Lust, religious zeal, and heartache come together in this novel about two infatuations, one between a man and his young lover in the late 20th century and another between a 15th-century maiden and Jesus Christ.
Glück’s story about Margery takes her visions and unfolds them, with an immediacy and an erotic power and scale reminiscent of Giorgio Vasari’s stunning mural on the inside of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. It is like falling upward into a long dream about sex and Jesus, in Glück’s hands a spectacle, visceral and sublime ... The two narratives become one, feed each other, much in the way lovers feel they are made possible by the presence of a beloved ... By the end, Margery Kempe felt to me like a mingling of Vita Sackville-West’s biography of Joan of Arc and the sort of pulp gay erotic fiction I found in porn stores in the 1980s—the illustrated covers feathery from years of being held, read, and put down—and yet also somehow firmly within the tradition of any mural on any church or cathedral in Florence. If it’s sacrilege to imagine Jesus as an object of desire, as the first Margery Kempe did, then Glück’s novel has a great deal of company, in both the past and the present.
...Kempe is Glück’s most beautiful work of fiction. Its reissue includes a dry-as-onionskin introduction by éminence grise Colm Tóibín and an inexplicable cover illustration of a Greek winged angel—all of the superficial signs that the heterosexual fiction establishment has decided to acknowledge a literary fag. The novel is followed by a short essay by Glück ... Packaging a reissue like this may be routine, but still it makes me wonder: Why hang Glück’s fiction between two explanations, rather than let his prose speak for itself, with all of the wildness and ambiguity it expressed in 1994? ... The novel stands alone in Glück’s oeuvre, not for its wildness—his lucid, precise descriptions of sex distinguish each of his four volumes of fiction—but for its ambiguity ... The New Narrative embraced the literature of transgression from its beginning, yet Kempe’s shock value was also a response to the squeamish landscape of the late 1980s and 1990s ... Even the tendency of the New Narrative writers to name-drop, to network within the texts themselves, seems a devastatingly relatable acknowledgement of the draconian forces mounting just outside the walls of their mutually supportive literary community. By the time Margery Kempe came into the world, these forces had converged; like so many gay people who came out just before or during the AIDS crisis, the New Narrative discovered itself simultaneously with its own death. Yet its ideas are mutable, which makes them immortal.
Margery Kempe lives up to neither its potential nor its premise ... In sections devoted to the author's affair with 'L.,' the prose is lyrical and elegant, heavy with Gluck's growing dependency and despondency ... Conversely, those with Kempe are filled with graphic, disparaging remarks about women (including descriptions of the genitalia of every female character, no matter how minor). It's not the idea of Jesus having a sex life that is so repellent but the strident explicitness-a marked contrast from Gluck and L.'s lovemaking, which comes as a natural part of their story and depicts the author's all-consuming passion. Lastly, Gluck's Margery is so ugly and coarse she doesn't come across as a woman at all-just a man's skewed rendering of one. Whatever Gluck's intention, he has failed.