So begins Darcy Steinke's excellent review of Mary Gordon's new memoir, Circling My Mother, in the most recent New York Times Book Review. Steinke is herself the author of a memoir about a religious upbringing-- though Lutheran rather than Catholic. Steinke does not dwell on (or even mention) that religious difference-- which perhaps would have been out of place in a book review. But it would be interesting to hear her thoughts on the matter. Gordon herself had some fascinating things to say about it in a tribute to Flannery O'Connor (the author rendered above) titled "Bad Behavior" and published in our second issue:
Whatever beliefs she professed as an orthodox Catholic, her fiction suggests that not only is human fate mysterious, human behavior is as well, and for this reason all notions of reward and punishment are entirely beside the point for her. This, I believe, separates her from Protestant Fundamentalists. Her characters may be deeply moved by the fear of hellfire but she is interested in hellfire only as it interests them. Even the terms of reward and punishment are difficult to discern in her fiction. Many of her characters have soul-expanding experiences that end in death. Are the characters, then, said to be rewarded or punished? Is Nelson, the fat dull child of the do-gooder social worker father, who is cloaked in a noble mourning invisible to his father, rewarded or punished in “The Lame Shall Enter First” by the death he achieves when he tries to join his dead mother among the stars, urged by the wily Satanic crippled boy who will not take Nelson’s father’s good intentions for what they are? Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” is gored by a bull: is this her comeuppance or a rapture of ecstasy? Julian’s mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is smacked in the face by the pocketbook of a furious black woman wearing a hat identical to hers: she meets her end, but is it a punishment for racist condescension or the corridor to paradise?Gordon goes on to say that the "very unanswerability of these questions, and the fact that the characters’ fates are random, disproportionate, and surprising, puts them smack in the corral of mystery and outside the territory of motivation"-- which, she says, is precisely how O'Connor wanted it.
Gordon's tribute begins with the provocative remark that serves as the title of this post, and contains several insights into a writer who has gotten so far into Gordon's psyche as to actually appear in her dreams:
I dreamed that Flannery O’Connor and I were speaking together on a panel. Her hair was perfectly coifed; she was wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and a perfectly crisp white blouse, and perfectly shined penny loafers. My hair was filthy, my slip was showing, my stockings were ripped. In the dream she said to me, “Your problem is that you don’t believe in perfection.” And I said to her, because it was my dream, “I do believe in perfection, but you think perfection is flawlessness, and I think it’s completeness.” Well, that just shows how she can scare a Catholic girl, because we do think of her as a Catholic writer.Read the rest. And for more of Gordon's thoughts on her literary forebears, see her essay about Virginia Woolf in our first issue.