Posted by: zhiv | April 19, 2008

The Company She Keeps, Mary McCarthy

This is Mary McCarthy’s first book, a slightly deceptive first novel that appears to be a collection of stories.  The fact that it has the same autobiographical character running all the way through it is hardly obvious through the first few stories, and it has a certain impact when it becomes clear.  When I was reading David Laskin’s “Partisans” early this year he mentioned the independent character and sexual frankness of “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” more than once, and I had read that long story and been impressed.  But in reading TCSK I was able to skip over it, which was somewhat unfortunate, because that central story adds quite a bit, I would think, to the general impression of the “novel” and the story of the main character, Margaret “Meg” Sargent as it unfolds.  So there are a few simple but effective literary tactics at work in this book, worth noting.  It contains six stand-alone stories, most of which were published separately in magazines.  The characterization and effect of any single story is powerful enough, and the writing is focused and very fine, but it’s all building to an odd climax, not the type of conclusion one sees in a traditional novel.  I suppose this is probably standard, more or less, in any connected set of stories, with the ending being an aggregation, but MM may be up to something more substantial here.

That all sounds a bit slapdash and contains some overthinking, but the bottom line is that this is a rich and satisfying book, a highly accomplished first “novel,” and it’s easy to see why it established MM from the outset in the highest ranks of midcentury writers.  In reading any author, you never know how things are going to go.  You might start with a writer’s one or two best books, or you can start at the beginning to see how she develops, and sometimes you will work through an author over time and make new discoveries by chance.  My own growing sense of MM and her work and life tells me that she has been somewhat neglected, although not horribly so, but she should be read and discussed and taught.  My own path, from getting a sense of her presence and impact in Partisans, through The Group and now to TCSK, has been quite smooth and satisfying, and I can’t wait to go further.  TCSK is a strong, insightful work and introduction to MM, a great place to start if you’re curious, an interesting book to read if you haven’t but have read some of her other works or essays, and if you were teaching a midcentury or woman’s studies course it would be a great text too, and possibly essential.

The story of the book is McCarthy’s story, artfully converted into fiction along with all of the prerogatives that apply to that transition.  TCSK makes a nice companion to The Group, which contains a self-portrait and a version of McCarthy’s early marriage.  The main characters and stories in The Group aren’t so applicable to the story in TCSK, but they do give some of the background of MM’s world in New York in the 30s, after she graduated from Vassar.  TCSK picks up (or actually, begins) the story as “Meg”/MM is drifting out of her early marriage and conducting an affair.  The introductory story “Cruel and Barbarous Treatment” shows McCarthy’s deep and rather sad self-knowledge, and it walks us through the way a form of female power and adventure turns into loss, isolation, and self-knowledge.  The best sort of bourgeois realism and naturalism, and Madame Bovary, are firmly in the background, one of the reasons why this book, or just this story, would be very fun to discuss and teach (I’m thinking of Flaubert, I suppose, because of the way he comes up so often in reading about Richard Yates).  At the end she writes that “in any case, for the thrifty bourgeois love insurance, with its daily payments of patience, forebearance, and resignation, she was no longer eligible.  She would be, she told herself delightedly, a bad risk.”  As a dangerous character and divorcee, she will be able to continue her romantic self-deceptions and love impulsively and fleetingly.  She has felt the pain and hurt and disillusionment, pushed it aside with a strong drink, and she’s heading back out into the world and the game.

The six stories form a fascinating and powerful collection.  Story #2, “Rogue’s Gallery,” describes Meg Sargent’s tenure working for the charlatan antique dealer, Mr. Sheer, who scrapes through the depression by piling “fast ones” on top of one another, a character in the classic AmerLit tradition of con men.  Rogue’s Gallery and story #4, “The Genial Host,” are shorter, less ambitious stories in the sequence, but they both dig deep and reveal important elements of Meg’s character and world.  Rogue’s  seems like it’s simple a character sketch of Mr. Sheer, but with the collection, falling between “Cruel and Barbarous” and “Brooks Brothers,” it’s about Meg’s loss of innocence and the growth of her resourcefulness in the world of art and commerce.  And as MM turns her then-husband Edmund Wilson into an architect in the final story, “Ghostly Father, I Confess,” one wonders if Mr. Sheer is based on a character McCarthy knew in the literary world–I’ll have to check the biographical record at some point.

“The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” seems to be the classic centerpiece of the collection, and as I said I probably lost something by having read it first, before I read The Group, and not rereading it this time through.  It’s strong and daring and deep, and it provides a significant advance on the characer revelation in Cruel and Barbarous.  Meg begins the novel by cheating on her husband and declaring her independence in a bittersweet, gimlet fashion, and in this third story she sleeps with a stranger, a married man, as she travels on a train out west to tell her family about her new engagement.  This is all apparently true to MM’s story and rather messy, and the hint about Madame Bovary and Flaubert continues to be helpful.  One of the things that McCarthy does in this longer, more “important” story, is that she makes a transition to describing Meg as an intellectual and a committed leftist and radical.  One of the reasons why she’s both adventurous and aimless, and even predatory, in the complacent, unconscious bourgeois world is because she doesn’t believe in it, and being a sexual sniper and targeting a seemingly naive and rather innocent man in a suit on a journey across the heartland is an assassination of American values and myths.  She doesn’t actually have to do much and isn’t truly predatory or even aggressive, as she simply puts herself in the way of the desire and aggressiveness and selfishness of the American male myth.  With the political and intellectual element firmly introduced in the mid-book major story, the riples of McCarthy’s effort widen out considerably.  Story #4, “The Genial Host,” is a seeming character portrait like Rogue’s Gallery, but at this point it really serves the purpose of strengthening the structure and background of Meg’s political credentials and literary character.  She’s smarter and sharper than everybody else, acutely self-aware, and struggling with her outsider status.  It’s all very politcal, with strong gender and symbolic overtones.  Genial Host is also congenial in the way it gives the reader a chance to catch his breath and find his bearings after Brooks Brothers, before the next “major” and more ambitious piece, “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man.”  Here again, Meg/MM steps back from self-examination and creates an in-depth portrait of an emblematic American male character, in this case the Ivy League bourgeois liberal leftist intellectual, a “sensitive man” who means well, and she describes her own position as a radical outsider and sexual sniper who takes him down and invades his mind and heart.  For some reason I think of some one like Susan Sontag reading this book when she was a genius of 14 or 15 and thinking wow, you go girl, and I’d be curious to see how Sontag responded to MM and if they interacted.

That leaves the final story, “Ghostly Father,” which describes a still young but slightly older and wiser Meg/MM in a session with her shrink.  this is another great story, perhaps less impactful on its own, but a brilliant conclusion to the “novel,” as powerful an ending as “Cruel and Barbarous” is a strong beginning.  There is also a lot to be said about and studied in the different points of view in the collection, and in this regard Ghostly Father is also a fitting climax.  What would we think if Flaubert had written a book which substituted Emma Bovary for a young Parisian, a girl from the provinces who had become a radical intellectual, and the final section was her visit to her analyst?

Great book, really fun to think about and discuss, and looking forward, needless to say, to continue with reading more Mary McCarthy.  


  1. I’ve read only the Brooks Brothers story from this collection; now I’m eager to read it in context — thanks for the review!

  2. DW — You’ll really like it. Cruel and Barbarous is as good as Brooks Brothers, only more contained, and as I tried to suggest, it sets a lot of things in motion that are don’t come across so clearly when you read BB on its own, as I did as well. Hope you have a chance to get to it sometime soon.

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