In a 1988 essay, Mary Gordon describes attending the funeral of a beloved uncle. One by one, members of her large Irish-Catholic extended family approach her. "I just want to tell you I can't stand your books. None of us can," one uncle says. Her cousin the nun confesses, "I just feel I need to tell you that I think your books are dreadful. They're just too worldly for me." Even the deceased, "the most nearly silent man I've ever known and perhaps the kindest," Gordon writes, couldn't read them. "Oh, he was proud of you," her favorite aunt recalls. "But he thought your books were dirty."

It's hard to imagine what this cast of real-life characters -- cousins in spirit to the American Catholics that Gordon has portrayed so sympathetically yet unsparingly in her two-decade, eight-book career -- would make of Gordon's latest novel. Spending (Scribner), tells the story of Monica Szabo, a semi-struggling 50-year-old painter whose life and work are transformed when a tossed-off question at one of her gallery lectures -- "Where are all the male muses?" -- gets a startling answer from a man in the audience: "Right here." "B," a millionaire commodities broker who has been following her career, offers her everything she needs to do her best work: space, time, complete financial support, great sex when she wants it (and never when she doesn't), even himself as a model. It all comes with no strings attached -- though Monica can't help tying herself in knots over the complicated sexual politics of the situation.

As their raunchy sex segues into painting sessions, Monica begins Spent Men, a series of canvases inspired by the Italian Renaissance Masters, in which a Christ-like figure is relaxed not in death but in the petit mort of postorgasmic bliss (an idea Gordon borrowed from Leo Steinberg's classic 1983 study, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion). For Monica, Spent Men is no attention-getting gimmick, but a union of matter and spirit, "the coming together of art and faith in the hands of a woman whose life was no longer shaped by belief."

Reconciling the world of the flesh with the world of the spirit has long been a central theme in Gordon's own art. "With Spending, I wanted to write a book about pleasure in its various forms," she told PW on a recent wintry afternoon, settling into the overstuffed sofa in her pleasantly professorial apartment near Barnard College, where she has taught for the past decade. "I feel like pleasure makes people really crazy. We're just not comfortable with it. And a concept of God that would have to include pleasure and ambiguity-that's not something most people can handle." Gordon, a small dark-haired woman of 49, lowers her voice a bit. "A Catholic writing about sex-now that's going to make a lot of Catholics nervous. Of course, you can always be an ex-Catholic and write about sex...."

The Church makes an appearance in Spending, in the form of the protesters -- led by an ex-nun who turns out to be Monica's nemesis from her Catholic school days -- who picket the gallery showing the Spent Men paintings. As an outspoken advocate of abortion rights and supporter of ordaining women as priests, Gordon has had her own run-ins with the religious right, ranging from the not-so-funny (she says she has received death threats while serving on the board of Catholics for Free Choice) to the downright absurd. She recalls with delight the time she trumped an opponent in the picket lines by bringing up her 1960 Knights of Columbus Medal for superior knowledge of Christian doctrine -- an episode that crops up in the book in slightly altered form. "I put that stuff about the protesters in there for fun, really. Anything erotic brings all kinds of worms out of the woodwork, and I wanted to look at those worms in a way that put them in their place. Maybe they really are just creeps from your high school."

"For fun" is a phrase Gordon uses often in discussing the book. The subtitle, A Utopian Divertimento, signals straight off that this isn't quite like Gordon's previous fiction -- lyrical, often grave, focused on claustrophobic family entanglements and the special traps and consolations they hold for women. In Spending, the mordant wit and maverick feminist sensibility that have often flashed from beneath the surface of her work rise to the top, giving the book a lighter, faster, almost effervescent feeling, without undercutting the seriousness of the questions it raises about art, money, morality and, as Monica puts it, "this thing of being a man and a woman." Monica tells the story in a sharp, salty first-person voice, as though whispering in the reader's ear a running commentary on the improbable movie of her own life. "I took money from a man," Monica admits to herself. "But at least it had nothing to do with cooking."

A Literary Lark

Gordon lets her husband, Arthur Cash, an English professor at SUNY-New Paltz with whom she has two teenage children, serve the pre-interview tea. While just as much a longtime feminist stalwart as her latest protagonist, Gordon describes herself as "more of a good girl" than Monica, and far more "guilt-ridden." And she admits to worrying about how readers will react to the novel's window-steaming middle-aged sex. "I loved writing it. But I'm a little bit concerned that people will think, 'Why did she do this? This isn't who she is,' or that they'll think I did it just to be different, to be more popular. A lot of people would be glad if I wrote Final Payments, Part 13" -- an allusion to her first novel, published in 1978 to wide acclaim -- "but I've always been interested in doing new things. I'd never done comedy. I was kind of intrigued by the formal demands."

Spending began as something of a lark. In 1995, Gordon's longtime British publisher, Liz Calder of Bloomsbury, suggested she write a serious erotic novella like Mary Flanagan's Adéle or Madeleine Bourdouxhe's Marie, both published by Bloomsbury last year. "It was like a cartoon lightbulb went off over my head," Gordon recalls. "Immediately, I said I'd like to write about the male muse. It started as a novella and just got longer and longer. For a long time, I'd been obsessed with how many women die in fiction. As a really radical act, I wanted to do a book about a woman who has sex and nobody dies."

