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, Joachim Spitzer, a shy man who wanted to be a composer of music, and who is obsessed by memories of his sportsman brother, Peron, who has committed suicide. A very lengthy section of the book describes the life and death of Cousin Hannah, a formidable Bostonian lady who was a pioneer suffragette and famous explorer. Another long section near the end of the book is about the tribulations of a girl called Esther Longtree, who constantly manifests the symptoms of pregnancy without being pregnant. Above all, there is Miss MacIntosh, bald, austere, eccentric, devoted, whom Miss Young wants to place in the My Most Unforgettable Character class. She looms impressively through parts of the story but is rendered with such obsessive over-elaboration that the cumulative effect reminded me of Dylan Thomas’s phrase: “this for her is a monstrous image blindly/magnified out of praise.”
Having revealed these characters, Miss Young does virtually nothing with them; they merely exist, separately embalmed in the author’s memories, without dramatic contact. In all this novel’s many hundreds of pages there is hardly any dialogue. The only significant exception to this occurs at about page 900, where we are told of Miss MacIntosh’s abortive love affair, in the remote past, with Mr. Bonebreaker, a Chicago evangelist, which is vigorously and even entertainingly rendered. Some ruthless editorial surgery at this point might have produced a fragment of good fiction. But it is, presumably, pointless to attack Miss Young for not providing something she was not interested in providing. The novel offers a “poetic” rather than a dramatic interest, in intention at least, and we must not complain if the handful of characters disappear for hundreds of pages at a time in a dense verbal goulash.
So the novel stands or falls by its language alone. For short stretches Miss Young’s prose, as I have indicated, does have a certain lyrical and evocative power. But the stretches are rarely short, and the kind of prose-poetry which works in brief paragraphs—as for instance in Rimbaud’s Illuminations—becomes intolerable when protracted over an infinity of pages. Nor, for that matter, are Miss Young’s images particularly arresting; she relies very heavily on those traditional properties of the brooding northern imagination which occur so often in literary works with a Gothic tinge: ghosts, angels, snow, fog, darkness, stars, mirrors, ice, rain, moons, seagulls, clouds, the sea. Rimbaud and Dylan Thomas got a good deal of mileage out of them and although they can be described as some of the perdurable archetypes of the human imagination, Miss Young makes very conventional use of them. Here is a specimen of her writing:
Ah, all bee-hive cities were flooded as were the sunken islands of this earth and coffins of flame enclosing secret stars, bells of silver, bells of gold in seas of ringing bells, bells of the sea ringing earth, bells ringing the bell-ringers in lonely towers, crowns of ivory under the waves, crowns of silver where the waves leaped and roared like lions with golden wreathed mouths, crowns of gold, many-eyed wings of snow-white peacocks clashing their windy tails with atonal music in gardens of snow, gardens under the earth, comets crumbling into fireflies in drowned gardens and lights on sunken porches and swollen insect lights in sunken roads, honeycomb lights of skyscrapers bisected by drifting clouds and snow-crowned, many-headed mountain tops like sleeping kings and queens and drifting white umbrellas and black umbrellas bellowing like church bells and the life-sized chessmen who had walked on squares of black and gold as if this life had been designed by reason and not by love, dead love…
And so on, for many more lines, until the sentence finally slithers to a reluctant conclusion. As Dr. Johnson remarked of Ossian, “A man might write such stuff for ever, if he would but abandon his mind to it.”
The other two novels, both exceptionally well written, are about sex, that great literary discovery of the 1960s: the treatment in one is solemn, in the other, jocular-hysterical. Totempole might more explicitly have been called The Making of a Homosexual; a real totempole plays a certain part in the hero’s young life, when he spends his summers at a boys’ camp in Maine; but most of the time it is a symbol of the central preoccupations of the novel, which are ponderously genital, not to say phallic.
Values have so contracted in the past fifty years or so that public values have been superseded by those based on personal relations, which in turn are seen as fundamentally sexual, while, in Mr. Friedman’s book, sexual values are finally judged according to genital sensation. (One can compare the “good” and “bad” orgasms that Norman Mailer makes so much of.) Freud, and the more recent advocates of “polymorphous perversity” (if I have properly understood it), provide the axioms of Mr. Friedman’s view of life, and he distributes the significant incidents of his novel with excessive calculation. The book’s hero, Stephen Wolfe, is fascinated in infancy by his father’s genitals; later he discovers in his father’s desk an obscene figure which can produce an erection when suitably manipulated. In his early adolescence he discovers how to masturbate by watching a monkey at the zoo performing with a three-foot long penis. At college he tries to have an affair with a girl he likes, but it is a messy failure; then he is introduced to the real thing by his roommate. Finally, Stephen’s sexual odyssey is completed when he is serving as a soldier in the Korean war, and falls in love with a North Korean doctor, who is one of the prisoners in the camp he is guarding. The Korean initiates Stephen into the painful pleasures of buggery, which is described in relentless detail. A book, I suppose, for all card-carrying sexual revolutionaries, but not for me: to concentrate so rigidly and programmatically on one aspect only of human behavior provides the same distorting abstraction as did the exclusively political and economic concerns of the marxisant social realist fiction of a generation ago. But, as I say, Mr. Friedman can write: the quarrels between Stephen’s parents, his increasing awareness of nature in boyhood, and the descriptions of the Korean PW camp, are all very well done.
The Nightclerk consists of the ruminations and phantasmagoric memories of one J. Spenser Blight, the obese nightclerk of a seedy San Francisco hotel, who occupies the long night hours with reading pornographic novels and cutting photographs of girls out of magazines. This novel falls into the same category of spoof pornography as Candy, and is quite funny in places: Mr. Schneck pursues Blight’s complex erotic fantasies with considerable vigor and wit. But the total effect is sad and rather sick; the good-hearted boisterous joking about sex—a subject which exhibits many absurdities—of such writers as Chaucer and Rabelais seems inaccessible to the modern consciousness. The Nightclerk was, incidentally, awarded a $10,000 Formentor prize; Mr. Schneck is certainly promising, but this degree of recognition for such a slight work strikes me as rather premature.