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Miss McCarthy's Era

The Group

by Mary McCarthy

(Harcourt, Brace & World; $5.95)

Mary McCarthy is both representative and sui generis. An intellectual child of the thirties, she has long been concerned with matters that concern many of us; and her total range of interests, has been wider than any other American woman writer's of her time.

She has now published a new novel about women. The Group, dealing not merely with her contemporaries but with her classmates, eight members of Vassar '33. They are fictional women, of course, but an author does not write of fellow-alumnae in order to disregard what she knows of them. (As for a portrait of herself, anyone who wants to play locksmith to a roman a clef will have to assemble different McCarthy facts from different characters: the Western girl who comes East, and then marries into the theater, the literary beginner scurrying for reviews.) The book begins with the marriage of one girl a week after Commencement and ends with the death of the same girl in 1940. There are brief excursions to Boston and Cleveland, but the locus and focus are New York. There is no attempt to give all the lives of all eight of the group. Some characters are dropped early and re-appear only at the end, some come to prominence only toward the end.

They are a useful assortment: one who works in Macy's to support a playwright husband; a hospital technician; a prissy New Dealer; a hopeful litterateuse; a Bostonian who talks over Everything frankly with Mother; a social worker's sexy wife; an aesthete who becomes an international Lesbian; a hearty, animal-loving rich girl. There are attendant and less attendant husbands and lovers, some of whom interchange roles. Two mothers figure prominently, and one father.

The material of the book is the very air breathed in New York in the thirties: the New Deal, Communism (Stalinist and Trotskyite), psychoanalysis, the labor movement, the Spanish Civil War, the menace of Hitler, the Depression, refugees, the changing of social hues (the increasing ridicule of formerly venerable middle-class virtues, the decline of the hastily elevated American aristocracy, the rise of the name-changed Jew). It seems a perfect mating of author and subject, the culmination of a career. As Pasternak to Dr.Zhivago, as Waugh to his Catholic officer-gentleman trilogy, so Miss McCarthy seems to a novel of girl graduates in the New York Thirties--a juncture all the more welcome because there is a gap in our literature to be filled. Many, many novels deal with the period and place, but the monument for those who lived through the period and the tap-root for those who come after, that novel seemed Miss McCarthy's happy destiny.

She said while she was writing The Group: "It's a novel about the idea of progress, really. The idea of progress seen in the female sphere. ... It's supposed to be the history of the loss of faith in progress, during that twenty-year period." (This quotation and others, below, from her discourse come from a Paris Review interview.) The completed novel runs only seven years, not twenty; neither, in my view, does it deal with the decline of the progress idea. (Not that she need be held to an early prospectus but I cannot see how it even engages this theme.) However, what is relevant is that, instead of the book that her career and her being led us to expect, she has produced a readable, generally interesting novel, a minor achievement and a major disappointment.

Among its virtues, the chief is it social reporting of a decade. It is not social history; it does not mine deeply enough. But the surface reproduction of the thirties is vivid. She recalls for us the public and private disputes about Roosevelt and Freud, how Communism and Fascism seemed the only possible political alternatives, the guilt of money-inheritors, the college graduates joining labor demonstrations the way they now join racial demonstrations. The one serious omission is black Depression poverty, which was not absent from these circles. She gives us only "fun" poverty--girls sharing apartments, young couples on strict budgets.

There are also well-turned episodes. A novel with a multiple protagonist tends to be a series of set-pieces, engineered and complete in themselves, without cumulative effect. Miss McCarthy does not completely escape that danger, but some of the episodes are burnished off neatly. The chapter in which Dottie loses her Bostonian virginity, the scene in which the frank Norine and the refined Helena discuss Norine's infidelities, the later scene between the re-married Norine and the prissy Priss, the encounter between Kay and Polly in the mental hospital, all these have pungency, a sense of cutting down to the bones of candor and animosity that are Miss McCarthy's skeletal strength. (Very much less successful is a self-conscious, lengthy aria about a rich family's "perfect" English butler, a trite concept tritely executed, from a completely irrelevant point of view.)

