• Liquid Repetition: Drew Johnson on the Experience of Reading Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling

    "The book was an artifact upon arrival, a tricky thing for the new of avant-garde to be."

    In the one ear of the fisherman, who is all
    One ear, the wood-doves are singing a single song.
    Wallace Stevens

    For several days after I finished Marguerite Young’s 1198-page epic, Miss Macintosh, My Darling, I couldn’t—strictly speaking—read. That is, I could cast my eyes upon words and extract meaning from them, but I could not link my mind’s speech to whatever rhythms were on offer, be they tweets, poetry, or prose. By the end of the novel, I could only match the swelling, liquid repetitions, and obsessive recursive reiterations. Now I’m feeling a bit better but am still aware of the empty place where…all that has gone away.

    To say what the book is ostensibly about in a dustjacket sort of way misses the point, I think, and must serve the novel as it was written—even more than perhaps it was intended—badly.

    I made these notes during and afterward, in no particular order to try to answer the very basic question: what’s it like?

    Like Edmund Spenser and The Faerie Queene in 1590, Young was an antiquarian alongside whatever other aspirations animated her ability to unspool long, long, long skeins of prose. And so her novel, written from the 1940s to when it was published in 1965 feels even older, looking (as it does) to an age of ivory-topped canes, suffragettes, coachmen, which—despite the American cultural obsession with the new—hadn’t been gone all that long anyway. But the book was an artifact upon arrival, a tricky thing for the new of avant-garde to be.

    But just so: Spenser’s contemporaries gave him a hard time over his deliberately archaic spelling, his knightly obsessions. Imagine The Faerie Queene as finished (twice as long, 12 books not just the 6 we have), not easily left in the 1500s, but completed by a Spenser spared death, say, around 1616, when Shakespeare, Spenser junior by ten years, was dying at 52, Spenser would’ve been an awkward 62, what to do with this man who has just written an unavoidable work? Avoid it? That usually winds up being the answer.

    I suppose, for starters, I would like to see us see Miss Macintosh, My Darling that way: unavoidable, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    But what’s it like?

    *

    Like watching a coral reef form out of the drifting particles of the entirety of Windsor McKay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, after those panels of dreams have been broken into mosaic pieces, but the mosaic that forms never offers any discernible shape or portrait, more kaleidoscope than landscape.

    I would like to see us see Miss Macintosh, My Darling that way: unavoidable, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    Or that underground Little Nemo: Henry Darger. If Henry Darger who did write, could write. The obsessive repetitiveness of the little I’ve read The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion is very Marguerite Young.

    *

    To bring up O. Henry’s second most well-known story to talk about Marguerite Young is not an accident: “The Last Leaf” is a Greenwich Village tale through-and-through, while Marguerite Young was a once-famous, now-forgotten Village eccentric.

    O. Henry gives us a boarding house with two young women artists. One falls ill with pneumonia and the other tries to save her. The doctor says that he can’t do much if she doesn’t want to live and the one dying girl becomes fixated on the ivy vine dying on the wall opposite their window. She says that when the last leaf falls, she’ll die.

    An old, failed, alcoholic painter (who often poses, with his worn face, for other Village painters, including these women) takes issue with her fatalism and fights back with her own metaphor, and paints a last leaf that won’t fall. So doing, he saves her but dies from the illness he contracts in the cold and damp, painting that tiny masterpiece.

    In this ashcan sentimentality, there’s the stuff that Marguerite Young made strange modernisms of, the sentimental oddballs of her long novel would, in a conventional book, be not much, but she draws them out to impossible lengths.

    I thought of this story, with the notion that in Young’s version, or with Young as the old painter, grinding away at the novel for decades, that there’s a version where the old painter keeps painting last leaf after last leaf, but those painted leaves blow away, too, and so he must keep dashing them off, obsessively, to keep the sick young women alive. That’s something of what it feels to watch Young go through her paces, and then go through them again, and again, and again, capturing something about obsessive, recursive consciousness that I’ve found nowhere else and seemed truer to me about being alive than I cared to admit for many hundreds of pages. But she wore me down. Painted all the last leaves, too.

    *

    In Marguerite Young’s Angel in the Forest, the only other book-length work of prose she published in her lifetime, she recounts an incident from the Atlantic crossing of industrialist and Utopian Robert Owen on his way to New Harmony, Indiana. The mill owner with a dream for all humanity objected to the way a carnival impresario was treating his troupe of acrobatic dwarfs. The impresario had the little people gamboling about the rigging of the ship, with perhaps some sort of deranged notion of advancing their skills that was likely only sadism. Owen demanded that this cease and said that if it did not, he would himself pitch the impresario into the sea. Miss Macintosh, My Darling might well be thought of as an 1198-page parenthetical suspended in just that moment. The sea, the sailors aloft, the performers aloft: skilled—but not at this. The good man interfering in the moment, but how long will that good last, if at all?

