[28 April 2009]
When Macon Leary of Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist wants to protect himself from the friendliness of other passengers on aeroplanes, he takes out a novel.
The name of his book was Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, and it was 1,198 pages long … It had the advantage of being plotless, as far as he could tell, but invariably interesting, so he could dip into it at random.
I spent a long time searching for Miss MacIntosh in secondhand book stores, never seriously expecting to find it. Had it been released in Australia? Not everything is, as I found when I tried to track down Greer Gilman’s Moonwise. The illustration at Dalkey Archive Press, the agent of Miss MacIntosh‘s latest republishing, showed an orange-brown cover with a knobbled texture: not an interesting thing to look at, but inside it was supposed to be either brilliant or horrible depending on the reader. Marguerite Young took 18 years to finish her book, and when it came out in 1965 one critic called it his most hated publication of the year.
“Anyone who has not heard of Miss Young, nor read her magnum opus, “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling,” need not feel ashamed,” stated the obituary in the New York Times when Young died in 1995 at the age of 87. “[E]ven Miss Young’s most ardent admirers … concede that the book, variously described as “a mammoth epic,” “a massive fable” and “a work of stunning magnitude and beauty” … is rather much to take in a single season. Too rich for a repast, it is better savored, they say, like a bedside dish of candy, one bite-sized bonbon at a time.”
Now, having found Miss MacIntosh, My Darling and read it, I believe that the bonbon approach is a good one, but it would still be an advantage to have gone through it normally the first time, in other words, in stretches. This is because the narrative thread often vanishes for pages at a time. If you read, say, a “bite-sized” five paragraphs today, put the book down for a day, read another “bite-sized” portion the next afternoon, then left it for another two days, you might forget the story. Once forgotten it would be hard to recover without major backtracking. The book is fat but Young’s sense of narrative is short, she writes small scenes and strings them on the long thread of those 1,198 pages. Miss MacIntosh is less a narrative than a compendium of accretions. Anyone who has read Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy might like to picture it as an Anatomy of Whimsy, with a similar feeling of half-autistic monomaniacal determination, but modern, American, dreamy, and fabulous, rather than English, scrambling, and scholarly.
It is not as plotless as Macon Leary thinks but the plot is the least important thing about it, being not much more than a coathanger for a reverie. The sentences are sometimes unusually long and the characters are eccentrics and grotesques. We spend most of our time inside the narrator’s head as she travels across the U.S. on a bus thinking about other people, primarily her mother, her mother’s friend Mr Spitzer, and Miss MacIntosh, a woman who took care of her when she was a girl. The mother lives in a dream, Miss MacIntosh lives in reality, and Mr Spitzer is neither one thing nor another. At the end of the book we move on to another significant character, Esther Longtree. What structure the book has is built around those four personalities.
The narrator’s name is Vera Cartwheel, she grew up by the sea, and both of those details are appropriate in a book that rolls and surges along as this one does. Ideas appear, vanish, and recur, and recur. Repetition is part of Young’s technique. Opening the book at random and doing a skimming search through the five pages between 526 and 531, I come across 13 iterations of the word cloud.
He had heard the cloud-burst … snowflake falling through a cloud … an alphorn blowing through clouds … fogs and waters and rolling clouds … Dog star in the rolling cloud … blowing his horn in the clouds … faded in distant thunder clouds … The cloud upon the face of beauty was beauty itself. So he would never lift the cloud … mountain tomb or cloud citadel … into waters and clouds … when the clouds creaked … find her way through the heavy winds and clouds …
… and the sentence that laps over onto page 532 ends with “… drifting through clouds.” Around the clouds, clouds, clouds, there are moons, moons, moons and fog, fog, fog. Thinking of the way she puts her story together, I’m reminded of those spinning spirals you see on old TV shows when the villain is using an evil device to send the hero into a trance. First you come across the word cloud, you read it, then, a little while later, you come across it again, and your mind takes it in again. When you come across it the third time all these clouds begin to overlap and reverberate. The fourth time loops you backwards once again, only now things are getting complicated because you’ve got more clouds to deal with. In the end this is like watching helicopter blades rotate, blurring together, whumpf, whumpf whumpf, a compelling experience and a weird one. The narrator isn’t the only person remembering things, the reader is too. The prose tumbles along stream-of-consciously, but this is not the stream of consciousness that Woolf practices in Mrs Dalloway or Joyce in Ulysses. It’s as if Young is not content to pass on a train of fictional thought as it happens, she actually wants to merge it into the reader’s own, non-fictional, thoughts. This is a piece of experimental daring, evidence of a writer’s stubborn faith in her own eccentricity. In practice, however, it sometimes feels as if it’s been designed to drive the reader mad. More clouds? More swans? More stars? Toward the end I began to feel that I was reading whole paragraphs twice, or three times, pages apart.
At her sharpest the author uses her long sentences for comic effect. She has a tone of tongue-in-cheek high camp, the tone of a Djuna Barnes piling on the exaggerations to see if she can make us crack and laugh. Vera Cartwheel’s father is not merely poor, he is “the poorest man [his wife] knew,” and when he becomes rich “in a single night” he is “the richest man she knew.” Assembling a vast collection of horses, dogs, girlfriends, and boats, he decides that “his only pleasure was to walk in a high wind on a waxed rope between two peaks above the Alpine clouds.” That waxed is a lovely piece of precision, a comic mimicry of verisimilitude. Not any old rope. It’s waxed.
Scaling the Jungfrau or Matterhorn, one of those perilous peaks, for [the mother] was always nebulous as to which, it making little difference to her, he had fallen head-first, disappearing under a bank of snow and granite and was never found, not even by the thrifty Swiss, but if he had been found, would have been still the uncorrupted dandy, preserved like herself in some fairy grotto of rock crystal chandeliers and musical stalactites, and had been wearing a white rose on his coat lapel when last seen, so should be easily recognized …
The book is full of conceits like this: an absurdly rich man being recognized by the rose on his lapel after falling off a waxed rope into a fairy grotto, or unhappy Mr Spitzer walking along the beach through “fog thick as fleece” unintentionally summoning a flock of sheep with his alphorn.
Mr Spitzer … had carried this alpenhorn … along the foggy beach … and he had blown a few wandering notes like some old ghost calling to his lost love as he had heard, above the ringing waves ringing like silver bells, the ringing, tolling of the silver sheep’s bell which had once rung to the lost sheep, hearing also … the bah bahing of waves breaking upon this shore of stone and fog thick as fleece streaked with the gold rays of the moonlight, waves coming to pasture like sheep with moony eyes … but then quite unexpectedly … a ram had stepped out of the fog, and other sheep followed Mr Spitzer.
The sheep have been summoned not only by a character in the story but also by the action of language itself, one phrase feeding on another. First there’s the idea of fog, a beach, then waves on the beach, then waves ringing like bells, and aha, let them be sheep’s bells, and let there be some lost sheep, and let the fog be fleecy, like a sheep, and let the waves come to pasture like sheep, followed by—oh, why not—the actual sheep, no a ram, no a ram and sheep, all—doing what?—trailing after Mr Spitzer. This new idea of Mr Spitzer being followed prompts the writer to have him followed by other things as well, the whole passage climaxing in a remark about Mr Spitzer’s confused and trod-upon personality.
And ever after that, he had been followed by men in grey cities, by lost men although he was lost, and none more lost than he, this old musician blowing his horn in the clouds.
The whole thing piles up in a delirium of words until the book seems to be drowning in repetitious extravagances punctuated by those moments of comic precision, the “waxed rope.” I’ll probably never read it from cover to cover again, but the bonbon phase is delicious.