What it wasn’t, exactly, was malicious. The switchblade, let’s be clear, was there, but the cuts she made with it were clinical (though they were cuts all the same). Her writing is always taking the temperature of the room, feeling the little social shifts in attention and power, uncovering pettiness and mistaken victories. A Mary McCarthy character can move through several layers of snobbery, self-awareness, victory, loss, and delusion in just a few sentences. She notices everything and she gets in every dig, and when she despises a character, it comes out in everything from the clothes she wears to the punctuation of the sentences. Of one hapless character in The Group, she writes: “Girls, can you imagine it, she fainted kerplunk into Mr. LeRoy’s arms!” The exclamation point stings. (“Kerplunk” doesn’t help.)
People satirize their friends in their novels all the time, to varying results. It’s safe to say that few people have been thrilled to find out they’re in a novel. But McCarthy seemed to be delivering not her judgment, but God’s. She regarded her novels as impersonal—her feelings were not involved—but that quality was also what made them unforgivable. If she rendered you with lettuce in the teeth, scuffed shoes, questionable taste; if she pinned your personal foibles down; well, it was only because that was how you were. In “The Genial Host,” she quickly sketches the somewhat unreal physicality of a manipulative friend:
How ill-suited he was, you thought, to his role of élégant! What a tireless struggle he must wage against his own physical nature! Looking at him, so black and broad and hairy, you saw that his well-kept person must appear to him like a settler’s plot triumphantly defended against the invading wilderness.... Whenever you really noticed Pflaumen, you became aware of an additional person, a comfortable, cigar-smoking, sentimental family man, a kind of ancestral type on which the man-about-town had been superimposed, so that his finished personality came out as a sort of double exposure.
This kind of nervy noticing is also how her characters relate to one another. McCarthy’s characters are preoccupied with ideas and with each other, not precisely as lovers (despite all their sexual encounters), but as observational subjects. Other people are objects of speculation, envy, frustration, fear, and a kind of acquisitive desire. (The one thing McCarthy never quite nails in any of her books is passionate love, though sexual frisson is there aplenty.)
McCarthy’s books are often concerned with the material and with the domestic. Or rather, the material elements of domestic life—dishware, decoration, and cooking. When one single woman visits another’s home in The Groves of Academe, she finds herself driven to despair by “the single chop in the pan on the hot-plate, the frozen peas garishly bubbling in the copper saucepan beside it, the tray set with a woven straw mat, earthenware plate, large blue-green Mexican glass already filled with milk.” At the same time, such settings are often not precisely normal—three of her novels take place in dysfunctional and self-selecting intellectual communities (The Oasis, A Charmed Life, and The Groves of Academe), one ends with a hallucination of Immanuel Kant (Birds of America), and yet another takes place in a hostage situation carefully framed to provoke endless discussions over the worth of art (Cannibals and Missionaries). The remaining two—The Group and The Company She Keeps—take place in a world and a New York more familiar, but are also preoccupied with thinly personalized versions of abstract questions.
So while on the one hand McCarthy’s books could almost be called domestic comedies, they’re also novels of ideas, the sorts of books in which characters go off on long jags about God, morality, art, or politics. They have the restless and unembarrassed questioning of Crime and Punishment filtered through the sensibility of Emily Post.
It doesn’t always work. I find Birds of America, despite McCarthy’s own fairly deep affection for it, an almost unreadable novel. And while the kind of wide-ranging arguments about ideas that animate A Charmed Life don’t drag for me, McCarthy never quite brings the various pieces of the novel together the way she needs to, and so the novel ends at an abrupt event that comes—quite literally—out of nowhere in the form of a car that appears to crash and kill the heroine in the final paragraph. (“‘Killed instantly,’ she said to herself, regretfully, as she lost consciousness.”) But for the most part, even in the unsuccessful books, the individual parts of the story provoke and delight even if they never fit together.
And when it works—really works—as it does in The Company She Keeps, it’s something truly special: a work uncompromised, uncompromising, that is precisely what it sets out to be, that marries feminine preoccupations with soaring moral questions in a way that somehow ennobles both and yet renders them a little ridiculous.
Another way of saying all this is that the McCarthy skeptics didn’t miss anything, not really. McCarthy’s project was offensive to them and they responded accordingly. Plenty of sharp women have successfully married an eye for the quotidian to a big question, and plenty of such women were flourishing at McCarthy’s own time. But though McCarthy was no feminist, and certainly seems to have felt little solidarity with other women, her sensibility was aggressively feminine with no pretense otherwise. And yet her work fails to be captured by such safe, non-threatening stock phrases as “seeing beauty in the everyday” or “seeing meaning in the ordinary.” Her people and her situations were not ordinary. Her intellectual ambition and her material preoccupations were both huge.
And earnest—almost awkwardly so. Though McCarthy dissects her characters’ self-deceptions expertly, there’s nothing ironic about the way she has them talk about ideas. Ideas are their great romance, certainly more so than any of their relations with each other. She was somehow able to take the size of human vanity without entirely disowning it.
To return to Meg Sargent and her proclamation on the train: To be your own woman, well at ease, meant for both Meg and McCarthy cultivating an ability to be uncomfortable. McCarthy could be what she was, could do what she did and write what she wrote, because she was accountable not to the social pressures she felt so acutely, but to the truth that pushed her—to her conscience, to use a somewhat loaded word. She said what needed to be said, she did what needed to be done. She wrote precisely what she wanted to write. Of course they hated her. Whatever it was that she was doing, it wasn’t about them or even for them. She shouldn’t have been able to get away with it. And yet she did, somehow—she brought it all with her: the high morals and the petty snobbery, the erotic ideas and the clinical sex, God and the dishware. To her fiction, she above all brought her honesty.
“We all live our lives more or less in vain,” said McCarthy toward the end of her life. It was another honest statement from a perversely honest woman. But she was also, at the moment, wrong—both about other people and about herself. Her fiction, full of hopeless Utopians, knew better. Yes, Utopia never arrives. And yes, we’re all, no matter how intellectual, largely foolish people, sensitive and self-deluding. But no one believed like McCarthy the degree to which every texture of life isn’t there in vain. Unsentimentally, the world matters—not because it’s good, but because it’s there.
Mary McCarthy: The Complete Fiction
Edited by Thomas Mallon
Library of America, $90, 2,066 pp.