She has always had a talent for mordant humor. Can one forget Miles Murphy's knees slipping on the horsehair sofa as he makes love to his ex-wife in A Charmed Life? There are some passages here that measure with her scarifying best: the scene at the gynecologist's where the diaphragm squishes out of the initiate Dottie's fingers, the scene where the friends dress Kay's corpse for burial and are undecided about putting a brassiere on her. Randall Jarrell's novel Pictures from An Institution portrays a smiling woman writer who, it is rumored, bears a relation to Miss McCarthy. Of her the narrator says: "Torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile." In the pages referred to above and occasionally elsewhere in The Group, a similar smile flashes lethally.

Intentions toward symbolism can be saluted as they pass. Priss, the New Dealer, wants to put her baby on formula; her doctor-husband, a conservative, insists that she nurse it. Polly's lover, a book editor, is separated from his Communist wife whom he married instead of joining the Party; his analyst persuades him to quit Polly and return to his wife. Norine leaves her impotent, blue-blood, social-worker husband for a very potent Jewish banker husband. Kay may have been a suicide or may simply have fallen out a window--of the Vassar Club!--while plane-spotting in 1940 after two cocktails. So long as one lets these symbols operate in the corner of the eye, with minimal scrutiny, they give the book some thin nourishment.

But after one has noted these pleasures in The Group, one must tell a miserable rosary of defects. The risks of the group protagonist are not only in episodic structure but in poorly realized characters. Let us overlook the confusions of the opening chapter, at Kay's wedding, in which everyone is introduced and, almost literally, labeled. Succeeding chapters bring life to only a few. One is so completely dropped (Pokey) that it is hard to understand why she was ever included. Others, who are treated with as much attention as any, fail to crystallize as individuals. Helena, Libby, Polly, Dottie--excepting their physical descriptions, occupations, marital statuses--seem interchangeable. It might have been Polly, not Libby, who was surprised by the ski instructor's assault. Why is it Kay who went mad and not Norine? In most of these girls there is no conviction of inevitability of action growing from conviction of their existence.

Further, and joined to this, is the matter of what happens to them in the course of the book. Since Miss McCarthy's interview, she may have changed her mind about depicting the failure of progress, but what theme has she given us instead? What does the book deal with besides facsimile of an era and the passage of time? At the end Libby is where we knew she would be, buzzing along as a literary agent. Nothing at all seems to have happened to Pokey or Helena. Dottie has long disappeared into a Southwestern marriage. With a swirl of soap-opera suds, Polly is swept suddenly into marriage by a young doctor in her hospital. And with what may be irony but is a poor substitute for resolution, the last scene is given to Lakey, the Lesbian returned from abroad, and Harald, Kay's moderately bereft husband, who consider themselves the "two superior people" in the cast. Of any posited theme the book is innocent; and in sheer recreation of the flow of experience--theme enough, perhaps, because it includes all themes--the book is Skimpy because it lacks realized characters.

And because of its style. This is the radical flow from which all the other Haws derive. That style is not only a new one for Miss McCarthy and a deficient medium for this book; it reveals, I think, something of her present attitudes toward literature.

For comparative purposes, let us glance at her earlier fiction. Her first book (1942) was The Company She Keeps, a collection of stories which she presents as a novel. To re-read it after The Group is almost a surrealist experience, for one finds, in this first work, the accomplished, refined version of much that is muddled in this latest book. These episodes all deal with a young graduate in the thirties, mostly in New York, but Margaret Sargent is not much of a composite, she is very nearly an autobiographical figure. "Let's be frank," says the author on this subject. " 'The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt'... was an attempt to describe something that really happened. ... And the first story ... was an attempt to be as exact as possible about something that had happened." The exactness is not, as in the new book, one of superficial detail; it is one of emotional reality, sequence, consequence. Cruel and Barbarous Treatment, in my view, ranks with the best Katherine Mansfield; others in The Company She Keeps are varyingly successful. But in none of them is there any flabbiness of texture, any repeated clearings of the throat. A voice sounds-confident, controlled, artistically purposeful. The difference between this book and The Group is not, of course, that time has come between the author and the material; it is that her attitude toward the material seems to have changed.

The stories in her next collection Cast A Cold Eye (1950) seem to me negligible, but there is very little flabbiness. Her novella The Oasis (1952), an allegory about a group of Utopians in a summer colony, is overlong and seems little more than a private joke for those who can see through the masks; Yet again the flesh is firm, the intent clear and subscribed to by the author.

