A Survey of Recent Fiction
by Mary Mccarthy.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 378 pp. $5.95.
The chief opinion about Mary McCarthy is that she is brilliant. Sometimes her brilliance is qualified—“witty,” or “wicked,” or “limpid,” as on the dust jacket of The Group, her latest novel—but that is as far as judgment seems to go. It is as if everyone were agreed that brilliance is a species of writing—some writers are novelists, some are poets, some are critics, and Mary McCarthy is brilliant. But what is she brilliant about? Or is her brilliance a brilliance of style? One doesn’t quite know. No one says. Her books have been curiously obscured within the general dazzle of her reputation. Even the severe criticism that has been made of The Group is evidence of the dazzle, for the main point of the critics is that the book is an aberrant departure from Mary McCarthy’s previous work. However, the style and theme of The Group make it a highly characteristic book, almost the quintessence of Mary McCarthyism.
Mary McCarthy’s style has always been remarkably factual and dispassionate. In The Group these qualities are even more remarkably in evidence: the novel is crammed with odd facts, bulging with recipes and household hints, and swollen with social and sexual details. Assuming one didn’t already know, one learns by reading The Group that Norman Thomas raises cocker spaniels, Katherine Hepburn was Bryn Mawr ’29, and iceberg lettuce first appeared on the New York market in the early 30’s. One learns how to make bowle, and where, in NYC, to purchase the ingredients. One learns how to undergo defloration, purchase and insert a diaphragm, and nurse a baby. All this information has a detached, and, precisely, informative ring to it:
“He won’t nurse,” said Priss. The three women looked at each other and sighed jointly. “Let’s see if you have any milk left,” said the older nurse finally, in a practical tone. She moved the baby’s head slightly to one side and squeezed Priss’s breast; a drop of watery liquid appeared. “You can try it,” she conceded. “But he’ll have to work for his supper. The harder he works, of course, the more milk you produce. The breast should be well drained . . .”
In “Fact and Fiction,” one of her recent essays, Miss McCarthy points out that there are large chunks of informative matter in most great novels; for example, one can learn how to reap a field and make strawberry jam from reading Anna Karenina. Perhaps one can. But in Anna Karenina, when Levin reaps wheat with his peasants, what is uppermost is the moral meaning of the action. The scene is passionate, and, although there are some technical details about reaping, I very much doubt that Tolstoy included them for their informative value, since the point of the scene is that one learns to farm by getting out with the peasants and reaping rather than sitting in the house reading books. In contrast, Miss McCarthy’s technical and informative matter exists more or less for its own sake. She gathers her facts from domestic life, but the facts often become denatured in the process, so that when she describes such matters as nursing or love scenes—sexual behavior is perhaps the better term—she is very clear and specific, but discouraging.
There must be few—I cannot think of any—current writers in English who sound like Mary McCarthy. She seems to belong to an earlier generation of French and French-influenced writers such as Lytton Strachey who blend minute and intimate psychological detail with the chaste tone of classic objectivity. André Gide describing his sexual aberrations sounds pure, factual, and high-minded much as Mary McCarthy sounds describing the sensations of her heroines caught in a horrible copulation. Along with being unusually detailed, her treatment of character and situation is unusually determined. Another writer might be content to say that a character didn’t feel up to fixing Welsh rabbit, but Mary McCarthy specifies a whole train of cause and effect:
She opened a can of beans and dumped them into a baking dish; on top she put strips of bacon. On the way home on the El she had decided to make Welsh rabbit with beer, to surprise Harald, but now she was afraid to in case it should curdle and give Harald a chance to lecture her. She pulled apart a head of lettuce and started her salad dressing. All at once, thinking of the Welsh rabbit that they were not going to have tonight just because Harald had lost his job, she gave a loud sob.
As is evident here, Miss McCarthy is very good at showing how the life and feelings of women are mixed up in things, particularly those things—clothes, furniture, food, etc.—which make up the domestic routine. Yet, the proliferation of such detail has the effect of robbing her characters of freedom, as though they were all prisoners in a Cartesian universe, enmeshed in those great chains of causation that lead from the First Cause to each tiny effect.
This is the style, then, of a writer on whom nothing is lost and for whom everything figures. Miss McCarthy does not handle words with unusual distinction—in that sense she is not a stylist at all—yet her prose is unmistakable. At its most characteristic her writing has a finely articulated grayness that comes from a series of wonderfully linked, perfectly comprehended minutiae. This is why it seems so odd to call her a brilliant writer. She has wit and intellectual acuity to spare, but little sense of proportion, no economy, and above all no dazzle.