    That frozen scene, the kind of scene you could capture in a terrifying relief, or a tableau vivant (you’d only need the motion of the ocean) is, along all sorts of vectors, the most Marguerite Young moment I know of in her work, the strong social justice element, the strangeness of it, the moment gleaned from the harvest of history whose glut will always mean more waste than not, more gleanings (in the hand, on the ground), than grain in the silo.

    *

    We wonder about that moment, all of us, the moment where action is required. And then the suspicion (when the moment passes) that action is not only not required, but that the silent waiting, teeming gallery of everyone we have ever known or will know will clap us on the back if we do nothing. That the handful who will hold us to account will not be able to fight through the wall of affirmation we are instantly offered as we allow that moment to pass into this. And this moment (in which we are suspended here in this parenthetical) to pass into this next one, here.

    Held hostage, line-by-line, even by prose (like mine) that would set us free.

    The departure Marguerite Young engenders from what novels, even strange unfriendly midcentury novels, usually require of us is so extreme that I am tempted to compare it something it does not all resemble, Percival Everett’s The Trees, where he takes the staccato cliches of detective and police procedurals and marries them to a pastiche of horror tropes so wooden, so flat that the whole…ought to be nothing. Instead, it is something more terrible because it so deadpan, so plastic. The fear that we are better served by going right at the empty space Emerson saw in all of us.

    What do I mean? I mean the suspicion that a very different American writer, Louis L’Amour, was right when, in his bizarre and often wonderful autobiography of his reading life, Education of a Wandering Man, he seems to posit that all writing is encountered on something like an equal footing, that all writing is encountered equally, and is equally effective.

    That is, one of the chief strangenesses of reading, to me, finally. That all the arts of persuasion and the conventions of logic and logical fallacy both are irrelevant to what is really, after all, a process in the mind of the reader, not the pen or page of the writer. That the reader’s tyranny negates and equalizes. That consciousness is more like Marguerite Young’s incessant, recursive repetitions than any well-made 19th century novel or even, say, the doyennes of stream-of-consciousness: Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Richardson.

    The terrible notion that Miss Macintosh, My Darling could have been made by inking any reading mind and pressing it, bodily, onto the page.

    *

    A carousel of planetary circumference, where waiting for the same pony, giraffe, gondola to come round is not difficult because of the variety but because of the fine shading of the ponies you scrutinize. And then somewhere you realize that you, the reader, are the carousel’s big brass ring. The animals are all passing by you. The riders, if there are riders, are reaching for you.

    A week after writing the above, I came upon a carousel, in situ, in the text of the novel.

    *

    The whiteness of the whale, with Ahab neither afore nor aft. More even the later Melville if, say, The Confidence Man encompassed a whiteness of the whale—at novel length.

    *

    Hill House itself, not the novel about the brief experiment conducted by Dr. John Montague, but the opening and closing paragraph of the novel, the experience of living within them. Shirley Jackson died the year Miss Macintosh, My Darling was published…and so did not read the book, but it strikes me that her antipathy to it, the antipathy I imagine she would have possessed for the book (if I intuit her response correctly), would have been a familial rejection, not stylistic or doctrinal. A sisterly disdain, for example: Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine? But I cannot find a place where their paths crossed.

    But yes, The Haunting of Hill House if Hill House had written the novel bearing its name.

    *

    The difficulty and pleasure of using Spirograph, of Lite-Brite, of waking up, as I did once as a child, the morning after a large gathering of adults, to discover that the glass jarful of fireflies you’d helped catch, carefully secreting each one behind the airhole perforated metal lid, had been set free. Childish indignation springing from an absolute selfishness: they were the first thing you wanted to see when you woke up.

    That is, the analog systems novel when systems didn’t call to mind the computer and the computer’s reach and way of knowing, but something else, another manner of mind, oddly often lost to even those of us old enough to have known it, had it.

    That’s something of what it feels to watch Young go through her paces, and then go through them again, and again, and again.

    That is to say, a (somehow) non-linear version of Charles and Ray Eames’ 1955 film Powers of Ten.

    *

    Or one of those long sequences in a Frederick Wiseman film, Belfast, Maine, for example, where you watch ten minutes of people working on an assembly line and start to go a little crazy and then remember that they do the ten minutes of this you just watched six times an hour for eight hours a day…and so on. Of how vertiginous that sense, that math, is.