In my view, her best fiction so far-a novel so fine and whole that time may be unable to leak in and rust it is The Croves of Academe (1952), the work of a hellishly calm-browed Minerva and a calmly hellish demon. The nub of the book--the fake Communist past of the harried professor-0is ingenious; its effects are surprising and ineluctable, pitiful and hilarious. And the style is superb. So is the style of A Charmed Life (1955), a novel of less interest. Miss McCarthy says it is a book about doubt, about a haunted town, with implications of tragedy from the start. For me it has a distinct taint, like her long tale The Weeds, of New Yorker fiction: cocktail-niblet seriousness, a black-mirror image of the exurbanite cartoons it might be winding around. (Besides, Miss McCarthy does not convince me that the heroine was ever an actress.)

Still, whatever its degree of success, all her fiction up to now has been distinguished by certainty of tone, sure control: acute feminine response combined with the sense of an adroit adversary, one of the most confidently skillful ever to confront the castration complex of man.

The Group might have been written by a different woman. Inevitably there are evidences of her wit and niceness of phrase. ("A slow, soft cough, like a perpetual scruple.") But generally the prose is shocking--no less a word will do--on three scores: uncertainty of viewpoint, lumpiness of style, thickness of factual detail.

The uncertainty of view is evident on the first page. After a straightforward description of the girls' gathering at a downtown church: "They were in the throes of discovering New York, imagine it " Soon after: "Helena Davison, whose parents out in Cincinnati, no, Cleveland. ..." These interpolations of a cute Mademoiselle commentator into "straight" prose or into a character's viewpoint recur frequently. "She took a step backward and, girls, can you imagine it, she fainted kerplunk into Mr. LeRoy's arms!" Rarely is a viewpoint maintained; we feel that the author is afraid she is not being funny enough or wry or knowing enough and must cut a caper. At the end of a chapter done through a guest's eyes: "[Her son] was greedily eating chocolate cake, from a Jewish bakery " How did she know its source? In a passage from the book editor's view: "Unlike Priss, however, he was a secret believer in name brands. ..." He and Priss never meet. Examples could be multiplied of flips and twists that jar us out of participation into consciousness of manufacture.

Use of words, sheer verbal felicity, has up to now been one of Miss McCarthy's sleekest muscles. I can find no sentence in her earlier work as coarse and blatantly external as this fair sample from the new book: "Intelligent and morbidly sensitive, she was inwardly screaming with pity for the principals and vicarious mortification." (That opening phrase--like an old theater-program character description--is a small artistic suicide note.) Nor can we believe, in context, that this is satire: "Libby usually repaired to Schrafft's for a malted after a session with Mr. LeRoy. On this day of evil omen "There are solecisms: "The hoi polloi." "Shades of Ibsen." "Replica version."

As for the deluge of factual detail, I cite a few outstanding examples. There are 17 lines describing a Macy shopper-spy of no relevance to story or texture. There is a list of 32 magazines to establish a home's intellectual milieu. Besides the many factual blockbusters, there is a constant peppering with pel-- Libby does her reports "on a kind of sky-blue typing paper that was still manufactured in one of the mills in Pittsfield." It is John O'Hara, himself rank, gone cancerous. (And, as must happen with this sort of exhibitionism, mistakes occur: e.g. Gray's ticket counter wasn't under the Times Building.) Miss McCarthy's essay The Fact in Fiction, in her collection On the Contrary, may be supposed to contain her rationale for the detail here. "The distinctive mark of the novel is its concern with the actual world, the world of fact, of the verifiable, of figures, even, and statistics." "The more poetic a novel, the more it has the air of being a factual document." We remember how Joyce wrote from Paris to an aunt asking for small details about a Dublin house for use in Ulysses. Miss McCarthy notes that you can learn how to make strawberry jam from Anna lets: recipes, fashions, furnishings. Karenina. But it is only underscoring the point of her essay to emphasize that fact does not make fiction, it merely embraces it, gives it a habitation. Good scenery does not make plays nor do good locations make films.

