The portrait of a young woman as a leftist intellectual and conflicted romantic, drawn in six episodic chapters published in 1942 as an inventive and somewhat scandalous novel exploring the female psyche, which was largely uncharted and still mostly forbidden territory at that time.
The woman’s name is Margaret Sargent. Each chapter features an encounter or two between herself and a man within the confines of a marriage, divorce, affair, political campaign, and/or job, mostly in New York City, the men being husbands, lovers, employers and/or comrades, or Margaret's therapist or father. Most of these relationships are said to be based on McCarthy's.
To start the chapters seem more anthology than novel, but eventually they add up to a single narrative as intensely personal, relentlessly observational, and inevitably sexual as psychoanalysis, the sort that typically provides insight by way of revealing yet another problem. All is not Freudian, however, because McCarthy examines the social constructs of gender relations as ruthlessly. I particularly enjoy how she toys with those dynamics in a chapter called The Genial Host:
You did not yet know him well, you did not realize that he loved you for your patched fur. It signified that you were The Real Thing, the poet in a garret, and it opened up for him charming vistas of What He Could Do For You. He led you into the bedroom . . .you were for him, you discovered, the perfect object of charity, poor but not bedraggled, independent, stubborn, frivolous, thankless and proud. He could pity you, deplore you, denounce you, display you, be kind to you, be hurt by you and forgive you. He could,in fact, run through his whole stock of feelings with you. . . You stood to him in the relation of Man to God, embraced in an eternal neurotic mystery compounded out of His goodness and your guilt.
Sounds grueling, and the relationships often are, but the reading is not because McCarthy can write. More specifically, she can write this kind of story, which brought to mind Edith Wharton: part psychological drama, part comedy of manners, part love story. She’s not as good a writer or novelist as Wharton, but good enough that I remained engaged throughout by the detailing and wit, and was kept on edge by all the psychosexual tension. McCarthy is best known as a journalist and critic, and in general her fiction has been ruled less good than her reportage and commentary, but her powers of observation and analysis serve this narrative well.
Throughout I noticed passages that captured the gist of the encounters and dilemmas and by book’s end had become threads tying together the ambiguities and incidents sufficiently to make a story. For examples, see the excerpts posted in my reading updates. As in life, not all is figured out or revealed, but McCarthy knows how to select and combine the right bits.
Looking at some early takes on the book and McCarthy, I found most negative reactions to be more about her perspective than her talent. In 1942 it wasn’t okay for a female character to be as conflicted as Margaret Sargent, and rarely was the female gender considered in terms other than girl. RE, The New York Times
For all that she writes so well and has such sharp and fresh insight, Miss McCarthy never really comes to grips with the girl, Margaret Sargent -- and seems even, at times, to be bemused by her. At one moment she appears to be painting a deft satirical portrait of a girl-about-town. At another, she takes that same girl with a quite portentous seriousness. Either viewpoint would, I think, be acceptable, but a mixture of the two is disturbing.
Margaret is not entirely likeable or consistent, and not readily characterized in a single take, be it satirical or serious or otherwise; to claim that this is so because McCarthy failed “to come to grips with the girl” is to miss the point entirely.
I consider McCarthy an important literary and political voice and look forward to reading more of her.