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Mary (Catherine) Gordon Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Long Island, New York, 1949. Education: Holy Name of Mary School, Valley Stream, New York; Mary Louis Academy; Barnard College, New York, B.A. 1971; Syracuse University, New York, M.A. 1973. Career: English teacher, Dutchess Community College, Poughkeepsie, New York, 1974-78; lecturer, Amherst College, Massachusetts, 1979. Awards: Janet Kafka prize, 1979, 1982.



Final Payments. New York, Random House, and London, HamishHamilton, 1978.

The Company of Women. New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1981.

Men and Angels. New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1985.

The Other Side. New York, Viking, 1989; London, Bloomsbury, 1990.

Spending: A Utopian Divertimento. New York, Scribner, 1998.

Short Stories

Temporary Shelter. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, RandomHouse, 1987.

The Rest of Life: Three Novellas. New York, Viking, 1993.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Vision," in Antaeus (New York), Spring 1989.

"Separation," in Antaeus (New York), Spring-Autumn, 1990.

"At the Kirks'," in Grand Street (New York), Winter 1990.


Good Boys and Dead Girls and Other Essays. New York, Viking, andLondon, Bloomsbury, 1991.

The Shadow Man. New York, Random House, 1996.

Seeing through Places: Reflections on Geography and Identity. NewYork, Scribner, 2000.

Joan of Arc: A Penguin Life. New York, Lipper/Viking, 2000.

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For Mary Gordon, tout comprendre is emphatically not tout pardonner. Guilt rages through her fiction like a prairie fire, sweeping her heroines to and fro between the poles of autonomy and dependence, religious faith and neurosis, greed for life and masochistic self sacrifice. Although reviewers have celebrated her nineteenth-century virtues—irony, intellect, powerful moral themes, and such classically realist skills as an eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and a gift for the creation of memorable characters—Gordon's overarching concerns are recognizably modern: the exploration of the female psyche, the relations between parents and children, and between feminism and patriarchal religion.

In her first novel, Final Payments, the seductive securities of dependence are explored through the relationship of Isabel Moore to her bedridden father, a Catholic intellectual whom she nurses for eleven years. Trapped by sexual guilt, Isabel is effectively cut off in a time warp, until his death. Set free, she makes a venture into the world of the 1970s, only to recoil again into renunciation, sacrificing her life anew to the odious Margaret Casey as a penance for a second sexual transgression. Although Isabel is ultimately rescued (an embryonic feminist moral) by two close female friends, she has only just begun to learn how to put paid to the obligations imposed by both father and faith. Gordon's heroines tend to rebel against a dominant father figure, adopt a surrogate father, and reconcile themselves in some fashion, learning the deficiencies of patriarchal institutions in the process. Felicitas, the heroine of The Company of Women, is no exception. As the daughter of one of five women (the company of the title) each devoted to Father Cyprian, a conservative Catholic intellectual, Felicitas gets away only temporarily, is impregnated, and returns, to bequeath to her daughter her mixed heritage of Catholicism and liberation. Unfathered (by careful plotting) Linda shares the same group of good and bad fairy-godmothers as Felicitas, but without the patriarch's overriding authority. Catholic values have been feminized and "macho clericalism" crippled and humanized. (The novel's intertextual allusions to Jane Eyre are no accident).

With Men and Angels, however, Gordon leaves behind the subculture of Catholicism, in favor of a broader exploration of women's relation to artistic and social structures. When Anne Foster, dismissed as merely a college wife, has the chance to investigate the life of a (fictional) neglected American painter, Caroline Watson, she faces a dilemma: how to tell a woman's story as fully and as realistically as possible. As biographer Anne sets out to rescue Caroline from obscurity, so her childminder, Laura, in the grip of religious obsession, sets out to save Anne from the lusts of the flesh. The feminist rescue mission is therefore attended with tragic ironies. Just as Anne seeks a nurturing foremother and role model in Caroline, so Laura pursues Anne. The dead female artist is lovingly investigated and re-created at the price of a living girl. Laura's scorn for the "Religion of Art" indicates her potentially strong affiliations with Gordon's father, and makes her a splendid vehicle for an exploration of the tragic consequences of the phallocentric appropriation of religious experience. Dividing its narration between third-person, realist Anne and Laura's fantastic stream of consciousness, the novel sets up a series of mirrorings and doublings, both in terms of character and narrative mode, in order to investigate the utility to women of models and precedents, the means by which a woman's story may best be told, and the benefits of realist modes of representation in dealing with women's issues. Anne's representation of Caroline is represented by Laura, with major events twice told, in realism and in fantasy, to ironic effect. Though Laura's chapters are shorter (as befits the Pyrrhic psychomachia, the body of the text is Anne's) they are technically and psychologically compelling. Laura's experiences are organized according to the fantasies of male culture, and a quality of fascinated horror accrues to them. Gordon often uses fairy tale and melodrama to sharpen the menace of her plots. Domestic horror stalks her characters, whether in the shape of witch-housekeepers (Laura, Margaret), bad fairies, terrible mothers or passive, masochistic victims.

Gordon's own essay on the difference between writing a story as a fairy tale or as realist fiction is memorably embodied in "A Writing Lesson," one of the twenty stories collected in Temporary Shelter. Two others, a five-voiced story "Now I Am Married," and "Delia" anticipate in theme and structure Gordon's latest novel, The Other Side, which marries an Irish family saga with a popularization and updating of two founder figures of Modernism. Ulysses-like, 88-year-old Vincent MacNamara returns after an absence to his wife Ellen, a demented Penelope, now dying. Through the events of one day, 14th August 1985, the Woolfian narrative recounts their lives, together with those of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, moving through the individual consciousnesses of some dozen family members. Gordon's psychological themes now expand to the national stage. Mother Ireland, rather than mothers, is rejected—America is no longer "the other side" but home—yet the dying matriarch remains a brooding presence. Although religion has largely evaporated on the moving staircase of American immigrant striving, Ellen's granddaughter Cam displays a recognizable mixture of idealism, self-sacrifice, dutifulness and self-love and her awareness that unhappiness is "the sickle-cell anemia of the Irish" pervades the book. Slowly the "other side" to each story comes into focus, as the jigsaw of memories from different individuals finally coheres into a three-dimensional pattern, revealing the inner significance of each apparently contingent event.

Gordon more explicitly explored the question of father-identity in two books from the late 1990s, The Shadow Man and Spending: A Utopian Divertimento. The former sounds like the title of a novel, and the latter vaguely like nonfiction, but exactly the opposite is true: the first book chronicles the ugly truths Gordon discovered about her father. Research into his past revealed that David Gordon, the man who had inspired her to be a writer, was nothing he had claimed to be, and Gordon uncovered many unsavory truths as well: that he had operated a sleazy porn magazine, for instance, and supported Mussolini, radical right-wing priest Father Coughlin, and anti-Semitic causes—despite the fact that he had come from a Jewish family. He had even hidden the fact of an earlier marriage from her. Spending suggests that these discoveries had unleashed an almost angry eroticism: protagonist Monica Szabo engages in a dizzying array of sexual encounters on the beach, in an armchair, in the shower, and even in a role-playing game in which her lover pretends to be a wounded soldier and she a nurse.

Although critical attention has centered upon her feminist response to Catholicism, Gordon would be a first-rate novelist if she were an atheist. Fiercely intellectual, unafraid to unite modernist irony with popular plot and pace, clearly non-androcentric, Gordon will clearly remain a figure to watch.

—Judie Newman

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