Spending: A Utopian Divertimento
- Wear, Delese
- Date of entry: Aug-17-1998
A novel written in the first-person to what appears to be a trusted friend, Spending is the story of Monica Szabo, a painter who has struggled her entire career to be "moderately successful." Divorced and the mother of young adult daughters, Monica teaches to supplement the income from her paintings.
One evening after a gallery talk a man introduces himself as a collector of her paintings and offers himself to be her muse. This offer includes everything so many successful male artists have had that enabled them to produce "great" art: protected time to create, money, a room of their own. His offer also includes sex.
The novel, then, is the unfolding relationship between Monica and the man she ironically calls only "B," a relationship that includes her huge ambivalence about the tensions of their arrangement that often collide at the intersection of his money and the implicitly obligatory (yet quite pleasurable) sex. By the end of the story Monica is rich and famous through the sale of her series of Christs who were not dead (as portrayed on Renaissance canvases) but merely postorgasmic. B, in the meantime, loses his fortune and the roles are reversed.
Spending is a major departure for what readers expect from Mary Gordon. It is a book about female desire, specifically middle-aged female sexual desire. Indeed, Monica is "spent" a good deal of the time.
Other themes woven explicitly throughout the story have to do with male-female relationships and Monica’s decidedly feminist spin on power, passion, entitlement, solitude, indebtedness. Perhaps the most prevalent and disturbing questions raised by the novel, even as they are embedded playfully in the text, have to do with the fine distinctions between the categories prostitute, sex worker, and Muse-recipient.
Another theme--this one delightfully informing and provocative--has to do with the question of female perspective and whether or not "woman artist" is a category apart from others. Monica wonders: "for most of history, no woman was allowed to do what they [men] did. All those beautiful images, all those wonderful efforts at form and effect, none of them were done by anyone who had a body like mine. I don’t know if it made a difference--I don’t know how it could not--but who knows what kind of difference it made. . . . I, having a smaller body, smaller bones, different morphology, know about this feeling of weight that you don’t. It’s not the whole story. Just a part of it. My part." (p. 88).
Still another thread, this one earthy, sexy, and so utterly late 20th century Western female, has to do with the imperfections of the female body in a culture obsessed by youth and thinness. While reveling in the intense sexuality of her relationship with B, Monica is plagued with her middle-aged, not thin, and not firm body.
B’s response--Gordon’s mouthpiece clearly operating here--is this: "Don’t you know the incredible power of what you’ve got there? Of the appeal of that endless responsiveness, and all its variety? . . . Do you understand how I adore it that you’re always open to me, always generous almost beyond your will . . . . And you’re talking about ten pounds?" (p. 127). This book would be a fine addition to classes examining the female body, body image, sexuality, desire, or middle age, even though it is obviously playful--"a utopian divertimento."