BRIAN MORTON, virtuoso of discourse, sets his fifth novel, Florence Gordon, in a contemporary New York City, where sophistication among the literati has reached a level where all conversation is ironic in its misdirection. We are introduced by an authorial voice to the title character, Florence, a 75-year-old feminist, scholar, and professor at New York University who has just published her sixth book and plans, as her seventh, a memoir of the feminist movement of the 1960s, which were her formative years. Florence doesn’t feel old, the authorial voice tells us, although “She wasn’t — this seems important to say — a woman who tried to look younger than she was.” She is, however, “a strong independent-minded woman … in the opinion of many who knew her, even in the opinion of many who loved her, a complete pain in the neck.”
Florence is deeply engrossed in writing her memoir, although she has asked herself who would want to read a book about an old intellectual. A reader might well ask Brian Morton a similar question: who wants to read a book about an old pain in the neck? Can a reader trust an authorial voice which doesn’t quite trust itself (“this seems important to say”)? Can a reader become engaged by a novel in which an ironic distance is established between her and most of the novel’s characters?
The answer for this reader is: yes. Morton views the New York literary community through the lens of an Austen-esque irony, and he produces, gradually, a surprising portrayal of Florence Gordon, the old pain in the neck herself.
The New York literary scene is whimsical and trend-obsessed, immediately apparent when Florence is caught in the arbitrary turns of a wheel of fortune. None other than Martha Nussbaum gives Florence’s most recent book, How to Look at a Woman, a rave review on the first page of the New York Times Book Review, calling her “a national treasure.” Florence is thrown into an exhausting book tour, which culminates in a conference called The Women’s Movement: Then and Now, where Nussbaum is expected to be the keynote speaker. But no! Nussbaum, busy with her own book, has pleaded the flu and has been replaced by Willa Ruth Stone — “famous blogger,” “beautiful for a writer” — who charges Florence and the feminists of the 1960s with being puritanical, humorless, and — worst of all — dated and irrelevant. “It’s not the black-and-white world you saw. It’s a world with many colors … and I say (cover your ears, Florence): ʻBitches, let’s party!’”
At the conclusion of the Women’s Movement: Then and Now conference, Florence’s friend Vanessa rises to defend Florence without realizing that sound to the microphone has been cut. As Vanessa rails at people in the audience who are gathering possessions, rising from their seats, and heading for exits, “as if she didn’t realize that no one could hear,” she becomes emblematic of all the chattering characters in Florence Gordon who neither listen nor realize that they are not being heard.
While Florence struggles to focus on writing her memoir, the people in her life add to her distractions. There are her friends who insist on throwing her a surprise birthday party (she walks out after 10 minutes); there is her new young editor, “the ninja of the late-night literary scene”; there is her self-aggrandizing ex-husband, Saul; and most irritating of all, her only son, Daniel; and Daniel’s wife, Janine.
Daniel has arrived recently in New York from the outer bounds of the civilized world, i.e. Seattle, where he has been a policeman for over 20 years. Emotionally remote and withdrawn, imagining himself as the hero of the 1970s TV series McCloud, Daniel nonetheless hopes to rescue his marriage to Janine, who has left the University of Washington for a fellowship in New York to study the relative merits of talk therapy and behavioral therapy. Although Janine has felt an exalted connection with Daniel’s mother ever since she read Florence’s essays when she was in college, she has adopted the language of popular psychology with no sense of its jargon or sound-byte emptiness. Janine also has formed what she calls “a secret little crush” on her boss, Lev, an attraction that Daniel senses but cannot bring himself to question. Instead, he and Janine earnestly discuss everything except what is really on their minds:
“Why do you even like me?” Janine said. She was perhaps a little drunk.
“Why do I like you?”
“It’s a simple question.”
“It’s a simple question, but there’s not a simple answer.” […]
“… I’m from Seattle. Everybody else you know has New York City armor on.”
“Well, that could be. It could be that I only like you because you’re from Seattle.”
“That’s what I thought,” she said.
Morton’s skill in putting chatter on the page is not enough to sustain interest in Daniel and Janine, who finally seem self-absorbed and tiresome in their psychobabble and emotional withdrawal. However, their daughter, Emily, has edged her way into Florence’s life, eventually becoming her unpaid research assistant. She rebuts Florence’s insults in a way that secretly delights Florence. She sifts through her grandmother’s archives for her, and she reads her old essays.
Like most university undergraduates, Emily is clueless about recent cultural history, gathering what information she has from the many television series whose titles are dotted throughout the novel: Mad Men, for example, for the status of women during the 1960s. When Florence hands her The Golden Notebook, Emily is unimpressed. Lessing’s novel, she thinks, has failed to live beyond its time. (“‘Read it again,’ said Florence.”) However, Middlemarch, which Emily is reading for a summer literature seminar at Barnard, leaves her with “the idea that each person is the center of a world. She didn’t know what to do with it; she didn’t know where it led; but it kept coming back to her mind.”
Then, as though in a direct thematic line with her previous reading, Emily reads her grandmother’s essay on Virginia Woolf’s “The Angel in the House,” then reads the essay itself, and from her reading achieves a certain clarity about the choices her grandmother has made, from her divorce, to her distancing herself from family and friends, right down to her defense of a woman in the supermarket line who has allowed a line-jumper to get ahead of her. Emily is still very young; her insights are incomplete and superficial and sometimes comic, as when she draws permission from “The Angel in the House” to break with her whining, controlling boyfriend.
However, the energy of Florence Gordon, the heat that keeps a reader turning pages, comes from the spark lighted between Florence and Emily. Emily’s strength is her willingness to learn. Florence’s is her insistence on living on her own terms and, in contrast to the cast of characters around her, on speaking plainly and with clarity backed up by action. Early in the novel, she tells a friend to put away her Blackberry during lunch, and when the friend doesn’t, slaps the Blackberry out of her hand and drops it in a pitcher of sangria. Later she lectures her old friend Yetta, who has grown incontinent but refuses adult diapers:
“I’m going to Yetta you as long as you keep behaving like an idiot. It so happens I brought a couple. I’ll show you. They don’t look bad at all.”
To her ex-husband, Saul, who is trying to make her feel guilty enough to help him get him a professorship at NYU: “You’re dreaming, Saul … If you’re so talented, do something to show it.”
So what to make of the stalwart old pain in the neck, who, like a legion of women who came of age in the ’60s, wants only to keep doing what she is doing for as long as she can? Late in the novel Florence turns to the trivialities she swore she would never include in her memoir — “She returned to what she was writing, a memory from the age of five or six, watching her mother fold laundry in their apartment in the Bronx” — and we readers can rejoice that even in the city of chatter and irony in the 21st century, the heart never is quite stilled until it is, of course, stilled.