Not only does Monica not die, but, after a few twists and turns of the plot, she lives happily -- rich, famous, supremely sexually satisfied -- if not necessarily ever after. "And why not?" Gordon says. "It's not like I have them riding off into the sunset. But I did want things to turn out well for her. That's not something we generally see for anyone in fiction, and especially not for women. I speak to a lot of women who are very superstitious about having personal happiness and having happiness in their work. I don't think men are even afraid of asking for both. But for women, it's almost like one of Virginia Woolf's ghosts that has to be put down."

On the surface, Gordon herself seems to have had something of a charmed literary life-wide acclaim and financial success at age 29 with Final Payments, seven other well-received books, the teaching job at Barnard, 22 years with the same agent (Peter Matson at Sterling Lord). But she hasn't been without her own ghosts to lay to rest. Her last book, The Shadow Man (her last with Viking before her editor, Nan Graham, went to Scribner) was an unblinking meditation on the troubling double life of her adored father, David Gordon, who died when she was seven. In Gordon's memory, her father was the brilliant, passionate, larger-than life figure who set her on the path to becoming a writer -- teaching her to read at age three, making her memorize the Latin mass at five, inscribing translations from Virgil in the margins of books he bought for her to read when she was older. But in her near-forensic investigation, she forces herself to fully confront some of the other things he was: a Jewish convert who became an archconservative Catholic and outspoken anti-Semite; a published writer of devotional poetry who had spent his young adulthood not knocking around Harvard and Paris, as he claimed, but editing a girlie magazine called Hot Dog; an immigrant high-school dropout whose own Midwestern family seemed to have disappeared virtually without a trace.

It was a deliberately extreme book, written with a near-operatic blend of passion and horror that shades off into a kind of pitch-black humor in her concluding account of quite literally exhuming and reburying her father. It was also, Gordon emphasizes, a tremendous technical gamble. "Emotionally, it was very difficult. I didn't have the screens that fiction gives you to protect yourself, so I was very vulnerable to the material. And because I was dealing with so much factual material, it was a huge challenge to organize it in a way that was artful. So I really did take a challenge formally as well as personally, and it gave me a taste for that kind of risk."

Lessons from the Masters

While she views Spending as something of a stepping back from the intensity of her last book ("If there were a mathematical equation for it," she says, "Spending would be The Shadow Man minus X"), she still feels she's put herself on the line. "To write this I had to give up my sense of being the good girl, the kind of person where everyone says, 'Oh, she's the serious literary person, the real moral center.' And I realized I really was very afraid of not being taken seriously, which is always the risk of not being a good girl."For all it's fairy-tale trappings, Spending is a serious, richly nuanced portrait of the feminist artist at 50 -- classically minded on aesthetic questions but determined to give the old forms a subversive contemporary twist. While Gordon insists she has not created a self-portrait, Monica's political and artistic concerns -- along with her tastes in painting -- are clearly Gordon's own. "Feminism is very dear to my heart," she says, and the relationship of the female artist to the male masters, whatever the medium, is something she's been thinking about for a long time. "Most of the great public work has been done by men, and you can't pretend it hasn't been. But as a woman your experience is different. How do you say, 'I love these people, they feed me, and I'm not going to cut myself off from them just because what they say about women is sometimes for shit'? How do you take from them what you have in common -- love of form, beauty, artifice, truth -- without being oppressed by their distortions? In a way, that's what you do with parents. At a certain point as an adult you say, what did they give me? And you can't do this unless as a younger person you had some kind of rebellion."

For Gordon, who grew up just outside New York City in a predominantly Catholic working-class town, one form of rebellion against the conservatism of her background came during her student days at Barnard in the late 1960s. "It was wild," she recalls. "The Columbia riots were my freshman year, the Cambodia invasion happened my junior year, Kate Millet was in the English department. It was a time of great promise, but very crazy. I was very excited by it all -- we really thought we could change the world. I was a working-class person, so I couldn't take the risk of actually getting arrested -- I really came too close to not being able to go to college in the first place." She pauses. "Plus I didn't have the courage. But I was certainly very involved in the marches."

Gordon will return to that time with her next novel, about a mother who was a hippie activist in the 1960s and her relationship with her daughter. Like all her other books, this one is being written with the old-fashioned notebook and fountain pen to which Gordon admits being "fetishistically" attached. "To me, the true porn shops are stationary stores. I go in and my heart starts to race!"While Gordon has kept faith with the political idealism of her college years, she harbors no illusion that art itself can change the world. "Unfortunately, there is only one morality in art," she says, "and that is not to fulfill the form in a way that is unworthy of the form, not to write sloppily, not to give up until what you need to write is saturated with your attention and effort. And then you just have to say to yourself, 'I'm a person who's moved by the beautiful rather than the good.' I may not love that about myself, but that's the way I am."