Here’s a line from the Wikipedia about this book:
“Notably, Norman Mailer for The New York Review of Books wrote that, “her book fails as a novel by being good but not nearly good enough…she is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel.” “
While many of you likely know Norman Mailer as the grump who won’t stop drinking iced tea at the Dragon Fly Inn in Stars Hollow, you might not know he was once a notable piece of shit.
That’s a hack review of a very good novel.
I think it’s easy to be duped in a few different ways about how this book is often marketed and packaged. Apparently Mary McCarthy got called “lady-writer” so much she took it on as a moniker to wear herself. In addition, she once triumphantly peaced out of her own marriage with some real flair:
Now about this novel. I read it entirely in the last two days (yay East Coast snow days!) and laughed out so many times. But I was also a little leery at the beginning because the second chapter goes into explicit detail about the fitting of a diaphragm. What I was worried about was that the back cover of the book had made the book look like a relatively sober but interesting “zeitgeist” kind of novel that told a more or less boring but progressive story about 8 recent Vassar grads. One review on the back gave me reassurance that the book had a sardonic tone, so I kept faith. The cover was also boring, taking a few images of the film and splicing it with very vanilla design elements.
This book is great. Grrrr-reat. It’s likely my 2018 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was one of my top 3 from last year. It’s hilarious and made me laugh aloud several times. It’s zany in really infectious ways. At one point she sends up her own ex-husband, a moment I found extra hilarious because I just bought one of his books, and she has a character’s recently divorced father become a devout Troskyite, and I was cackling.
It LOOKS like it’s going to be boring WASPy trash, but it’s a complete and utter send up of it. And what’s even better, because have the characters are self-referential versions of herself and she never truly lets herself be a hero, it’s more honest and refreshing. It’s anti-sentimental, it’s cutting and incisive, and it’s weird in a way that it doesn’t have any business being.
And it’s a book that gets so laughably labeled as schmaltzy chick-lit, it’s almost like a litmus test for the kinds of people you want in your life. Liking this book is not a pre-requisite, but dismissing it out of hand is definitely a red-flag.
Here’s a sampling:
The producer turned his eyes to Helena. “That’s what I started to say,” Kay went on, remembering. “I lost the thread for a minute. I have the drive but not the talent, and Helena has the talents but not the drive.” “You’re interested in a stage career?” inquired the producer curiously, bending down to Helena. “Oh no,” Kay answered for Helena. “Helena’s a mime but not an actress. That’s what Harald thinks. No. Helena has so many other talents that she can’t choose between them–canalize. She writes and sings and paints and dances and play I don’t know how many instruments. The compleat girl. I was telling Mr. Bergler about your parents, Helena. She has the most remarkable parents. How many magazines does your mother ‘take in’? Her mother is a Canadian,” she added while Helena stood pondering with a fresh cup of punch in her hand. She was being called upon, she recognized, to perform for Mr. Bergler, and she was going to do it, just as she used to recite or play under her mother’s eye, feeling like a conscientious wind-up toy. She had a ‘searching’ anxious little gaze, which she now directed upward at Mr. Bergler from under the reddish eaves of her brows.
“Well,” she began, grimacing and drawling her words, “there’s the National Geographic, Theatre Arts Monthly, the Stage, the Nation, the New Republic, Scribner’s, Harper’s, the Bookman, the Forum, the London Literary Supplement, the Economist, the Spectator, Blackwood’s, Life and Letters Today, the Nineteenth Century and After, Punch, L’Illustration, Connaissance des Arts, Antiques, Country Life, Isis, the PMLA, the Lancet, the American Scholar, the annual report of the College Boards, Vanity Fair, the American Mercury, the New Yorker, and Fortune (those four are for Daddy, but Mother ‘glances them over’).”
“You’re forgetting some,” said Kay. Mr Bergler smiled; he was supposed to be rather a Communist. “The Atlantic Monthly, surely,” he suggested.
Like I said, the tone is pretty sardonic and it’s often feels like a precursor to authors like Nell Zink and Donna Tartt. In a series of short essays about McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick had a few things to say to that I wanted to share. The first comes from a contemporary profile of her right before the publication of The Group but is about one of the stories that became an early chapter in the novel. She states:
“Plot and dramatic sense are weak in Mary McCarthy’s fiction. Taste and accuracy are sometimes substitutions. What people eat, wear, and read are of enormous importance. The reader follows the parade of tastes and preferences with a good deal of honest excitement and suspense, wondering if he can guess morals of the kind of person who would cover a meat loaf with Campbell’s tomato soup. He participates in a mysterious drama of consumption, in which goods are the keys to salvation. Taste is also used as the surest indication of character.”
From a retrospective after McCarthy’s death, Hardwick says: “On the other hand, what often seems to be at stake in Mary’s writing and in her way of looking at things is a somewhat obsessional concern for the integrity for sheer fact in matters both trivial and striking.”
I think Mailer, like a lot of male critics, and men in general, often argue that literature is about representation of ideas in art. And maybe that’s true in a way, or true of some kinds of art. But if representation of life also counts, and life is what makes up most of our experience (as opposed to events) then finding ways to really capture the essence of a person in fiction is a perfectly valid and worthy venture for writing.