by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt, Brace, 378 pp., $5.95
It had to happen. It was in the command of all the ironies that there would come a day when our First Lady of Letters would write a book and lo! the lovers would stand. Arthur Mizener would stand to be counted, and Granville Hicks, Clifton Fadiman, W. G. Rogers, and Gilbert Highet, Edmund Fuller, all those Virgilia Petersons, Dennis Powers’s and Glendy Culligans. The reviews came in on wings of gold, “Brilliant” “Sheer” “Superlative” “Highly” “Generous” “Wonderfully Worth” “Great Joy To.” Not since Elizabeth Janeway wrote The Walsh Girls has any lady-book been given such praise by people such as these. Yet it has happened to Mary, our saint, our umpire, our lit arbiter, our broadsword, our Barrymore (Ethel), our Dame (dowager), our mistress (Head), our Joan of Arc, the only Joan of Arc to travel up and down our raddled literary world, our poor damp kingdom, her sword breathing fire while she looked for a Dauphin to save us, looked these twenty years, and brought back nought. Even the patience of Joan cannot endure. She found a Dauphin at last in the collective masculinity which is to be scraped together out of eight Vassar girls, class of ‘33. “Miss McCarthy has come through brilliantly,” writes David Boroff. “It is sheer exhilaration to watch her nimble intelligence at work, great joy to read her rich and supple prose. The Group clearly is one of the best novels of the decade.” What has Mary done that now she is guilty by association with the Boroffs and the Fullers and the Hicks? Is this true guilt or innocence in disarray? Can she be conspiring with the epigones? Is the witch plotting how not to give the goose away? What a case!
Barrister William Barrett, late of Heidegger Row, finds for the defendant:
The novel opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral. The two scenes, particularly the first, are beautifully composed tableaux, magnificent photographs of an occasion with all the details meticulously assembled, including those that give the picture its haunting period quality. Between these two scenes, in which all of the group are assembled, the tangled skeins of eight different lives unwind and interweave. Yet the eight different stories have the unity of a novel, for they turn around the pivotal figure of the group, Kay Strong….Kay is the bellwether of the group in their struggle for emancipation. Though the girls are all solidly middle-class, and six of them from the Social Register, they insist on meeting life free from parental protection or guidance. Kay’s death at the end—whether by accident or suicide—is a symbol of a kind. It is now 1940, the time of the Battle of Britain, and she falls from the window of her room in the Vassar Club while doing some volunteer airplane spotting. “In a sense,” somebody remarks at her funeral, “Kay is the first war casualty.” This is Miss McCarthy’s neat way of ringing out the old years of the New Deal and ushering in the new period of the war.
Mr. Norman Podhoretz is a villainous, impressive, and magnetically disdainful prosecutor. What demolishment in his summation!
Any Vassar girl of the Class of ‘33 who could so violate her true nature as to have a wedding like that was bound to jump out of a window sooner or later. The leopard ought to know better than to think he can change his spots.
It is this aspect of the Thirties that Miss McCarthy finally hates the most: the atmosphere of the period demanded of all the leopards that they work as hard as they could at doing something about their spots. Wilfully blind to the spirit of moral ambition and the dream of self-transcendence that animated this demand, she can see nothing in it but foolishness and insincerity—despite the fact that she herself was produced by that spirit and was beautified once by the dream. The Muses have rewarded her for the trahison she is now committing by presenting her with a flatly written and incoherently structured book, a trivial lady writer’s novel that bears scarcely a trace of the wit, the sharpness and the vivacity which glowed so often in her earlier work. A well-deserved fiasco, if you ask me.
Well, what is one to do? It is a busy season and the aspect most annoying of this trial is the time it will take to render a fair verdict for the defendant. The case begs for a brief of ten or fifteen thousand words. Yet it is a matter of dispute whether it is worth anything like this at all. Still, it is annoying to pass judgment lightly, for the defendant has curious merits and odd charms, little glints of gold in a ton of clay.
It is as if one were panning a sample. The nuggets are few, but the ore washes oddly. Only a step away, a shovelful deeper, perhaps there is high rich count. The Group is thus a book which could be said to squat on the Grand Avenue of the Novel like a shabby little boutique, a place which offers treasure in the trash. One has even had to ignore rumors that the nice shabby saleslady—alias Joan of Arc—is a princess whose family lost its fortune in the revolution, one hears other reports that she is also a miser and the swag is buried in the cellar.
That is why a concentrated act of detection is necessary. For this little shop don’t belong on the Avenue, and it’s got to be improved or else ripped down. Yet the saleslady is a good worker considering she’s a princess; even a literary commissar might regret an act of inégalité here.
