Many people had great hopes for Mary McCarthy's new novel. Literary gossip columns began talking about it more than a year ago. The plot structure was ingenious, almost limitless in its potential. Through the lives of eight members of the Vassar class of 1933 (her own class), Miss McCarthy would call forth the New York of the '30's, the New York she lived in as a member of the left-wing crowd gathered around the new journal Partisan Review.
Most writers anticipated the novel for its promise of recalling, and recording, the turbulent world of the early New Deal, and in many cases, their early manhood. Miss McCarthy had a more difficult task writing to a younger generation. She could not depend on memory to make a rough narrative seem smooth; she could not draw a quick sketch of a Spanish Civil War meeting and expect a college student to be content with the memories her passage invoked.
Almost All Allusion
All too often this is exactly what she does. She hints at what life was like then; but it is almost all allusion, hardly ever substance.
The initial scene is the wedding of Kay Strong, one week after "the group" graduates from Vassar. The final scene is Kay's funeral, seven years later (the original plan was to have the book encompass 20 years). The neatness of this framework is deceptive; the intervening story is not ordered, but chaotic in the extreme.
One looks in vain for anything approaching a coherent theme. Miss McCarthy said in an interview several years ago the theme would be "the loss of faith in the idea of progress." What is left of that is an occasional ironic swipe at the shallowness of the radicalism of the era.
These satirical passages are among Miss McCarthy's cleverest: "But the red-letter day in Mr. Andrews' life was the day he became a Trotskyite! . . . The figure of the whiskered war commissar wearing a white uniform and riding in his armored train or reading French novels during Politburo meetings captured his imagination. He demanded that Mr. Schneider recruit him to the Trotskyite group."
Prise Hartshorn, an ardent New Dealer, decides her baby should be weaned the modern way, on a bottle. Her husband, Sloan, a pediatrician, insists on breast feeting. "There was a side of Sloan, she had decided, that she mistrusted, a side that could be summed up by saying that he was a Republican. Up to now this had not mattered; most men she knew were Republicans--it was almost part of being a man. But she did not like the thought of a Republican controlling the destinies of a helpless baby."
These passages -- and there are others--are funny, but it is hardly the stuff of which "major novels of our time" are made. And often Miss McCarthy's spoofs are edged with a bitterness that makes them unreal, satires on satires about unthinking progressives imprisoned by cliches.
There is no clear vision of the world Miss McCarthy describes, no constant sense of time, place and mood. The action is inevitably episodic, as it must be with so many characters. But the sounds from this chorus of voices are ragged and unharmonious.
A key reason is the inadequacy of the characters themselves. No character is nearly complete, but even in their half-drawn state they are largely improbable. One doesn't recognize anybody as a whole person, only as a brief actor.
I have a feeling Miss McCarthy was once snubbed (being from Seattle and all) by a group similar to the one she depicts. Her mocking bitterness distorts her perception; the characters are not whole because they are almost always naive or pompous or absurd. I cannot attribute Miss McCarthy's lack of sympathy to her unrepentent realism (as Arthur Mizener did in The New York Times). She has a past history of carrying on personal vendettas in her published fiction, and I sense this is a grudge of long standing only now being extirpated.
A character is seen with some compassion only when she feels as Miss McCarthy might feel; for instance, when Dottie Renfrew, a proper Bostonian, declares her love (on the eve of her marriage) for a no-account Village painter who deflowered her the year before.
Clearly the best part of the book is Miss McCarthy's brilliant wit. Sometimes her humor is bold to the point of crudeness, as when Dottie imagines her lover has told her to get a "peccary," when he said "pessary." But it isn't offensive, and her humor takes other forms. She is ironic, too, often with great subtlety. And she has a number of neat phrases, as when a party guest described the cake: "it's like eating frosted absorbent cotton."
The Group is a funny book, often brilliantly so. But it remains a major disappointment. Maybe too much was expected. Maybe it was unreasonable to expect a writer who is primarily an essayist to finally give us the novel that would capture the New York of the '30's. We have social history, we have political and economic history. If anything, the New Deal suffers from a glut of scholarship.
But we still do not have insight, a real feeling for those feverish days. Those who lived through those times do not find the insight in this novel, even if they cheer when they hear the old arguments and issues invoked. Those critics must feel much like one does upon seeing a movie of his home town. The younger generation does not even have the memories.