint thrill, beneath her concern, that if he will have a hard time being loved, he may come to be honored and even feared.
The seduction scene with the electrician approaches farce. When Anne sways towards him, he suggests kindly that putting one's head between one's knees is good for dizziness. Quite marvelously, she does so, before rearing up and blurting out her passion.
But, there is a great deal of woodenness and doubtful rhetoric in the characters. Laura's weirdness is made thoroughly clear from the start. Her interior monologues are a travesty of dementia; she all but cackles. This puts quite a burden on the story. It is not suspense, exactly. If you see somebody dropping a rattlesnake between the sheets in the first act, you assume that it's only a matter of time before someone goes to bed. Gordon does not simply telegraph her message; she tends to send it overland by parcel post.
Anne is sympathetic on the whole, but her own monologues can fall into a deadly windiness. As, for example: "How had she become the woman she was? At age 38, never to have performed a daring action. She was tired of it, tired of the weakness that had marked her life . . ."