Nor does accretion of facts make character. Creation is replaced here by dossier. For example:

     Helena ... could play the violin, the piano, the flute, and
     the trumpet; she had sung alto in the choir. She had been
     a camp counselor and had a senior lifesaving badge. She
     played a good game of tennis, golfed, skied, and figure
     skated; she rode, though she had never jumped or hunted.
     She had a real chemistry set ...

Let us tune out and tune in again twenty-eight lines later.

     At camp Helena had learned to sail and sing old catches
     and sea chanties, some of them rather off-color; she
     improvised on the mouth organ and was 'studying the
     recorder. She had had art lessons since she was six
     and showed quite a gift for drawing."

Quite understandably, Helena, who is one of the book's lesser figures, never comes to life. All this frantic changing of voices, this rat-a-tat of minutiae seems intended to hold our interest - and perhaps the author's. Aware that wit is expected of her and with little of it forthcoming, she falls back on verbal spoof, which is so weak that it lapses into the thing spoofed. ("She spoke a breathless Italian, with a nifty Tuscan accent.") What we get is motion, not vitality. I do not argue that Miss McCarthy had no right to change her style from her previous fiction; I do argue that these changes are deteriorations, admissions of artistic poverty.

The certification of this comes in part from herself. In her essay Characters in Fiction (in On the Contrary) she writes:

     Most novelists today, I suspect, would like to 'go
     straight'; we are conscious of being twisted when
     we write. This is the self-consciousness, the squirming,
     of the form we work in. ... There are moments when
     one would like to drop the pretense of being Mulcahy
     [in The Croves of Academe] and go on with the business
     of the novel. ... What has been lost, however, in the
     continuing experiment is the power of the author to
     speak in his own voice or through the undisguised voice
     of an alter ego, the hero ..."

In her interview, asked which technical difficulties particularly concern her, she replied:

     The problem of the point of view, and the
     voice ... the author's voice, by a kind of
     ventriloquism, disappearing in and
     completely limited by the voices of his
     characters. What it has meant is the complete
     banishment of the author. I would like to
     restore the author! I haven't tried yet,
     but I'd like to try after [The Group],
     which is as far as I can go in ventriloquism ...
     If you deal with comic characters, as in my
     case, there is so much you can't say because
     you're limited by these mentalities."

To go straight. To drop pretense. To restore her voice. All these remarks, made ostensibly out of concern for the current psychological and social environment of the novel, really demarcate a profound divergence from the essences of art. If she is limited by her characters' mentalities, then they are no longer her means but are in her way. If fiction to her is pretense, then nonfiction is non-pretense. All this either represents a naive view of fiction, impossible in her case, or a deep alteration in her literary being. Her career, as Van Wyck Brooks said, has been that of an essayist who also writes novels; now the present-day difficulties of novel writing- huge and not in any way to be slighted--are so well apprehended by her as to give her considerable pause. Judgement of her preferences in work is irrelevant; judgment of her work is not. This new novel, so distinct from her previous fiction, is itself evidence of her doubts about fiction. The uncertainties and inferiorities of its prose show, I think, a basic disbelief in what the book is attempting, a disbelief that is the source of all its shortcomings.

It is pertinent to make one last comparison: between her story The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt and her article Artists in Uniform (also in On the Contrary). Both deal with a woman's encounter on a train with a bourgeois non-intellectual. In different ways he "conquers" her. In the former, he persuades her into bed; in the latter he stymies her in an argument about anti-Semitism. In both, the characters are defined, the male-female polarities exist, response and counter-response are cleanly etched (although in my view the story will last and the article will date). In an article about the article the author writes: "When I was thinking about writing the story, I decided not to treat it fictionally; the chief interest, I felt, lay in the fact that it happened, in real life, last summer to the writer herself, who was a good deal at fault in the incident. I wanted to embarrass myself and, if possible, the reader, too."

This is a revealing statement of a writer's movement away from fiction. The incident in the Brooks Brothers Shirt story actually happened, too, she says; and at that time-twenty or so years ago--her mind transmuted it to fiction: to achieve something of the same effects mentioned above and, in my opinion, considerably more.

As an admirer, I had hoped that this new book would do for its generation what Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook does for its generation: illuminate and preserve in art a journey through our time as experienced with female brain, intuitions, glands, genitals. But The Group seems to be Miss McCarthy's 378-page testimony that she is no longer interested writing novels.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann