There is a phenomenon that my choreographer friend Karinne and I have taken to calling Patron Envy. Virtually every artist, unknown or revered, starving or sated, ails from this mild disorder, which rather tends to drag on. Its onset is unremarkable: You are a promising young artist with a bit of nerve, tankfuls of energy, and an empty cashbox. Your work--critics, friends, and strangers tell you--is good (which is great) and evolving (which is even better). But talent and enthusiasm are booster fuels only. About a dozen grant-fellowship-award-residency rejections and countless creative blocks later, you'll be dreaming of your own private Maecenas, eagerly, violently. It's a thankless part-time job, thinking about funding for your art. Of course, there is always the freak possibility of an art-crazed Maecenas turning up to court you. Absurdly, that's where the real trouble begins.
In Mary Gordon's irresistible new novel, Spending, the artist is Monica Szabo, a middle-aged, respected New York painter with a knack for making absurd dreams come true. She is struggling, but does better than most: annual exhibits at a reputable gallery in the city, a teaching job at a posh prep school, and a fair number of sold paintings under her belt. Yet, at a moment in her career and life when time is becoming palpably finite, Monica wishes for a sort of combination muse/housekeeper/secretary/cash cow, the type who could, in her words, "Read... French cookbooks that tell them how to make really succulent little dishes out of horsemeat with a lot of bay leaves and wine. Prepar[e] physically and spiritually to carry... canvases to a hard-hearted gallery owner, their muscles straining, their eyes brimming with shed or unshed tears."
Then Monica hits the jackpot.
B., a senselessly successful commodities broker and an avid collector of Monica's paintings, turns up with an offer no human in her right mind would refuse. Money, space, time--in other words, the artist's holy triumvirate--in exchange for the chance to follow the painter's growth and inspirit her creative flame. In B.'s case, this happens to mean sex. Now, Spending is not a lurid tale of sexual servitude: first, because B.'s attraction is reciprocated; second, because the bastard is great in bed; and third, because sex, art, and money have long been wont to coalesce in all sorts of fascinating ways.
Sex, art, and money may sound like their own holy triumvirate, and for novelist Gordon, the congealing agent of the three is faith, and more specifically, Catholicism. Gordon was pegged "a Catholic writer" in the 1970s after the publication of Final Payment, a novel about the daughter of a conservative Catholic setting out to build a new life after her father's death. The label has lingered, although Gordon's succeeding works, from The Company of Women to The Other Side, focused less overtly on religion. With Spending, the label "Catholic writer" seems to have come full circle: For upon being liberated from financial and logistical worries, Gordon's latest character begins work on a new series of religiously inspired--and heretical--canvases.
Studying and deliberately copying the strokes of the Italian Renaissance masters, she creates a handful of paintings in which Christ appears not deposed, but postcoital: "You know, the little death, not the big one," she explains to her mesmerized patron and lover. "Spent Men, After the Masters," the greatest series of Monica's oeuvre, becomes a raging success and manages to bring on the wrath of the religious right. When Monica declares, "I'm afraid I'm a bad combination of obedience and rebellion," the reader cannot help but posit that Gordon is describing herself.
Gordon helps impart that impression with the easy intimacy of her prose; in an interview, Gordon once reported that she was interested in the novel "as a form of high gossip." The wealth of detail in Spending's banalities and the translucence of its moments of gravitas make the novel hurriedly pleasurable, like a long e-mail from a very eloquent close friend. In recounting a painter's life, Gordon travels from the everyday to the inspired with a rare fluency: "I went through my pocketbook, in which two days earlier the cap of my Advil had come off, paving the bottom of my bag with rose brown pills," she writes in a typically vivid passage. And such moments seem complementary, not subordinate, to scenes of Monica at work, conveying the experience of color or the nature of a certain painting by Carpaccio. Though sex, the muse, art, and money fill the pages of Spending, Gordon's novel equally imparts the pleasurable power of language.