Payback, by Mary Gordon

Trigger warning for rape.

Now that I think about it, I’m hard-pressed to say whether love or revenge is more popular in literature through the ages. It seems like every great love story can be matched by an equally great tale of revenge. On the other hand, the fact that I’m thinking this way might say more about my reading tastes than about literature in general. One thing I can say definitively is that I’ve never read a story of revenge like the one in Mary Gordon’s troubling, thought-provoking novel, Payback.

Payback tells the story of two women who would always be united by a terrible crime and a critical failure. But, before we go back to find out what happened, we see these two women decades later in the very different places they’ve ended up. One, Quin Archer (formerly Heidi Stolz), lives a life of reality/exposé TV hustling in Arizona. She is surrounded by her prize cacti and the constant stress of trying to stay relevant to audiences. She curates her appearance as much as she attends on her cactuses. The overall impression is one of brittle soullessness. The other woman, Agnes di Martini (formerly Vaughan). Agnes’ life has all the emotion that Quin’s seems the lack. Agnes is packing up her life in Rome to return to the United States. Her memories are full of her family and a melancholy that we don’t understand until we see what Agnes has been punishing herself for.

It’s probably clear who has my sympathy. A few chapters into Payback, we learn that Quin (then Heidi) is raped on a trip arranged by Agnes. When she returns home, Quin goes to the only person who ever showed her kindness for help: her teacher Agnes. As soon as Quin finishes her account, Agnes asks the question that no one should ever ask a rape survivor. She asks, “How could you let this happen?” as though what happened was Quin’s fault. In the aftermath, Quin runs away to grim, drug-addled New York while Agnes spends months trying to find her. Her search fails and, at the urging of her family, goes to Italy to live with a family friend. On paper, my sympathy should be with Quin as the misunderstood rape survivor and not with the victim-blaming Agnes. What happens over the next decades, before Quin returns to confront Agnes, is what makes my sympathy switch.

It’s a curious thing how a good, well-told story can make you sympathize with people you wouldn’t expect. That’s part of the power of literature that people keep talking about. As I found my sympathies changing, I had to ask myself why. What was Gordon’s novel pushing me to think about? The aftermath of Quin’s rape and Agnes’ response had me thinking about what those two women made of them. Quin’s response was so repellent to me that I couldn’t feel for her anymore. I could intellectually understand her choices, but emotionally I couldn’t make myself sympathize with a woman who used her fame to inflict revenge on others (which Quin always calls payback) and disseminate the selfish philosophy of Ayn Rand. It was easier for me to sympathize with Agnes because her self-flagellation after her awful question resonates with me; it looks pretty similar to what I do to myself when I’ve said the wrong thing.

Nothing goes the way I would’ve expected in Payback, which is what makes it such a remarkable piece of literature. It is also probably the most honest story I’ve read about revenge. I’ve looked at some of the psychological literature on revenge—in helping literature students write about revenge stories—and was surprised-but-not-surprised to find out that getting revenge doesn’t help the revenger feel whole again. Payback is the first book I’ve read that doesn’t turn vengeance into a Shakespearean tragedy or into an audience-satisfying story of justice. This book is a brilliant antidote to what we’ve always been told about trying to get a little payback from those who’ve wronged us.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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