Mary Gordon’s “Payback”

October 25th, 2020  |  Published in October 2020

The joys of reading fiction by Mary Gordon seem endless, and her newest novel, “Payback”, is one of her finest to date.  I’ve been reading Gordon for at least thirty to forty years now; she teaches at Barnard, and is one of America’s finest writers. And her fiction is really for and about adults, like Sue Miller’s newest (and terrific) “Monogamy”. Gordon’s fiction always includes important moral and/or ethical issues; Marilynne Robinson’s newest, “Jack”, deals more with religio-spiritual ones. These two very compelling American women writers are two of our very best, and I’ll be comparing them in separate reviews this month.

“Payback” begins with three young women, all teachers at a prestigious girls’ boarding school in New Hampshire.  The school has liberal tendencies but holds to many standards of behavior and decorum from the past. That the three women teachers remain lifelong friends is a very important trope in this novel, as friendship, here between and amongst women, is one of Gordon’s key moral groundings in her fiction.  Agnes, our protagonist, teaches art history and some studio art. A student named Heidi comes to her attention, as Heidi is virtually a pariah to other students; she’s difficult, lonely and isolated, but clearly talented in her artwork and her poetry, and encouraged in these endeavors by Agnes.  The question of boundaries between students and teachers is very much of issue in “Payback”; schools, both boarding/prep and colleges as late as the end of the sixties were presumed to act “in loco parentis” (as temporary parents, if you will). Heidi’s a big defender of Pop Art and Andy Warhol, in particular, and her observations about Warhol are quite astute for a young woman in prep school.  Heidi’s home life is truly appalling: her once beautiful ski champion mother goes to Switzerland every year for extensive plastic surgery; she holds Heidi in utter contempt, and Heidi’s father, though hugely rich, is in thrall to his wife and her every whim (during a parent/teacher conference, Heidi’s father responds to lighting his wife’s cigarette after she snaps her fingers to do so, a nice touch on Gordon’s part).  Heidi only learns when she’s around sixteen that she has a brother who’s autistic, hidden away in a special school in Newport, R.I., and another brother somewhere in the East: to Heidi’s parents, they have three expendable and ruined children.  Heidi truly is an abused child. But a nasty one, to boot.

Agnes attempts to mentor Heidi, though warned against same by her other teacher friends and the headmistress of the school; all find Heidi malevolent, a terrible liar, nearly evil.  When Agnes arranges for Heidi to go down to NYC and hear a lecture on “Guernica” at MOMA there, it’s arranged that another excellent student, studying one day a week at Columbia, will ride down with Heidi on the train: this is Agnes’ attempt to start a friendship between these two, including a senior project on the influences of Cubism and physics ( a very Gordon touch: religion/art/science).  But Heidi allows herself to be picked up by an older man; she goes to his apartment for lunch and she is raped.  She goes back to New Hampshire right to Agnes’ house in the middle of the night, and Agnes chides her for going to this apartment: Heidi runs away, feeling betrayed by Agnes, and the rest of the novel flashes back and forth between Agnes’ attempts to find Heidi in NYC, Agnes leaving for Italy to live with  friend of her mother’s, Agnes falling in love, marrying, and adoring her work as a restorer, first of paintings, and then of religious sculptures, made of wood. But Heidi wants her “Payback”.

Gordon’s descriptions of Agnes’ life in Rome are magnificent; her friendship with her (female) boss/mentor is phenomenal writing, and Agnes’ love of working with old woods and restoring religious icons exquisite: Gordon’s meditations on both female friendship (what women do and don’t talk about at work, and how they keep their private lives out of work entirely, but get into them as friends is a brilliant meditation on what’s acceptable and unacceptable between women in the workplace); Agnes’ reverence for restoring old wood that’s been touched by thousands of religious people over the centuries is a superb meditation on art’s power, on beauty (very important to Gordon) and on Agnes’ identity. Her life in  Rome is splendid, though she remains plagued by doubts over what she did to Heidi, the moral core of the novel.

Heidi, after 6 squalid years in New York,  fueled by hatred and a desire for revenge, establishes herself in Arizona with a reality TV show called “Payback”, wherein former ‘victims’ (a word Heidi has rejected, helped along by reading the appalling Ayn Rand), now known by Heidi (under a new name) as the ‘owed’,  confront their victimizers and ask for some restitution.  Mary Gordon’s at her peak of brilliance in understanding the motivating emotions of anger, of rejection; Heidi’s fantasies about “getting back” at people by becoming famous is superb psychology and a brilliant examination of the contemporary love affair with “victimhood” across America.  The inevitable confrontation with Agnes occurs only late in Agnes’ life, when she’s returned to America as a widow (let’s just say that the confrontation fails, as a spoiler alert).

Gordon proposes that no good deed goes unpunished, but the love of Agnes’ friends, her daughter/son-in-law, all of whom live in the small New Hampshire town to which Agnes has returned (so that her mother can die surrounded by the trees she’s loved all her life: another Gordon trope on the nature and power of beauty, of nature), becomes redemptive: love does triumph over hatred, but Agnes has paid a lifetime of regret for a mistake she made forty/fifty years before: Agnes’ conscience, if you will, is not calmed until “payback” time. Heidi really is the monster her friends warned her about in their early teaching careers; Gordon’s meditations upon good and evil are less specifically religious than they are moral and ethical, though some readers may see all three represented in this brilliantly written novel, full of pithy observations about ageing, love, beauty, friendship and good and evil.

“Payback” also attacks the fake realities of “reality television” admirably; the novel is an extremely important one about the lack of ethical or moral standards in today’s America, and to what we’ve devolved ; Gordon’s enquiries into ethics and morals makes her novel very old and very new concurrently.  “Payback” is one of my two favorite novels of 2020 personally, and I recommend it and all Mary Gordon novels to anyone who’s interested in examining the topics Gordon so admirably raises in “Payback”.

–Daniel Brown

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