    *

    The Red Shoes, not the movie itself, but the technicolor ballet within 1948’s The Red Shoes, the film’s plot falling away and Easdale’s score going full fantasia and Powell & Pressburger’s ballet imagery is tossing the figural around in the abstract, floating dancers against fields of color.

    *

    A Cheever Arabesque, stretched to the length of his unabridged, unpublished Journal, their Cheever-ness untrammeled by Maxwell’s NYer.

    *

    The bone structure in the tradition of Chinese scholar’s rocks, in which the beauty of the world in miniature and at maximum is read into the line-by-line of a lingbi rock, a sort of limestone, and set upon a stand (or, at larger sizes, in a garden) and collected, contemplated, painted, admired, traded. But the miniature in Miss Macintosh has something to do with this. The repetitiveness (always with variation) that can seem obsessive if read one way, also is the small in the large if read another. They’re open to appropriation, to metaphor, to come-as-you are.

    You find them elsewhere in art, and even in certain other ekphrastic fictions: Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris boasts a sometimes solid, alien ocean whose named floating forms, symmetriads and asymetryiads among them, recall the scholar’s rock tradition—and Miss Macintosh.

    But, something further, to bring that a little closer to me, to you.

    Somewhere outside of Kerrville, Texas, around the turn of the century, my wife and I stumbled upon an estate sale on a farm. There was little of interest, but after my wife had turned toward the car, a strange man tempted me with three mud caked pieces of limestone. Later, when I had hosed them down, they revealed themselves to be porous limestone with perfect round holes that opened onto and were opened onto by other perfect round holes. There were three rocks: two somewhat larger than a watermelon. One the size of a cantelope. One of the two large rocks is in my garden. The third was in a goldfish pond in my parents’ backyard until a goldfish drowned trying to swim through one of the holes. My parents broke the rock with a hammer trying to free the foolish golden fish.

    The smallest one has been on my desk for twenty years and can sit steadily on several of its angular sides, no right way to look at it, through its chambers. I am looking at the infinitude of the smallest rock right now.

    Then, however, the strange man in the Texas Hill Country offered me a wheelbarrow to take the three mud-covered rocks back to our car. As I approached the car, I saw my wife’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, saw them see what I was bringing, three muddy rocks in a wheelbarrow, toward our lives.

    I heard the doors lock. The trunk did not pop. The muddy rocks and the wheelbarrow and I waited through some long moments before geologic time began again, to resume their respective journeys to the desk, to the garden, to the goldfish pond.

    *

    The swell of the ocean when you are in it, up to your chest, rising and falling with the round circle each wave describes through you, as you center of gravity’s circles clockwise, counterclockerwise? The feeling something like that of the freedom described in Frost’s “The Silken Tent” but so also, the way a rod puppet must feel, more rod puppet than marionette.

    *

    Somewhere along the continuum of Sarah Orne Jewett to Willa Cather to Mary Ellen Chase. If that continuum were to serve as stalking horse (or vice-versa) for Faulkner in some future misreading of the last two hundred years?

    *

    The Recognitions as rewritten by Marguerite Duras.

    Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony as rewritten by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

    Dhalgren as rewritten by Edith Wharton.

    The Faerie Queene as rewritten by Beckett.

    The Waves as rewritten—not just translated by—Marguerite Yourcenar.

    Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge abstractifies The Woman Warrior.

    Derrida’s The Postcard as rewritten by Yves Bonnefoy.

    Gravity’s Rainbow recast by Michael Ondaatje.

    Spoon River Anthology remade by John Keene

    The Making of Americans overwritten by Andre Malraux.

    Elizabeth Bishop (instead) summoning forth The Changing Light at Sandover.

    John Aubrey making different notes toward The Anatomy of Melancholy.

    Some book I wonder if Saidiya Hartman may yet give us.

    Christina Stead rewrites The Group.

    You will no doubt take some of these as faint praise.

    And how likely is it that Beckett would have gone anywhere near Spenser’s work? Spenser so genocidally inclined toward the Irish; they in turn torching him out of his colonial estate, possibly burning his child in the bargain?

    Not to mention the antipathy between Mary McCarthy and Christina Stead.

    The Dream Songs undone and redone by Lyn Hejinian. Can Xue giving us an even more elliptical and far longer version of her own Five Spice Street, indeed Can Xue’s nonsensical, wonderful repetitions might be the closest I’ve found to Marguerite Young, no lie.

