Every so often, a book comes along that is truly moral. It challenges so deeply our moral conceptions that we end up in a certain darkness, punched to a new childlikeness, a new humility, a new reliance upon a dark faith. Graham Greene did that to us with his work, The Heart of the Matter. In that book, Greene empathetically shows us the heart and mind of a person who, according to all externals, deserves our condemnation. He betrays everything in his life and finally kills himself. But, having seen the inside of that man’s soul, we see that the issues of love and infidelity, success and failure, suicide and hope, are, in the end, largely beyond our judgement.
After reading The Heart of the Matter you can only walk away in the dark, hoping that, because God is still God, in the end, “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” That kind of book leaves you with a new moral understanding in which you understand more by not understanding than by understanding. Mary Gordon’s latest novel, Men and Angels, is that kind of book. It tunes and tightens our moral strings to the point of breaking and it leaves us humbled, wondering, more conscious than ever of how little we understand of love and grace. It throws us back upon a faith that makes sense of life only by hoping in God whose ways are not our ways. Her storyline is straightforward enough. Men and Angels is a book about two women, Anne and Laura, who have an entirely different grace inheritance. The story centres around Anne, an attractive, talented, happily married mother of two children. She is a lady at peace. At 38, Anne possesses youth’s natural attractiveness and zest as well as that calm reflective quality of mind that gives her the power to understand her experiences symbolically. She has everything going for her.
Her relationship to her husband is good, tested, mellow, mature. Her relationship to her children is pure joy. And, in all this, she is a kind, humble person, gratefully aware of her good luck. When her husband must leave for a year’s sabbatical in France, she hires Laura to be her live-in babysitter while she spends part of her time writing. Laura is Anne’s opposite. Just as Anne has always graced life and others just by existing, Laura was always irritated. Unwanted as a child, abused and hated by her mother, made to feel inferior and unlovable, Laura grows up having to constantly apologize just for being. Eventually, in her hurt, she turns fanatically and pathologically to religion. As a compensation for the human love she has never received, she seizes onto God in a sick way, believing that God has chosen her to be a special prophet of a purer, less human, message of love to the world. She withdraws into a dream world in which God’s armor of light protects her from the world’s rejection and hurts. In the end, she becomes a very sick and withdrawn girl. But she falls for Anne’s human warmth, Anne’s attractiveness, Anne’s grace. More than anything else she wants to love Anne, be loved by Anne and convert Anne to her own vision of God’s purer love.
But her love is pathetic and Anne, despite herself, cannot help but be repulsed, irritated, constantly strained and angry. In the end, Anne rejects her. Laura kills herself and she does it in such a way that her very blood will mark Anne, Anne’s home, Anne’s children, and Anne’s relationships with everything and everybody, just as Abel’s blood marked Cain. In trying to assuage a guilt she neither deserves nor understands, Anne goes to visit Laura’s parents. In seeing the mother’s hatred for her own daughter, Anne’s moral blood stirs. In clarity, she sees how unfair it all is. She sees how this woman had hated her daughter from the moment of her conception. She recalls how warmly she had held her own babies, her cheeks against their cheeks, their mouths on her breast. How monstrous and unfair that a baby, Laura in this case, could be hated. Small wonder that Laura was so pathetic, so withdrawn. How could she be otherwise?
And Anne realizes that she herself did not love Laura, that she was incapable of loving someone that wounded. It leaves her weeping and wondering. The reader also wonders. Is everyone really created equal? Where is God in all of this? Will the standards of the kingdom really reverse all of this? Do the poor, the unattractive, the unwanted, the pathetic, really inherit the earth?
Mary Gordon’s Men and Angels touches raw moral nerves. It humbles and darkens the understanding as faith does, and, like faith, it opens us up to new unthought-of possibilities.