This novel begins with Pearl, a young American-Cambodian woman just over twenty who has chained herself to the American Embassy in Ireland, careful to have starved herself almost to death before setting the cuffs and chains in place, and knowing precisely how long the combination of dehydration and starvation will take to finish off the bit of life left in her.
But this is really only the backdrop, the hook the author uses to draw us into her examination of the last seventy-five years or so. Once she has told us about Pearl, about just how close to death she is, she leaves Pearl there, chained and half delirious, and begins to fill us in on the history that has brought Pearl to this place at this time. And not just the history of Pearl, the daughter of Maria, whose Jewish father converted to Catholicism and began a successful business selling religious relics, but also of Joseph, whose father left one afternoon to buy cigarettes and never came back—leaving behind the unlovely, Polish immigrant girl Marie who had been his ticket out of Poland via an arranged marriage. Of course he also leaves behind his two year old son, another encumbrance he no longer needs, and thus Joseph’s mother becomes servant and housekeeper to the relatively well off Seymour Meyers, whose wife has died suddenly leaving him to care for Maria. Joseph and Maria grow up together, almost brother and sister, and due to the generosity of Seymour, even go off to university together to lead quite different lives, bound by their pasts, and even more by their mutual love of Pearl.
When you have decided you will die—which is a different thing from knowing that you want to die and different, too, from the idea that you no longer want to live—when you’ve come to that point, nothing is difficult. You are in love with your own lightness. You grow radiant to yourself. Transparent. You can take in anything and nothing can be taken from you.
This is who I am.
In fact, this is an incredibly complex novel, in terms of both characters and events. I see the novel as nothing short of Gordon’s almost frantic attempt to remind us of the bloody wars of her own lifetime—of Viet Nam and Cambodia, of Ireland, of the lingering horrors of World War II. As I read this novel, I could not help but be reminded of Carol Shield’s final novel before her death, Unless, in which she has a young girl resign herself to a life on a street-corner of Toronto, sitting speechless, day after day, a sign around her neck with a single word emblazoned on it, GOODNESS. In that novel, too, the frantic mother and father try so desperately to understand their daughter’s act, wanting so badly to save her, to understand what could have brought her to such desperate resignation. I am convinced that both Shields and Gordon are using the symbolic acts of the two girls to try not only to shout a warning, but to make some sense out of where we are and what we might do to change the world we find ourselves in. I can’t remember which feminist it was who responded to Kate Chopin’s novel, Awakening, in which the apparently well-off woman and mother ends by walking into the sea by saying, “No Kate, the answer is not walking into the sea.” Indeed not, but then what is one to do?
In the novel I am discussing today, Gordon uses a technique often condemned by critics, that of an omniscient author, a narrator who sits on the sidelines, interrupting the stories of the various characters to tell the reader what is really going on, to fill in on all that the characters don’t tell us, or don’t know, or don’t want to remember. I think the technique works very well here. I find myself much more interested in Gordon’s take on the world than on the little story she is telling, and if the story of Pearl is just a hook the author uses to reel us into her commentary, that is fine with me; I can use her wisdom, her insights, her skillful questioning. I don’t mind the hook.
Besides the political reminders Gordon gives us, of what happened in Cambodia after the U.S. left Viet Nam, of the bombings and madness in Ireland and England over the past twenty years, the ghettos on fire in this country, she also has so much to tell us about religious orthodoxy, about the phenomenology of religious life. At one point the omniscient narrator remarks, “It has occurred to me that sometimes a story is more a tone than a tale.” Yes, and this novel is much more a tone than a tale. The tone is one of oppression, of chains either real or symbolic. We hear of a young girl from a fiercely orthodox Jewish community who is, though reluctantly, allowed to go to college in order to come back to her community as a teacher of music. But while away, she falls in love with the music of Bach, who her family and community see only as the musician loved by the Nazis, and not only does she love Bach’s music, she yearns to perform it, in spite of the fact that her orthodox family thinks it a grievous sin for a woman to sing in front of men. When she finally announces her perversion, insists that she will listen to Bach, will sing publicly, she is disowned; they sit shiva for her, declare her dead to them now as a daughter.
But, of course, Gordon does not reserve her critique of religion to Judaism, she also understands on a deep and lived level the sort of shame that Catholicism can engender. Poor Joseph, after the Buddhist monks in Vietnam set themselves on fire to protest the war there, cannot sleep for nights. He feels the flames, and yet is too frightened to protest, fearful of losing his scholarship. And his misery is intensified by the sexual longing he has for Devorah, the Jewish girl who loves Bach, “…he is aroused and full of self-hate for his arousal,” his guilt about his sexual longings merging with his guilt about the war. He and Devorah both live a sort of religious crisis “which is not fashionable to be having in the bloody smoke-filled autumn of 1968. Maritn Luther King has been shot, Robert Kennedy has been shot, Vietnam is on fire, the ghettos are burning; who can be thinking about religious crisis?” But if Gordon is critical of religion, of the needless guilt and shame it induces, she also understands the benefits of religious community. Like Iris Murdoch, another writer-intellectual who finds that morality, itself, requires her to abandon the religion she was raised with, she sees the ways in which it is an abandoning of family, of community values. And she finds herself at times of desperation wondering about the urge to pray. Like Murdoch, Gordon seems finally to think that what we need is prayer without god, “even when you are not a believer, when you’ve staked your life on having left belief, in the name of justice, in the name of truth.”
There is so much in this book; I have only barely scratched the surface. This is Mary Gordon at her very best; if you read nothing else of hers, read this one.