Which last remark must of course reveal the bias of the judge and the true nature of this court. Miss McCarthy has been summoned to a Tribunal, and will be offered revolutionary justice. All stand. The defendant’s Fellow-Worker’s Court will now find:
Ergo: The Group, as all good literary workers keeping up the work must know by now, is a collective novel about a near (or let us say quasi-) revolutionary period in American life, the nineteen-thirties; its heroines are eight nice girls, all or conceivably all of them Episcopalian at some time or another (one needs a revolutionary statistician to set these matters straight), all of them Upper-Middle Class and all of them civilized to that point of Christless High Church rectitude whose communal odor is a cross between Ma Griffe and contraceptive jelly. So it is no easy task Miss McCarthy has set herself. She has eight well-to-do young ladies moving through the thirties on the very outer fringe of events, and none of them has an inner passion large enough to take over the book and make it run away. Indeed the only character one would not likely flee at a cocktail party, a rich arrogant green-eyed beauty named Eastlake decides to separate from the book herself. She takes off for Europe after the first few chapters and does not get around to coming back until the book is almost done. She has in the interim become an open as opposed to—would it be a Closet King?—lesbian. Which encourages the single medical prescription one can elucidate from the book: It tacitly states that a mixture of passionless goodness and squashed mendacity, precisely the lot of average nice rich bright young Protestant girls, is so regurgitative a violation of their nature that cancer or psychosis are now house percentage against any decent woman. No wonder Miss Eastlake left—she would have been unconvincing if she had remained. Still, Lady McCarthy is an unhappy hostess. What if you were to give a party for Christine Keeler and invited all your friends. Then Christine didn’t show. What a party!
So, here, let’s refine Comrade Mary’s problem a little further. A collective novel in which the most interesting character is missing, a collective novel in which none of the characters have sufficient passion to be interesting in themselves, yet none have the power or dedication to wish to force events. Nor does any one of the characters move critically out of her class by marrying drastically up, or savagely down. Not one of the girls even exhibits an engaging bitchery. (The nearest to this existential condition, Norine Schmittlapp, is more pig than tootsie.) Correlatively, no one of the girls falls deeply and tragically in love. The formal heroine, Kay Strong Petersen, entered as evidence previously by Barrister Barrett, does indeed fall literally out of a twentystory window in the Vassar Club; clearly, she is a suicide-by-accident before the failure of her love, but she is somehow too horsey, and all-but-dyke, to buy a single revolutionary tear—one receives instead the impression that she might smell like a locker room of dedicated handball players—gloom, determination, and the void ooze from her persona. The nicest of the heroines by sentimental measure is Polly, but she and her husband are too nice; one cannot even cash an allusion to the Ladies Home Journal—some checks should not be spent. There is of course a second nice heroine named Dottie. She is clean, Boston clean, her conscience moves with the drilled but never unimpressive grace of a fine ballerina. Indeed she has the grace to come to orgasm on the night she gives her first flower to still another in the endless gallery of Mary McCarthy’s feverish, loud-talking, drunken, neurotic, crippled, and jargon-compensated louts. Did our First Lady of Letters never meet a gentleman on the flying trapeze? No, McCarthy’s lout smells like fertilizer and he ploughs Dottie under—there is a good novelistic harvest for the next twenty pages. We are given Dottie’s purchase of a diaphragm at her lover’s demand; her subsequent repudiation—he is not at home when she calls; her act of renunciation—she quits her purchase beneath a bench in Washington Square Park; and her moment of final suspense when chapters later she confesses to her mother (who has a first-rate sense of modest conscience) that she is still in love with the lout. Her mother’s conscience takes the inner journey from Boston to a village garret and she begs her daughter not to marry the new man she has taken in compensation (a nice rancher who is never to appear in evidence), but instead advises Dottie to go back to her lover of one night and find out what is finally in her love. It is the voice of a most refined moral instinct, and Dottie says no. Dottie ducks. She is our second-best nice heroine, but one crack on the mouth and she’s out.
Thus it goes. There’s Helena with the finest mind in the book, a quiet girl who rides her considerable culture like a consummater horseman. But she is a eunuch for others, void of relation. There’s Pokey Prothero, rich, society, dumb, sexy, potentially interesting, but never given attention; there’s Priss, a young New Dealer who has no breasts but breast-feeds her baby—one can hardly remember more about her. Finally there’s a real duncey broad who becomes a literary agent. One can’t even recall her name.
