‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” wrote Robert Browning, “or what’s a heaven for?” Fair enough, but should a writer’s ambition surpass his ability?
In the mid 20th century, such major writers as Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Kurt Vonnegut had a common idée fixe: Each was bent on the prospect of penning the next Great American Novel, a worthy follow-up to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, and The Sun Also Rises. Yet, no matter how long and hard they labored, such a work remained beyond their grasp; in fact, each proved more adept at writing almost anything other than traditional novels.
To be sure, Mailer vaulted to fame and fortune on the basis of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), but how many today actually read it — or subsequent efforts, including Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) and Ancient Evenings (1983)? The author was more at home with nonfiction works, including Advertisements for Myself (1959) and The Armies of the Night (1968), in which his rowdy, knockabout personality had free rein. By the same token, Sontag refused to recognize the reality that her strong suit was her allusive, epigrammatic essays, such as those found in Against Interpretation (1966), rather than her awkward, somewhat bumbling novels, including Death Kit (1967) and In America (2000). At least Vonnegut was honest about his failure: In the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), he admitted that this — his long-planned “famous Dresden book” — was not a great, cohesive novel but rather a strange admixture of fiction and nonfiction: “so short and jumbled and jangled,” as he wrote.
Similarly, Mary McCarthy (1912–1989) is remembered today not for any particular work of fiction but for her personality, her presence, and even her physical appearance. Norman Podhoretz once wrote about McCarthy in such terms, identifying her as the outgoing “Dark Lady of American Letters” soon to be succeeded by none other than Sontag: “The next Dark Lady would have to be, like her, clever, learned, good-looking, capable of writing . . . criticism as well as fiction with a strong trace of naughtiness.”
In fact, it was more than a trace: McCarthy’s obstreperous temperament emerged in her notorious quarrel with Lillian Hellman, whom she derided on The Dick Cavett Show in 1979: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” The incident — appealingly indicative of an earlier era in which writers’ spats had the currency of a feud between Taylor Swift and Katy Perry — even gave rise to a play, Hellman v. McCarthy. More recently, in 2012, a major feature on McCarthy in the New York Times honored the author less for her contributions to the library than for her good taste in the closet: “Could we possibly be having a McCarthy Moment in fashion?” asked reporter Celia McGee. “This season’s little black cutaway dress from Balenciaga? Or that pretty tie-neck blouse from Lanvin (just look at the author’s portrait-sitting with Cecil Beaton)? She visited both design houses and shopped for leather goods at Mark Cross, cashmere at Brooks Brothers, suits at Bonwit Teller and gloves and scarves at Hermès.”
It is fitting, then, that McCarthy’s finest hour as a writer came not in attempting to imagine the lives of others but in describing the contours of her own. In the undeniably powerful and affecting Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), the Seattle-born, Vassar Class of 1933 author recalls the one-two punch she endured as a youth: At age six, her parents’ deaths from influenza rendered her not only an orphan but, for a spell, beholden to a disagreeable great-aunt and -uncle. The book — like McCarthy’s subsequent memoirs, How I Grew (1987) and the posthumous Intellectual Memoirs: New York, 1936–1938 (1992) — is full of memorable incidents and piercing insights. At one point, McCarthy ruminates on the almost tangible pleasure her mother took in converting to Catholicism: “She was proud and happy to be a convert, and her attitude made us feel that it was a special treat to be a Catholic.” Later, she casts her distaste for her relatives in deliciously vicious aesthetic terms: “Even if my guardians had been nice, I should probably not have liked them because they were so unpleasing to look at and their grammar and accents were so lacking in correctness.”
Yet the Library of America’s new two-volume compilation of McCarthy’s fiction serves as a surprising reminder that — like Mailer, Sontag, and Vonnegut — the author often swung, and missed, for the Great American Novel. Included are seven novels, only two of which — her 1942 debut, The Company She Keeps, and her 1963 best-selling sensation, The Group (later a film starring Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, and Shirley Knight) — could be charitably described as well known. Readers will be forgiven for having forgotten about — or simply having never heard of — such obscure titles as The Oasis (1949) and Cannibals and Missionaries (1979).
