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Summer Books

Money, art and sex ... Gordon’s novel has it all

By Mary Gordon
Schribner, 301 pages, $24.00


Spending is about much more than money. Of course, it is also about money, but any number of currencies insinuate themselves into this story: emotional, devotional, maternal, filial and sexual, to name just a few.

The plot line is relatively simple; it is the emotional capital the narrator spends that gives this novel its complexity. In short, the voice of the novel sums it up best in the first couple of lines: “I must tell you, it was always about money. ... Of course, it was also about sex. And since I’m a painter and it affected my life and my work, you’d have to say it was about art.”

Monica Szabo is a 50-year-old painter. Or more accurately, she is an art teacher who paints. She is approached at one of her showings by a wealthy patron who offers to financially support her for as long as it takes for her to reach her potential as an artist. He is a commodities trader who would give her money to purchase the commodities most precious to her at this point: time and space. She could quit her teaching job and move into a more painter-friendly studio. Szabo not only accepts — they soon become sexually involved.

Szabo unfolds her own story in the first person so exclusively that we don’t even learn her name until midway into the narrative, and she coyly withholds her friend’s name, referring to him only as “B” until the end, an affectation the novel could have done without. (And no, it does not stand for “benefactor.”)

Meanwhile, B’s investment pays off. Szabo had developed an idea for a series of paintings modeled after the Old Masters’ portrayals of Jesus just after he had been taken down from the cross, but by her lights, he looks less dead than post-orgasmic, and she intends to exploit this feature in her own contemporary sequence. Not only does B finance a trip to Europe for Monica to view the originals, he agrees to be her model.

Two interesting issues are embedded in this scenario. The first is Monica’s angst over accepting B’s money while offering him her body as B is doing likewise, only on two fronts. She wanted to believe in the purity of his motives, but could not be quite sure. What if she were wrong and she were just another kind of “futures” he was taking a risk on? Conversely, what if she were simply turning the tables and treating him as a commodity as men, only some of them painters, have been known to do to women?

She remarked as to how, in order to paint him, she had to objectify him; he who became “the subject of my painting was also the object of my desire.” This in turn raises the fascinating issue of “the male gaze.” Men have always had the right to look at women, visually consume them, even. Women have been trained to look aside, even demur, in the presence of men. Countless paintings will verify this pose. In this role reversal Szabo creates for herself an enigma as she “gazes” upon him with impunity and captures him in his entirety.

Her show consisting of the deposed Christs, which she titled “Spent Men,” was an artistic and financial success, but as to be expected, not without controversy. The religious right picketed the show, embroiling her in a media sideshow that raised her profile (and her prices). All stories need a setback, of course, and ours comes when B suffers a financial reversal making him literally a “spent man.”

But now with name recognition and her first commission, Monica, again, initiates a role reversal and stakes him to new start-up capital. Ironically, B seems more uncomfortable in this arrangement than in the earlier one in the studio. Nevertheless, their sexual dependency remains intact.

I would not recommend this book for anyone with prudish sensibilities. A significant amount of time is spent on their lovemaking, sparing the reader few details, though love, as a value, is never spoken of. In the entire course of the book, neither partner has been willing to name the relationship.

What does work for me is the ongoing treatise on the artistic process and temperament (to resort to a cliché) and the role and importance of art in a society within which category I would include all forms of art. When asked to comment on the “Spent Men” exhibit, a parish priest deflects the previous opprobrium by refusing to see it as blasphemous, merely a “new way of looking at something.”

As another character put it, “Art is a deeper, fuller vision of life.” Mary Gordon does a good job of opening up this world of art with its deeper, fuller visions as did Chaim Potok in My Name is Asher Lev about an Hasidic Jew who caused great pain and division within his community with his crucifixion masterpiece.

Any artist must, in fact, step outside conventional ways of thinking and seeing, whether he is painting his mother on the cross or her venetian blinds or her lover as a post-orgasmic Christ, and the cost to the artist cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

And so it is not about money after all, although I will leave it up to you to make whatever connection you will between the title Spending and the paintings called “Spent Men.”

Judith Bromberg teaches literature and composition in Kansas City, Mo., and reviews regularly for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999