In Praise of Miss MacIntosh.

I have occasionally come across mentions of Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling as a notoriously long and unreadable novel; this charming essay by Meghan O’Gieblyn makes about as good a case for the defense as is likely to be mounted (first acknowledging the problems the reader faces):

Like the holy books, long novels are more often maligned than read. Critics complain that they’re exasperating or impossible or not worth the time. But in the history of my reading life, I’ve encountered nothing like the caveat lectors surrounding Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. They feel less like user warnings or cautionary tales than being forced to gaze upon the skeletons of those who had previously made the attempt. When it was published in 1965, the critic Peter Prescott gave up after two days, even though his editor offered him four times the normal rate (everyone else had refused). The online reader reviews I found vary between naked revulsion and sheepish endorsement. One Amazon reviewer claims he gave a copy of the twelve-hundred-page novel to each of his friends and promised that if they finished, he would pay for their children’s college education. “I’ve paid for no one’s education!” he writes. Upon Young’s death in 1995, thirty years after the novel was published, the New York Times proclaims it “one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.” […]

It seems impossible to describe the book in terms of plot or structure. Even the basic operations of character and perspective aren’t straightforward. But here’s an attempt: Vera has come to the Midwest from Boston in search of Miss MacIntosh, her childhood nursemaid, a spinster from What Cheer, Iowa, who mysteriously disappeared after Vera’s fourteenth birthday. What makes Miss MacIntosh so remarkable is that she is, unlike most of the people in Vera’s life, ordinary. “She was neither a high brow nor a low brow but just, as she was pleased to admit, a plain middle brow, a Middle Westerner, trying to steer her middle course.” But little in the book is what it seems—especially that which appears ordinary. Early on, Vera notices that the bus is not driving a straight line but circling the same route. It’s at this point that the novel—which begins as a quest—folds in on itself, tunneling into reveries and flashbacks, drifting into the consciousness of other characters, most of them women. There is Vera’s aunt Hannah, an unmarried suffragette who owns fifty wedding dresses, and Esther Longtree, an eternally pregnant woman. There’s Vera’s mother, a bedridden opium addict—“the horizontal person”—whose labyrinthine, hallucinatory monologues are among the book’s many delights: she imagines she’s conversing with dead queens and kings, golden harps, chandeliers, Milton, Shelley, subway musicians, and “two sister ravens who had created the universe.”

Around page two hundred, the warnings about the book begin to seem less hysterical. The novel is not demanding in any conventional sense: it contains no footnotes, no structural gimmicks, no compendious digressions. What it does require is attention of the kind that Americans often find most difficult: the stoic focus needed for meditation—or for driving into the infinite horizon of the heartland. The reader is less likely to throw the book down in a fit of disgust than she is to be lulled into a theta state, a highway hypnosis induced by page after page of incantatory prose. Monologues last for hundreds of pages. Sentences are repeated with subtle, endless differences, reiterating paradoxes: “And his night was his day, and his day was his night, for his twilight was his dawn, and his dawn was his twilight, and his moon was his sun, and his sun was his moon, and his beginning was his end, and his end was his beginning.” […]

But the novel does feel oddly contemporary—particularly in its fixation on simultaneous realities. Characters are said to be both alive and dead, both pregnant and barren, both awake and dreaming. Men change into women, and women into men. One character, Mr. Spitzer, suspects that he is actually his own twin brother, who died by suicide. When I explained this character to my husband, he asked whether this was supposed to be metaphorical. I tried several times to answer before realizing that the question itself was irrelevant. According to Young’s ontology, everything is both literal and metaphorical, just as Mr. Spitzer is both himself and his twin. Young was interested in contemporary physics, and Miss MacIntosh is, in some sense, a quantum novel: every probability in the book is equally real and occurring simultaneously. “It seems to me as if, instead of dismissing modern literature as experimental or surrealistic or impressionistic or the great artifice,” Young writes in one of her essays, “we should stop and think a little about the experimental, surrealistic, impressionistic, artificial life of our experience.” […]

The Midwest Vera encounters initially appears to be the inverse of what she was looking for, a void barren of all meaning. But it turns out to be something more extraordinary, a primal void that contains all meaning, even contradictory ones, spawning the novel’s endless phantasmagoric visions. Vera is ultimately forced to abandon her quest, but in doing so, she’s granted something far more valuable: an expanded vision of reality. Young once said that all her writing is “about the recognition that there is no single reality. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.” […]

But I suspect the problem is not the book’s length but its ambition—a fact that says as much about regionalism as it does gender. When it was published, Midwestern writers, like women writers, were frequently associated with small, quiet novels: portraits of small-town life, quaint domestic dramas. It’s ironic that in this region of expansive vistas, writers have so often limited themselves to the spadework of local anthropology or are constrained by the more immediate need to correct premises—to humanize, to complicate, to prove, simply, that the region is capable of sustaining life. […] It’s not difficult to see why critics sensed, next to such modest aims, something deranged in the sprawl of Miss MacIntosh, an epic in the tradition of Milton or Cervantes, set in Indiana, told largely from the perspective of women. “Indiana is a land rich in legend,” Young said of the novel. “I tried to transmute this legend into a universal and cosmic statement of some kind.”