Despite McCarthy’s devotion to the art of the novel, few of the works gathered here have the timeless, surprising quality of great fiction. Instead, McCarthy seems mired in her historical moment. For example, The Group — about young lasses who attempt to set the world afire following graduation from (where else?) Vassar in (when else?) 1933 — is littered with political and cultural references that have about as much relevance as the presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace. References are made to the Socialist Appeal and the Spanish Civil War. One character advises: “Read the Communist Manifesto — for its style.” Another, whose favorite tome at Vassar was The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, later resides in an apartment decorated with reproductions of paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and such books as Ten Days That Shook the World and Axel’s Castle. (In-joke alert: McCarthy was married to the latter’s author, Edmund Wilson.)
Even worse is the novel’s monotonous march through topics once thought too outré for mainstream fiction, including contraception and lesbianism; as McCarthy checks off boxes, her too-transparent aim is to shock the gentle reader. For example, when Dottie is described as having visited a “birth-control bureau” — departing with “a doctor’s name and a sheaf of pamphlets that described a myriad of devices” — we don’t feel the character’s embarrassment as much as we do the author’s in-your-face (though always elegantly worded) outrageousness. The same is true of a subsequent passage in which Priss is shown to be alarmingly alienated from her newborn son: “She felt, to her shame, that he was a piece of hospital property that had been dumped on her and abandoned — they would never come to take him away.”
McCarthy’s oh-so-modern sentiments also come through in the otherwise vividly imagined opening scene, depicting the nuptials of Kay and Harald in an Episcopal church despite the bride’s being a “self-announced scientific atheist” and the groom’s being an “unlikely” communicant. In the congregation with the rest of “the group,” Dottie worries about the spiritual ramifications of such sacrilege, but McCarthy makes her seem silly rather than earnest: “A flush stole up from Dottie’s collarbone, reddening the patch of skin at the V opening of her handmade crepe de Chine blouse.”
Equally problematic is “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” a story of an amorous interlude on a train between a Bohemian woman and a Brooks Brothers–clad but bumpkinish man. The story (an episode in The Company She Keeps) reeks of passé faux sophistication; its heroine interprets her one-night stand in political terms, initially regretting the encounter with the man and therefore despising what she associates with him: “In the tepid water, she felt for the first time a genuine socialist ardor. For the first time in her life, she truly hated luxury, hated Brooks Brothers and Bergdorf Goodman and Chanel and furs and good food.” Worse, McCarthy implies that the man ought to rid himself of his stuffy ways — at one point, he is described contemptuously as “more the businessman and less the suitor” — while the woman, alternately smitten with and revolted by her bedmate, is meant to be a figure of supreme sympathy. Today, the story stands out for its anti-male fervor.
Even when McCarthy seems to be using her imagination and straying from her milieu, the results land with a thud. The parable The Oasis is set in a purportedly paradisal future enclave known as Utopia, yet its references would make any 1940s-era intellectual smile. Dwight Macdonald, for example, has been rechristened Macdougal Macdermott — hardly the wittiest invention. And apparently this is a future society in which 19th-century communities are still on citizens’ minds: “They feared, above everything else, that Utopia, like Oneida, Brook Farm, and the phalansteries, would make itself a laughing-stock by the advocacy of extreme ideas.” Meanwhile, Cannibals and Missionaries — her last, lamentable novel — concerns an airplane of highbrow types commandeered by terrorists, a Radical Chic scenario beneath McCarthy.
Some writers, no matter how waggish or witty, are just not cut out for novels. Dorothy Parker never produced one; Fran Lebowitz has declined to publish one for more than 30 years. And Mary McCarthy? She wrote a bagful but came up short every time.
– Mr. Tonguette has written about the arts for the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and The New Criterion. He is the editor of Peter Bogdanovich: Interviews.