BY MARY GORDON
Scribner; 299 pages; $24
The only real conflict in Mary Gordon’s Spending is between having more and having much more. The book is a gratification fantasy, a novel about people who have everything – money, time, talent, position, love, and sex (particularly sex) – hooking up with others who have at least as much and making beautiful, soft-core music together on a variety of expensive bed sheets. Fabrics are very important in the book. The fluffiest cottons. The slipperiest satins. So are the right stores. Fish is purchased at Citarella, citrus fruit at Balducci’s, cake at Greenberg’s. As if they’d stepped out of a high-end print ad for scotch complete with one of those airy questionnaires outlining their tastes and temperaments (Favorite Food: quail eggs; Motto: Only the Best), Gordon’s yuppie sensualists, examined close up, are really just human-shaped amalgamations of tiny, colored dots.
Unfortunately, spending is not a satire but an earnest apology for the good life as defined by Styles of the Times. Its heroine is Monica Szabo, a feminist painter and summertime Cape Codder. She has a problem: Her life is good, not great. Enter B., a handsome, rich mystery man whose fondest desire is to be her “muse.” In the haute Harlequin universe of Spending, this means he’s willing to love her all night long, spend money on her all day, and vanish whenever she needs a little space. B. is the male equivalent of the sort of willing, servile females that brilliant male artists are granted as a birthright. As such, he loves Monica first for “her work” and only secondarily for her body. And B. has the classic male-bimbo career, to boot: He’s a “trader.” Or, as he boils it down for Monica, “… I make money and you make art.”
Supposedly, these two activities are not as dissimilar as they seem. Spending has one of those simple, ironic, virtually diagrammable themes: The creative life and the material life, painting and trading, are mirrors of each other. Both require risk, discrimination, and a robust, unquenchable lust for life. This notion is not implied but baldly stated, and not somewhere near the end but on page one. “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 work, you’d have to say it was about art.” That’s just the sort of person Monica is: the kind who can talk of “art” and “life and work” without so much as a grin. One serious woman.
Who needs some serious loving, which B. provides. In this fable of sociosexual table-turning, B. is the passive erotic assistant. One minute he’s posing for his artist mistress, flexing his biceps, the next he’s down between her legs, flexing his cheeks. Is this any less a cliché because the genders are switched? No. That’s not how originality works. To turn a thing upside down without essentially altering its form is to turn a thing upside down, not make it new. The politically conscious Monica feels like a revolutionary anyway. “If I’d rejected the madonna and the virgin, it was for something better, something self-invented, something that smashed icons and cast off old ties.” For a moment, she wonders if she’s become “a whore,” but only for a moment. Her qualms exist to be dismissed, not investigated.
There’s a lot of sex in Spending, more than most literary novels budget for, and it occurs at syncopated intervals, the way it does in trashy paperbacks. The style is frank and salty and belongs to the Julia Child school of erotic prose. The lovemaking sounds like cutting up a chicken. “I put my nose into his armpits and smelt his rank oniony smell. A sweaty animal. I loved the pelt. I sniffed and licked him… . He tasted vinegary. I climbed on top of him. There was nothing sweet in what I did.” Whether the tone is lyrical, clinical, or earthy, describing sex is almost always a problem (except, strangely enough, in pornography), and in Spending, because there’s so much sex, it’s a big problem. We’re supposed to believe that Monica and B. are utterly on fire for each other, consumed by a passion most mortals only dream of, but what this comes down to is predictable: sex in the first-class cabin of a plane, sex in the studio, sex in the kitchen. The only faintly startling interlude comes when Monica, feeling disembodied after a wildly successful gallery show and a terrific review in the Times, makes B. pull over in his vintage muscle car so she can inhale his stinky pits and ground herself.
Though Gordon has a progressive sensibility (she throws a few shrill right-wing prudes into the story for her broad-minded heroes to gang up against), not since Ayn Rand have the supersexy elite been so shamelessly celebrated. When Monica’s not having sex, she’s making art: a groundbreaking series of crucifixion paintings portraying Jesus as “post-orgasmic,” not dead. Here, the writing is scholarly and thoughtful, offering a lofty counterpoint to the down-and-dirty rutting. We overhear Monica’s musings as she museum-hops. We travel to Rome with her and view the ruins. But what can only be a question of taste – Monica’s importance as an artist – is presented by Gordon as a matter of fact. The only character who dares to challenge the genius of Monica’s rather sophomoric iconoclasm is a frumpy ex-nun who’s clearly not getting any, which – in Spending’s self-satisfied scheme of things – gives her no right to judge someone who is.
Spending is beach reading for people with private beaches, but its upscale romantic silliness and excursions into gourmet porn aren’t what make it bad. What’s repulsive is its clubbiness. For a book about daredevil intellectuals, its cultural range is incredibly narrow – about the distance from West End Avenue to Central Park West. The Charlie Rose Show (the setting for Monica’s showdown with her Roman Catholic critics) might as well be the Lyceum. It needs no introduction, and it gets none. Monica’s brand of art, her preferences in food, museums, linens, and ideas, are presented as existential fundamentals. Not to want them is to be spiritually numb. As for the money to buy life’s fineries, it floats down, nineties-style, from above – the fruit of a surprise inheritance or a lucky commodities trade. This is all meant to be reverse subversive: a guiltless, liberating celebration of market-driven, Zagat-certified, have-your-ideals-and-eat-them-too Clinton-era epicureanism. It’s as if Gordon feels the affluent urban herd needs some formal literary permission to enjoy the rich banquet it’s enjoying already. Spending is her way of saying Go for it!