Now, this sparse gallery offers a flaccid spring-board from which to jump into a major novel of the thirties. But Mary McCarthy is too much of an old pro not to see the odds. Her characters will come from one class and make no heroic journeys to other classes, they will not look to participate in the center of the history which is being made, and they will be the victim of no outsize passion. Nor will they be made sufficiently eccentric to separate clearly from one another. They will be called Lakey and Kay, Pokey and Polly, Dottie, Helena, Norine, and Priss. (And Duncey.) Nor will there be an attempt to avoid the proportions which are consequent. She will take these women, nearly all finally dull, because they have neither the interest to break out of the cage of their character, nor even the necessity—the cage is not that cruel, the girls are merely premature suburbanites—and she will obey the logic of the intricately educated and dull, she will follow them through their furniture and their recipes, she will give us lists of categories that no sociologist would ever dare. This is the most dangerous hurdle of them all, this is the one any professional knows to avoid unless he is willing to dare a real fall. Because lists and categories in novels must be consummately perfect, each detail quivering with the illumination of a touch of true love, or a hint of the deep, or indeed you are dead. Lists and categories are always the predictable refuge of the passionless, the mediocre, the timid, and the bowel-bound who will not make another move until they have exhausted the last.
These are real odds, what! These pissout characters with their cultivated banalities, their lack of variety or ambition, perversion, simple greed or depth of feeling, their indifference to the bedrock of a collective novel—the large social events of the season or decade which gave impetus to conceiving the book in such a way. Yes, our Mary’s a sneak. Like any First Lady she disapproves of unseemly ambition, and yet she is trying a novel which is all but impossible to bring off in a big way. No ordinary ambition here. Megalomania indeed. Her little boutique on the Avenue is going to open in competition to Proust’s Tiffany.
Well, the Court would not certify her as mad. The odds are a hundred to one or a thousand to one against bringing off the book, but it is possible. At least it is existentially possible. For until some great new realist arises, some modern Zola, we will not know. The work of realism was done for the nineteenth century, but whether it can be done for the middle of the twentieth century we shall indeed not know unless the attempt is made. So may have reasoned McCarthy. If one takes a little still-water of society and captures it in its proportions, its style, its affairs, its moods, its very relation to reality (which is to say the mode by which it attempts to perceive reality), if one brings it to life in such a way as to transcend the journeyman novelist’s little spill of life (his versimilitude and occasional good moments), and instead creates a work which is true in its very relation to the perception of reality (one repeats the notion) then a magic is worked. The little book of realistic details has of a sudden its resonance, it has come to life, it is a Being, a psychological reality which lives afterward in our brain, touches our motives, affects the history we in turn will make. Any book can do this if it is pure enough and true enough to create a turn of being in the mind of the reader. So goes the existential premise.
Say, then, did Lady M. bring it off? And the answer is that she came just far enough to irritate the life out of us, because it was just far enough to reinvigorate the premise—it is the grand premise of the novel—but she did not climb high enough nor cleanly enough in the deep councils of her sleep to get up over the first ridge and start a base camp from which one could decide if the mountain is to be negotiated from this direction. She got just so far symbolically as the episode in one of her scenes where the butler comes in to whisper to his mistress that the child of the visiting lady has had an unfortunate accident in his pants. Yes, Mary deposited a load on the premise, and it has to be washed all over again, this little long-lived existential premise.
All right, but why did she fail? Where did she fink the job? And this is how ten thousand more words are demanded and one thousand must suffice. But first let credit be given to her formal virtues. Because her sense of detail, while suffering from a fatal if tiny taint of the monotonous and overindulgent, is still her single most impressive achievement. Her book fails as a novel by being good but not nearly good enough, it fails for a variety of temperamental and characterological reasons soon to be listed, but it is enormously successful as sociology. It will continue to exist as a classic in sociology long after it is dim and dull as a novel, it will survive in Soc Sci I at every university and junior college: the specific details are to be mined by the next twenty-five classes of PhD.
And at its best, The Group is far better than that. It is skillful, intricately knitted as a novel, its characters while not always distinguishable from one another are true in their reactions, or at least are true in the severe field of limitation she puts on their comings and goings, their paltry passions, their lack of grasp, their lack of a desire to grasp. It is all true what she does, it is just not true enough. Her eye sees with a knife’s edge, but her hand, overwary of drama and surprise, blunts the stroke. The book like a person in depression is dull in its basic condition—it comes to life only by a stirring, a moment of inspiration, then it lapses into dullness again. And details sweep in and sweep away the possibilities for each little scene to become sufficiently alive to wake up the others. She is to be given respect for conceiving a novel such as this and laying out the ground plan, she is an engineer manqué in literature, but her failure diverts judgment away from her technique and over to her character. She is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel; not yet; she has failed, she has failed from the center out, she failed out of vanity, the accumulated vanity of being over-praised through the years for too little and so being pleased with herself for too little; she failed out of profound timidity—like any good Catholic-born she is afraid to unloose the demons; she failed out of snobbery—if compassion for her characters is beginning to stir at last in this book, she can still not approve of anyone who is incapable of performing the small act exquisitely well; she failed by an act of the imagination; she is, when all is said, a bit of a duncey broad herself, there is something cockeyed in her vision and self-satisfied in her demands and this contributes to the failure of her style. The long unbroken paragraphs settle in like bricks. They are all too equal to one another—it is the wrong book in which to lose one’s place; there is even mild physical boredom in the act of reading as if one were watching a wall being stacked up rather than seeing the metamorphosis of a creature.