With this style Mary McCarthy has for some years been writing a drama of the sexes. Her central figure is always feminine—Margaret Sargent in The Company She Keeps, Martha Sinnot in A Charmed Life. In The Oasis and The Groves of Academe, where there is no central woman, the feminine role is played by the community itself—the mountain-top Utopia and the liberal girls’ school, respectively. These are communities with ideals to be flirted with and betrayed just as one flirts with and betrays a woman. Miss McCarthy’s heroines and feminized communities are noble, high-minded, and a trifle foolish. They attempt to lead ordered, rational lives, but are surrounded, threatened, and finally overwhelmed by the disordering, irrational, vulgar forces of the world.
These forces are, by and large, masculine—personified by the men who keep company with Margaret Sargent, by the ex-husband and the drunken Cape Cod village that kill Martha Sinnot, by the blueberry pickers who invade Utopia and the male intellectuals who bore from within, and by Professor Mulcahy who sabotages and almost wrecks the girls’ school.
This line-up of forces strongly suggests an old-fashioned feminist viewpoint. But Miss McCarthy avoids the appearance of taking a feminist parti-pris by rigorously exposing the vanity, folly, and weakness of her heroines. Margaret Sargent, for example, is revealed to have inner disorders which make her masochistically cooperate with the men who seek to use and dominate her. Nevertheless, though her women and communities are exposed, we are meant to be on their side finally and against the brutal and triumphant forces represented by men. And in much of Miss McCarthy’s later fiction there is an increasing sense of baffled helplessness, an undercurrent of terror at the powerlessness of women to save themselves, or even to help themselves. The sardonic amusement with which she watched Margaret Sargent make a mess out of her life has gradually disappeared to be replaced by the queer, hard, semi-tragic feeling that one finds at the end of A Charmed Life and throughout The Group.
The Group is an episodic novel with a collective heroine, a number of Vassar girls who roomed together at college. The book begins with a wedding in June 1933, and ends with a funeral in July 1940; in between we learn what happens to those members of the Group who settle in New York City. The other girls more or less drop out of the story, although they have a meaningful role in the book: there is a collective (Group) point of view, and to a certain extent the individual experiences of each member add up to the collective experience of all. Out of their separate adventures a single image gradually takes shape: that of vital, attractive, promising young women thrown carelessly into a world that has no way of using their best qualities.
Like all Miss McCarthy’s heroines, the Group wants to live a free, sensible, civilized life, and, like all her heroines, the Group fails. This failure is primarily due to men; the Group finds itself (herself?) deflowered, messed up, abandoned, deceived, betrayed, nearly raped, deserted, and divorced by men. Only two members of the Group live anything like the life they intended to live and these two are Helena, the virgin, and Elinor, the elegant and beautiful lesbian. In a final scene of puzzling and rather suppressed emotion, Elinor triumphs over the ex-husband of Kay Strong, the girl who is being buried in a fine, tasteful funeral planned by the Group. The bitter point seems to be that although men mess up the lives of women, the only alternatives to them are sterility and death, lesbianism and funerals.
With so many women to work with and understand, Miss McCarthy skimps what has always been the weakest element in her fiction, men. By now she seems to take for granted that even the sloppy and deplorable Norine Schmittlapp, a Vassar girl, though not a member of the Group, is more attractive and interesting than either of the husbands she acquires. Moreover, since there is no detailed or persuasive observation of men, the catastrophes and confusions, and even the loves of the Group are mysteriously unexplained. We know all about why Kay cries as she fixes baked beans, but we are less sure why Harald lost his job and what Kay saw in him in the first place. In The Group the central feminine role has swelled and crowded out the masculine role which now exists, only as a vague but inexorable presence that brings sorrow and disorder into women’s lives. A better title for this undramatic, rather shapeless, and strangely obsessed novel might be “Women Without Men.”
Nevertheless, The Group is undoubtedly interesting in spots and it seems to be immensely popular. Clearly, many people today enjoy receiving clever information about diaphragms and sex techniques and theories of baby care. There is also a more subtle appeal, at least for that segment of Miss McCarthy’s audience which is sophisticated and sensitive like the characters in her novels. In such an audience one finds a strong undercurrent of identification with the besieged, cultivated women of Mary McCarthy’s world, whose talents are unsuitably employed. The academic community, for example, is probably rich in Mary McCarthy fans these days; it being a community whose wit, like hers, derives from feeling both superior to and threatened by the rough forces of the great world.