Thursday, 6 January 2011

Penguin no. 2327: The Company She Keeps
by Mary McCarthy

"The Company She Keeps was the first novel by the author of The Group.

 After a Reno divorce Margaret Sargent, an attractive and intelligent girl, finds herself floundering in a world of casual affairs and squalid intimacies. She is in full revolt against society. But her new Bohemian life of bit-piece jobs, lofty ideals, and sordid escapades - bids to expunge the imprint of a narrow childhood - never achieves her own approval. The agony of repeated rejection and despair finally forces a strict reckoning on this lost, likeable figure."

As I was reading this book I kept referring to this summary on the back page. The fact that I was reading a novel about someone named Margaret Sargent was not something I could infer from the text. It seemed to me that I was reading a collection of disparate short stories, and yes, there was a young female wandering through each of these stories, but it wasn't at all clear that it was the same young female each time. It was as though her story was obscured by the dark, and the author randomly flicked on the light and illuminated some part of it, and this part may span a single evening, a few days or a number of years. But random is the operative word here; there was only the vaguest sense of a sequence, an ordering that could only be understood retrospectively, and no real narrative.

A likeable figure? She appalled me. She was shallow and judgemental, and my sympathy was entirely with the other characters who she betrayed or condemned. We didn't meet anyone who met her standards, and generally her condemnation had to do with something as trivial as their taste in furniture or prints, or perhaps they weren't sufficiently radical. It was the smugness of the self appointed arbiter - I found her unbearable. And self-defeating. Their ordinariness was the very thing that enabled her to define herself as different, and to stand out from the crowd was the thing she desired most. Her only redeemable feature was her honesty. She recognised her motivations, even her most shallow ones, and she wrote them down. One of the short stories is narrated by a co-worker, and through his perception of her, we see even more clearly just how neurotic and self-obsessed she could be.

I cannot refer to the sections of this book as chapters. The only conceivable explanation of the structure of this book is that the author retrospectively assembled a selection of stories she had previously written, and perhaps wrote an opening and closing section to give the story a defined start and end, within which the 'story' could meander. It may be partially autobiographical, and if so I admire Mary McCarthy's self-criticism, as the story which deals with Margaret Sargent's childhood is very reminiscent of that told by Mary McCarthy in her autobiography, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (Book 1938). In the first short story an unidentified female character analyses her behaviour during her first marriage: she is unfaithful, but realises it is because she enjoys the drama of a secret life; she reveals this secret to her friends, because she enjoys the idea of being gossiped about; she asks her husband for a divorce, but only because she wants to witness his pain, so that she can feel his love. And too late she sees the consequences. The one that particularly concerns her is that people take pity on her husband and he gets asked out, rather than her.

In the final chapter it is all explained. The psychoanalyst knows the answer: it was due to her childhood. And I felt sorry for her, but I didn't buy it. You can fit any explanation you like to a set of observations, but it remains a hypothesis until it's tested. And this hypothesis is the start of the story, not the end. You can believe anything you like, it doesn't make it true.

I didn't regret reading the book. Although the character angered me, it was a window into a different way of being. It describes 1930's America, and the obsession of the intellectuals with Communism, Stalin and Trotsky. It was published only two years after Wodehouse's Quick Service, but the two books sit at opposite ends of a spectrum. His book captured a world that was vanishing, and hers reveals the path towards the future.

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