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7 March 2013

Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (1965) – to be continued

This monster Christmas cake of a book has stood ostentatiously, enticingly, on a shelf of mine for several months, since I found it going for £1 in an Oxfam bargain bin: a single leaf was detached, but I've now restored its integrity with sellotape.
 
I first learned of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling from Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, in which the protagonist Macon Leary uses it as a subterfuge, a screen to hide behind to avoid unwanted flight encounters. Tyler herself uses it to dip into, which I can understand many people doing: at 1198 densely-worded pages it can be a daunting prospect to tackle this literary leviathan head-on, especially as it's a non-linear narrative. Especially as 948 of those pages take place on an almost empty bus. Especially as most of the descriptions come from the memory of the narrator, Vera Cartwheel. Especially as some, perhaps many, of those descriptions are unreliable.
 
Last night – in a spare moment – I picked up this gorgeous gift to literature, as I have several times before, and wallowed in its swirling, soaring poetic prose. I've not yet really explored much beyond page 37 – the end of the second chapter (and there are 80 more chapters to go) – but already I'm aware of many things: for instance, it's a bus journey initially through Indiana, a quest for the beloved former nursemaid Miss MacIntosh, who disappeared from Vera's childhood home near Boston, Massachusetts, and who may be dead; the driver whistles and swigs conspicuously from a whiskey bottle; the only other passengers are a young couple, the girl pregnant and dressed extravagantly; Vera is the bi-product of a brief, and bad, marriage: her vastly wealthy mother to a ne'er-do-well playboy; her maternal grandfather collected factories; her mother may have permanently taken to bed (perhaps kept alive by secret midnight exercises around the mansion) due to her relationship with her father, or perhaps due to her relationship with her husband, but she now obliterates the world – or maybe makes it real – with opium and its dreams.
 
This is a kind of cenophobic literature (and no, I've not made a typo). The reader thinks of Gothic novels, of Woolf, of Joyce, of the interstitial (what gets lost through the gaping cracks of life), of roads trips through the flipside of the American Dream, of The Great Gatsby, of Gloria Swanson playing Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, of Chinese boxes of paradoxes.

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