Miss MacIntosh, My Darling
If I were Charles Scribner’s Sons I think that I would be feeling pretty nervous about publishing a first novel that took seventeen years to write, came to 3449 pages of typescript, and, in book form, weighs three-and-a-quarter pounds. Hence, doubtless, the unusual volume of publicity material that accompanied the review copy of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, including a photograph of Miss Young delivering that mighty pile of typescript, and two pages of advance comments on the novel, all of them, in principle, favorable, ranging from the full-throated ecstatic to the mildly approbatory. The idea is, I suppose, to present this novel as an immediate “classic,” with the underlying implication: “This has got to be a work of great literary genius (or else why have we sunk so much capital into it?).” Such faith in a really rather outlandish product is admirable and even touching; but I think they are right to feel nervous.
We are told in the blurb that Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is “poetic,” a sinister word in such a context, since it implies that we are being shunted off the regular streets of novelistic traffic into a special region where verbal rhapsodizing and a lack of vertebrate structure replace the customary qualities of fiction. Nor does it have much to do with poetry in the fullest sense; not, at least, as the modern reader understands poetry: the description “poetic,” I would suggest, should be reserved for those novels that possess, in addition to their other qualities, an unusual accuracy and sensitivity of language, not necessarily in a lyrical way, which brings the style into play in the content of the novel: Ulysses is the supreme example.
Miss Young, however, is “poetic” in a bad sense; in love with words, certainly, but given to endless verbal doodling, the infinitely repetitious elaboration of a single idea over dozens of pages at a time. The prodigious length of her book is not the result of an excess of content, the proliferation of characters and events of the usual jumbo-sized fictional saga: quite simply, it is because her principle of composition is never to use one word if fifteen thousand will do instead. Still, one must be as fair as possible. There can be no doubt that Miss Young does have genuine gifts for the creation of fiction and, in particular, for the writing of evocative imagistic prose. There are some interesting people concealed in the dark resounding caverns of her book, or rather floating about in the timeless void of the memories of Vera Cartwheel, the narrator of the story, whom we meet in the first chapter traveling on a bus one dark night, somewhere in the Middle West, searching for her long lost nursemaid, Miss MacIntosh. There is Vera’s mother, Catherine Cartwheel, known as the “opium lady,” who spends her days, bedridden and subject to hallucinations, in a great lonely house on the New England coast; Catherine is visited from time to time by her lawyer …