The Shadow Man
Mary Gordon is highly regarded for novels such as Final Payments and The Company of Women. She often writes about her Catholic background. It is a source of strength, and it centers her work. The irony is that her Catholicism stems from a Jewish father whose own life was so off-center, so driven and tormented by his need to assimilate that he became anti-Semitic, denying his own roots—a further irony in view of Gordon’s relentless research into her father’s origins.
David Gordon is the “shadow man” because he told his daughter so little about the substance of his actual life. He created a legend for her instead. She was only seven when he died, but he had already impressed his indelible image on her. For her, he has a glamour and mystique that is as potent as that of a movie star. He is, in many respects, the quintessential American: self- invented, a Jay Gatsby of a parent who leaves his daughter dazzled but also (like the narrator Nick Carroway in Fitzgerald’s novel) grasping for the truth.
Much of what David Gordon told his daughter about himself was a fabrication. He was not a Harvard dropout. In fact, he never went to college. This erudite and charming man was also a pornographer and the proprietor of a sleazy magazine. Yet these revelations—so painful to Gordon—do nothing to diminish her fierce attachment to her father. Indeed, the mystery and anguish of his own life take on a reality and depth as she discovers in her father a new character, far stranger and more complex than she ever imagined. Whatever his failings, she recognizes him as the author of her existence, as the progenitor of her writing.
Gordon eloquently evokes the significance of her search, observing that finding her father means giving up something of herself. He is the “untouched figure of romance,” she concedes. “I lived at the center of the heart of a passionate man.” For that, she is grateful to her father. She does not excuse his lies or his prejudices but absorbs the shock of learning about them as the price of knowing him better. Gordon’s father made her feel special, which to her meant that he had to be special himself. The adult Gordon grieves over the tawdry aspects of her father’s character, yet she cannot relinquish the idea of his grandeur.
Gordon acknowledges that the “parent of your childhood is your invention”—perhaps more so for a child like Gordon who dwells on her “dreamy ways.” When she studies her father’s writing, she discovers that they share “stylistic tics.” He could not have taught her to write, she reasons. Yet could a style be imprinted the way physical features are? Is she so attached to her father because she is partly him? Gordon wants to believe so, even supposing that her father had her in mind years before she was conceived.
Gordon realizes that her grandiose memories of her father threaten to overwhelm her story. She wants to “have my father to myself, created by me, untouchable by history, unverifiable.” That is, of course, one of the great attractions of fiction, in which the writer’s feelings can be “fully satisfied and enlarged,” as Gordon puts it. Her father represents a kind of alternative universe, a symbol of her creative yearning. Paradoxically, he gains in meaning and fascination to the degree that he is absent from her life. Thus her mother suffers by comparison: “I know exactly where she is. I always have. There is no need to look for her.”
The mother can stand for everything that is right here, blocking Gordon’s need to transcend the present and inhabit that mythic world of the past. The father represents desire, especially in the “elegant beneficence of early death,” and leaves his daughter to deal resentfully with her mother, who seems unworthy because she gets in the way of the partnering that Gordon and her father formed.
The Shadow Man has an elegant, intricate structure that emulates both Gordon’s obsession with her father and her effort to find a perspective on that obsession. The book begins with an address “to the reader.” Gordon gives a date, March 25, 1994. She is in lower Manhattan, on Varrick and Houston, researching her father’s life in the National Archives and Records Administration—Northeast Region. She is forty-four years old and just beginning to realize that she is not the person she thought she was—that the family history her father told her was largely a lie. It is not too late for her to regret her impulse to learn more about her father. She will recover a lost history that will have to compensate for abandoning cherished illusions. As Gordon points out, no matter what she discovers she is still possessed with the idea of her father: “He is always with me,...
(The entire section is 1953 words.)