Warped by her unloving parents, Heidi has been further mangled by sexual violence. She’s crude, racist, meanspirited, contemptuous of her fans. And if that isn’t bad enough, she’s a devotee of the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, whose “The Virtue of Selfishness” becomes Heidi’s “sacred text.” “One didn’t, really, need to be grateful or concerned about the weak, just to appreciate one’s own strengths and demand the same of others.”
Again Mary Gordon complicates things by casting the Woman Who Wasn’t Listened To — on the surface, so like the #MeToo heroines whose mistreatment and subsequent bravery regularly command our attention, sympathy and respect — as a villainous, vengeful harpy. Heidi (now Quin) can’t forgive and forget. But should she?
In the work of another writer, Agnes’s and Heidi’s inability to move past that single confrontation might strain our notions of verisimilitude. At times the reader may question the persistent force of Agnes’s guilt. Does she really fall out of love with her nice Italian husband because he is able to forgive himself for having sold health-destroying tobacco to his loyal customers — while she can never, ever get over her insensitivity to Heidi? Does she feel less remorse for cheating on him than for saying the wrong thing to Heidi all those years ago? Do we believe that Quin’s career in the Darwinian scramble of reality TV has generated no insults or upsets worse than the one she suffered from her well-meaning high school teacher? Our skepticism may grow as Heidi/Quin, frustrated in her attempts to denounce and destroy Agnes on live TV, resorts to a campaign of harassment only somewhat less extreme than Glenn Close’s boiling the pet bunny in “Fatal Attraction.”
What’s striking is how little it matters, because Mary Gordon isn’t, strictly speaking, a naturalistic or realistic novelist, but rather a moralist, by which I don’t mean moralistic. Since her marvelous first novel, “Final Payments” (1978), she’s concerned herself with questions of ethics, belief, responsibility, devotion, obligation. What do human beings owe one another and how can we know what is the right thing to do? How are we to love the ungrateful, deluded and ill-tempered who cannot return our love? Who is the victim, who is the victimizer, and how easily are those roles reversed? In “Men and Angels” (1985) two women discuss the possibility of living a moral life when one must make the compromises required by motherhood, a question that reappears in “Payback.” In “Pearl” (2005) a young woman who’d been involved with the I.R.A. chains herself to the flagpole at the American Embassy in Dublin, not for political but for ethical reasons.
Agnes fits right in with the thinkers, ascetics, crusaders and seekers who have populated Gordon’s fiction and nonfiction — books about Joan of Arc, Thomas Merton and Jesus. Agnes and Heidi are soldiers in an ongoing struggle. The conscientious and the unscrupulous have always been at war, and there is no indication that the conflict is ending.