    The repetitiveness (always with variation) that can seem obsessive if read one way, also is the small in the large if read another.

    Though there is something of Young in the way Mathias Énard moves on the page in Compass, when the narrative pace through all the Orientalist anecdote feels much like Tom Cruise running in his branded manner through and through and through some Mission Impossible ticking narrative clock.

    Or, almost as much, Nathaniel Mackey’s ongoing epistolary novel if his Dear Angel of Dust ever wrote back.

    *

    Or this. This last.

    In my wife’s grandmother’s kitchen, a radio played for decades, one station, from morning coffee and newspaper until the lights were turned out for the night. From the upstairs landing, cross the vaulted ceiling terrazzo floor expanse of the great room you’d hear the strange strains of midcentury instrumentals of pop standards, old torch songs. We would sit at the kitchen table, playing the card game Skip-Bo—which I learned recently was once called Spite and Malice—for hours, hours across years. Sometimes the vocalists would indeed come in on cue, but they were almost never the A-list. We’d Shazam them to find out about the also-rans, the big-in-their-day, the never-Bings, not-Sinatras, only-could-wish-to-be Nat King Coles. Wanna-be Peggy Lees.

    The station was Jones College Radio, a strange offshoot of a secretarial school overlooking the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, Florida…smack up against the massive suspension bridge that reaches toward the considerable downtown with the St. James Hotel where James Weldon Johnson’s father worked as headwaiter, and the wide St. Johns River, that reaches south past Beluthahatchee where Woody Guthrie stayed for a time, past the orange grove plantation Frederick Delius oversaw and wrote music about, down past Sanford, Florida, past many springs and the manatees that dodge or don’t dodge the speeding watercraft.

    The even toned voice of the DJ sometimes breaks in to say, “You’re listening to beautiful music on WKTZ Jones College Radio.” Later the college would close and radio would only advertise Riverton Towers, a retirement community. The dulcet pre-recorded DJs would try to interest you in convenient living with views of the St. Johns River. Then that spot on the radio dial is sold and becomes a Christian station. Jones College Radio flees online and, for a time, you could still stream it from there. Now it’s gone. But even then, online, there were fewer call signs than there once were and my wife’s grandmother never did get the internet, so the kitchen went silent. Then the kitchen was torn down along with the house with all its terrazzo and the golden pine paneling that climbed to the great room ceiling and patio and garden. They all turned back to grey and sandy Florida soil.

    And the lot’s emptiness, just off the Atlantic Ocean, means some lingering tuning fork of the midcentury seems finally no longer to hum in my ear.

    That haunting of aural memory, palimpsests numerous as puff pastry, the overload of the endless repetitions of the obsessive circling of mind in Young’s novel that is so much more like a recursive spirograph than much of the straight-line stream-of-consciousness modernisms of Faulkner or Woolf or Joyce, recalls to me the endless series of days in that Florida kitchen and the long silenced working studio orchestras who sat up and barreled through another up-tempo, near-shrieking version of “On the Street Where You Live.”

    I think about those lives sometimes, those string sections that were the sedentary marching bands of every midcentury vinyl collection. Enough violinists to occupy a small country. So that the over-orchestration of everything from bad pop to Nashville country backing bands becomes a standing joke. That’s some part or note of or in Miss Macintosh, My Darling. Or so it seems to me.

    But one more last thing. From 1954 to 56, Bing Crosby had a no frills, no comedy, no guests radio show for which he just laid down recordings of whatever songs he cared to, generally with just one accompanist who (unfortunately) mostly favored organ, harpsichord, and celesta over the piano. The recordings only resurfaced a few years back. In an improvised-into-another-song version of “Yes Sir That’s My Baby” Bing offers these words, amping the urgency of a midcentury love song’s rush from first love to the altar, transcribed here as best as I am able,

    Pretty soon
    Pretty grabbin’ soon
    We’re gonna hear Mr. Lohengrin’s tune.
    With about six fiddles.

    Bing quips that last bit—a clear dig at those midcentury violins—into a moment of silence hanging between the beats, with the best time, his best time, everyone always said he had the best time.

    And the sentimentality in aspic of Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling seems at last to me like Bing having it both ways, here. And having it both ways, again and again. Without end. Spoken into the silence between the beats, again.

    Drew Johnson
    Drew Johnson
    Drew Johnson was raised in Mississippi and lives in Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, VQR, Harper’s, The Literary Review, New England Review, and elsewhere. His nonfiction has appeared at Literary Hub, Los Angeles Review of Books, Guernica, Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. The Cupboard brought out his 7 Greyhounds (2013) as one of their single-issue chapbooks.





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