I have to admit that gives me a faint desire to give the thing a try. I won’t actually do it — vita brevis and all that — but kudos to O’Gieblyn for putting the thought in my head. (Incidentally, O’Gieblyn is an odd-looking name; anybody know anything about it?)

Comments

  1. squiffy-marie von bladet says:

    Any news of a sequel, he wondered forlornly?

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    If it were really a quantum novel, the contradictory premises would be resolved when you read it, though presumably in a different way for each reader.

    It sounds like Miss MacIntosh, My Darling in fact is the sequel. And prequel.

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    Presumably Irish Ó Gibealáin, which seems to be more commonly anglicised as Giblin/O’Giblin or sometimes Gibson.

    But why that spelling (which looks to be specifically American) I have no idea – it might be a conscious attempt to reflect the original pronunciation, but it’s very un-Irish in appearance!

  4. To me O’Gieblyn looked fake Irish, but apparently an Edward O’Gieblyn was born in County Clare in C19. The closest on this list of Irish surnames is Ó Giobláin → Giblin ; no matches on 1911 Irish census.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    What Cheer, Iowa

    Familiar.

  6. It sounds like Miss MacIntosh, My Darling in fact is the sequel. And prequel.

    I like that, and I think if it’s republished it should come with a note “If you liked this, be sure to read the sequel and prequel — both start on page 1!”

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    There is a paperback copy on Amazon UK for £1326.23.
    I would be tempted, but I’m not sure of the morality of supporting Amazon these days.

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Amazon just raised its internal minimum wage in the US to 15 $/h.

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Wait. A paperback for over a thousand three hundred pounds!?!

  10. one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.[NYT]

    Suggests this is some sort of literary category. What would be other contenders?

    Finnegans Wake
    The Bone People Booker Prize winner: I gave up after 200 pages.
    The Luminaries another Booker winner: I persevered to the end because people said it suddenly falls into place after page 150. It didn’t.

  11. Absurdly expensive books like that are almost certainly so priced due to an algorithm going mad rather than any kind of conscious human intervention.

    I’ve had the two-volume Dalkey edition sitting on my shelf for some time, mocking me. I should just dive in.

  12. If you do, report back so we don’t have to worry about your getting lost in quantum indeterminacy!

  13. Geo X-
    There is a lengthy discussion of the pricing issue – including comments from people who appear to know what they are talking about – here:
    http://crookedtimber.org/2011/11/25/some-restrictions-apply/

  14. I’ve read this book! Almost entirely.

  15. Well? Don’t keep us in suspense — what did you think?

  16. Stu Clayton says:

    I’ve read this book! Almost entirely.

    Given the indeterminate infoldings of its mind-line (liber curvatus in se ipsum), “read almost entirely” might mean merely “read page 1”. Another one of those immeasurable Banach-Tarski do-dads.

  17. Richard Hershberger says:

    “What would be other contenders?”

    Absalom, Absalom!

    And likely any number of other Faulkner novels.

  18. Given the indeterminate infoldings of its mind-line (liber curvatus in se ipsum), “read almost entirely” might mean merely “read page 1”.

    Dammit, you’re right, of course.

    Absalom, Absalom! And likely any number of other Faulkner novels.

    I doubt it. I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of people who have stopped in the middle, but the same is true for all “difficult” novels. I had no trouble finishing either Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury (presumably the other obvious candidate), and I know any number of other people who love them — not in a “proud to display it on my shelf and take it down now and then to read a page just to prove I can” way, but in a “this is a wonderful novel and everyone should read it” way (which is how I myself feel about them). The same is far from true for Finnegans Wake or Miss MacIntosh; they’re in a category of their own.

  19. @Stu Clayton
    Makes me wonder if it’s ever been translated.

    Note: This is a set theoretical joke.

  20. When reading The Sound and the Fury, it helps that each section is easier to read than the previous one. Actually, I think this is a problem for the novel; the fourth section should have been narrated by Dilsey, but for some reason Faulkner decided against that.

  21. Allan from Iowa says:

    An Iowa newspaper columnist proposed that the demonym for residents of What Cheer should be What Cheerleaders.

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