Finally she suffers from a lack of reach. She chooses to be not close enough to the horror in the closet. Her nice girls are refugees from the schisms, the wrinklings, and the crater mold of the Upper Middle Class, that radiation belt of well-to-do Protestants full of Church, rectitude, exclusion, guilt, and insanity. Is there a nice rich Episcopalian family or fine Presbyterian clan in our American world which does not have its important secret member raving mad? Nice girls live on the thin juiceless crust of the horror beneath, the screaming incest, the buried diabolisms of the grand and the would-be-grand. One does not have to have that in one’s novel, but one has to have a sense of that madness if the book is to be resonant. Yet Mary is too weak to push through the crust and so cannot achieve a view of the world which has root.
Ultimately novelists must believe that the people who run the world are essentially good, are an expression of God’s work (a Conservative view), or in antithesis must decide that the Devil is at the shoulder of every ruler (which is where the Bolsheviks and the Black Muslims come together). One can presumably write a great novel from either point of view or some conciliation of the two (Proust, Henry James, James Joyce, André Malraux come to mind) but one cannot make a Being of a realistic novel if it has no root. Then there are merely sniffings, snippings and clippings, codicils of taste, and quick exits for bad taste. Mary’s vice is her terror of being ridiculous, and so she is in danger of ending up absurd, an old-maid collector of Manx cats, no tails and six toes, an anomaly of God. It even invades her vision. One called her cockeyed for a cause. There is an atrocious anachronism in the book. Her characters while engaged in the activities of the thirties have a consciousness whose style derives directly from the fifties. One has to keep reminding oneself that these events did not take place ten years ago, but thirty years ago, and this is unforgivable. It is like wrapping a tuning fork in velvet. Her little book so full of promise and quiver ends up soggy and damp. What rings true does not please the ear, what pleases is not quite true. So the book seems stuffed with cotton and catalogues as Podhoretz was quick to accuse.
Yet when all is said, The Group has one fresh virtue. It has something new in it; it has a conception of the novel which is Mary’s own, a tool by which to cut an ascent into some of the sheer ice faces of the social world. And that is her method. Her Method. For she has divined the first law of our social world, which is that we learn by what we can glean from a hundred alienations of context, from a thousand suffocations of our emotions. So we are deep in an affair, close to growing nearer or being spoiled for love another year, and then our context is ripped. A commercial is on the air. A recipe is to be discussed at dinner. Ten years later we hear of the beloved at a cocktail party. Was it this girl or that? The names have slid around into one another or have divided. Memory is in mitosis. Mary may be the first American to try this in a thoroughgoing way. Everything in the profound materiality of women is given its full stop until the Eggs Benedict and the dress with the white fichu, the pessary and the whatnot, sit on the line of the narrative like commas and periods, semi-colons, italics, and accents. The real interplay of the novel exists between the characters and the objects which surround them until the faces are swimming in a cold lava of anality, which becomes the truest part of her group, her glop, her impacted mass.
If, at the highest level, she has failed and even failed miserably to do more than write the best novel the editors of the women’s magazines ever conceived in their secret ambitions, it is nonetheless possible now to conceive that McCarthy may finally get tough enough to go with the boys. She has been a very bad girl these years, mean and silly, postured and over-petted, petty in the extreme, but now there’s a hint she may be capable some day of taking a real step, a suggestion that the Saints will preserve our Mary-Joan and bless her with a book which can comprehend a man. Does anyone know where society will end if the heroine of The Company She Keeps should encounter Julien Sorel?
But that drama of conjecture is moot. For the present, a decision: Mary McCarthy is judged Guilty of Meretriciousness and equally: Guilty of conspiring not to give the goose away, which means thus, Guilty of refusing to reveal that the genteel lords and ladies who manage America are the psychic descendants of Conrad’s Kurtz. “Ah, the horror, the horror,” and she will not take a burning look.