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Last year, the literary world—or at least its blogosphere division—enjoyed a good argument about whether novels should be built around likable characters. The discussion began when an interviewer asked novelist Claire Messud whether the main character of her new novel, The Woman Upstairs, was someone she would want to be friends with. Messud responded indignantly, noting how few of the great fictional protagonists were tamely likable. Many other writers took up her cause, invoking gender—why is it that female characters, and their female creators, are under such pressure to be likable?—and genre—does a character designed for easy identification signal that we are reading an unliterary book?

Now that I’ve read Florence Gordon, the deliciously sharp and deeply sympathetic new novel by Brian Morton, I like to imagine that Morton was at his desk following all these debates with a smile. For here is a book devoted to a character—Florence Gordon, after whom the book is titled in the grand old nineteenth-century style—who is unlikable as a point of pride, as a matter of self-definition. Indeed, the very first page of the novel is a kind of joking warning, as Morton describes Florence’s plans to write her memoirs: Being old, an intellectual, and a feminist, she muses, she has three strikes against her. “If she ever managed to finish this book, reviewers would inevitably dismiss it as ‘strident’ and ‘shrill,’ ” she thinks. “If you’re an old feminist, anything you say, by definition, is strident and shrill.”

You can easily picture Florence reading the Messud interview and nodding vigorously. That is because Morton situates his novel very much in our own world—or at least, the New York literary-political-intellectual province of our world. The characters in this novel read The New Inquiry and n+1; the older ones glory in having once written for The New Leader; and a major plot point involves a (fictional) review by Martha Nussbaum, the (real) University of Chicago philosopher, in the New York Times Book Review. (This is also, of course, a comprehensively Jewish milieu, and all the characters in Florence Gordon are Jewish, though that fact has little to do with their daily lives and consciousness.)

Morton, who is one of the most unostentatiously intelligent novelists at work today, has always been interested in intellectual careers and writers’ lives. His best-known novel, Starting Out in the Evening, centers on an aging minor novelist who is reinvigorated by the attention, scholarly and personal, of a young student. Florence Gordon, too, is a writer, and as the book begins, she too seems to be past her prime, a relic of her 1970s, second-wave feminist moment. Though she was an influence on other, better-known writers—“Vivian Gornick, Ellen Willis, Katha Pollitt”—and though “her voice on the page was … by turns eloquent and chatty, confident and self-questioning … the voice of a real person,” she has never enjoyed real fame. When her longtime editor summons her to lunch, Florence is sure that it is to say she is being dropped from the publisher’s list, since none of her books have made money.

If Florence has had a minor career, however, she has a major personality. The first scene in the book shows her being forced away from her work as a ruse to get her to a surprise birthday party. As soon as she realizes what has happened, Florence briskly thanks everyone for coming, turns around, and goes back home to work. Morton has designed the scene to be equal parts appalling—who walks out on their own birthday party?—and awe-inspiring, like Florence herself. The essence of her character is that she knows what she wants and will always do it, no matter the hurt feelings she leaves in her wake. This is the kind of selfish concentration that is practically a prerequisite for writers. If it grates coming from Florence, Morton challenges us to wonder, isn’t that partly because she is defying our sexist expectations of womanly deference and selflessness?

As Morton widens the novel’s circle from Florence herself to include her friends and relatives, it makes sense that she would cling closely to the former and keep a wary distance from the latter. After all, friends are people you choose, a reflection of yourself, while family is what you are given. Florence’s friends, a circle of women in their seventies who have been part of the same study group for decades, speak about her with awe and gratitude, saying that her example changed their lives. One bittersweet, acutely imagined scene involves Florence paying a call on a feminist heroine of still an older generation, Yetta, who is incontinent but refuses to wear diapers. This is the last act of defiance in a life full of them: “Yetta’s bullshit detector was intact; her sense of humor was intact; her pride was intact. But gone was the faculty that makes you want to take care of yourself, and gone was the faculty that enables you to distinguish between what is real and what is not.”

But while Florence willingly tries to help Yetta with this distasteful problem, she has next to no interest in seeing her relatives, who are visiting New York for the summer from Seattle. Her son Daniel, a stolid, low-key presence, grew up in an intellectual household but rebelled against it by becoming a cop, something Florence has never fully accepted. Daniel’s wife, Janine, idol-worships Florence but is consistently rebuffed by her: “The strain of other people’s need. She could feel it radiating off her daughter-in-law, and she didn’t understand why: What do I have to do with her? Didn’t she have Daniel; didn’t she have her own parents; didn’t she have her kids? What does she need me for?” Florence wonders. The idea of needing another person simply isn’t in her emotional vocabulary.

And then there is Emily, Florence’s granddaughter, who has dropped out of college and come to New York with no real plans in mind. As Florence Gordon develops, it becomes clear that the heart of the novel is the relationship between Florence and Emily, which is not just a personal one, but a kind of test-case for the possibility of connection between Florence’s kind of feminism and Emily’s generation of women. If Florence herself is the novel’s dominant presence, Emily is its most complex and sympathetic creation—a young woman who is earnestly trying to forge her soul in all the old-fashioned ways, by reading, by thinking, by falling in love. She is just the kind of heiress that someone like Florence should want.

Yet Florence automatically assumes, with the arrogance of the older generation, that someone of Emily’s age group—that is, someone who is always texting, always online—can’t possibly be as serious as people used to be in the pre-digital age. One of Morton’s most powerful scenes involves Emily facing a relationship crisis—with her unbalanced boyfriend Justin—and drawing on Florence’s own strength as a source of inspiration: “She told herself to borrow her grandmother’s decisiveness, and bluntness, and coldness. She told herself that for the next few minutes, she should pretend to be her grandmother.” Yet of course the discussion with Justin is taking place on a smartphone, and the mere sight of such a device leads the puritanical Florence to dismiss Emily:

If Emily had been reading a book, or a letter, and Florence had seen her facial expression change like that, the sight would have been intriguing—you’d want to know what could have affected her so strongly. But her phone? She’s probably gotten news about a party, and then realized she wouldn’t be able to go. … At another time, Florence would have found this a fit occasion to lecture Emily about the importance of resisting the brain-corroding allure of the new technologies.

It’s a terrible misunderstanding, the kind of failure of communication that the novel has traditionally thrived on exploring. Indeed, another way of figuring the relationship between Florence and Emily is as the conflict between two styles of writing and reading. Florence is the intellectual, for whom literature is an arena of combat, and Emily is the novel-reader, for whom literature is a means of growth. Because Florence Gordon is a novel, it ultimately must come down on Emily’s side. Yet Morton never issues a summary judgment against his title character; to the last page, she retains the dignity of her independence and bears the costs of that dignity with aplomb. Morton proves that in the hands of a truly gifted novelist, as in real life, a person’s likability matters less than her sheer power of being.

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