The most unread book ever acclaimed: *Miss MacIntosh, My Darling*

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https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018...acclaimed/

EXCERPT: Like the holy books, long novels are more often maligned than read. Critics complain that they are exasperating, or impossible, or not worth the time. But in the history of my reading life, I’ve encountered nothing like the caveat lectors surrounding Margurite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. They felt less like user warnings or cautionary tales than being forced to gaze upon the skeletons of those who had previously made the attempt. When it was published in 1965, the critic Peter Prescott gave up after two days, even though his editor offered him four times the normal rate (everyone else had refused). The online reader reviews I found varied between naked revulsion and sheepish endorsement. One Amazon reviewer claimed he had given a copy of the 1198-page novel to each of his friends and promised that if they finished, he would pay for their children’s college education. “I’ve paid for no one’s education!” he wrote. Upon Young’s death in 1995, thirty years after the novel was published, the New York Times proclaimed it “one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.”

[...] In the end, whatever meaning the story contains is diluted by its sheer excess—which is by design. *Miss MacIntosh* is a novel as infinite and mystifying as life itself. Having finished it, I experienced no sense of triumph at having conquered something difficult; I felt no closer to proficiency or understanding. In a way, the critic who comes to the novel with the desire to master it, to figure it out, falls victim to the same delusions as its characters, with their quixotic, utopian quests. Any reader who hopes to survive the book must forget about telos, abandon all hope of destination. Accept that the bus is going nowhere. [...]

I came across Young by way of her essay “The Midwest of Everywhere,” a short piece about a series of bizarre sights she claims to have witnessed first-hand in the American interior: Elephants browsing the banks of the Wabash river; an entire town populated by deaf people; a dead whale in a boxcar, stranded in the middle of a cornfield. Young was born in Indiana and spent many decades in the Midwest—at the University of Chicago, where she studied Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, and at the Iowa Writers Workshop, where she taught fiction—but in the essay, she writes about the region in a way that is entirely unfamiliar. “For me, a plain Middle Westerner, there is no middle way,” she writes. “I am in love with whatever is eccentric, devious, strange, singular, unique, out of this world—and with life as an incalculable, a chaotic thing.”

I read the essay last winter, at my home in Wisconsin. [...] I was not in a particularly ambitious mood that winter, but I kept thinking about the strange consciousness I’d glimpsed in the essay. A couple days later, I’d found a copy of *Miss MacIntosh*. The novel likewise begins in the Midwest. A young woman, Vera Cartwheel, is traveling by bus through southern Indiana, looking out at an endless expanse of gray mist. [...]

It seems impossible to describe the book in terms of plot or structure. Even the basic operations of character and perspective are not straightforward. But here is an attempt: Vera has come to the Midwest from Boston in search of Miss MacIntosh, her childhood nursemaid, a spinster from What Cheer, Iowa, who mysteriously disappeared after her fourteenth birthday. What makes Miss MacIntosh so remarkable is that she is, unlike most of the people in Vera’s life, ordinary. “She was neither a high brow nor a low brow but just, as she was pleased to admit, a plain middle brow, a Middle Westerner, trying to steer her middle course.”

But little in the book is what it seems—especially that which appears ordinary. Early on, Vera notices that the bus is not driving a straight line, but circling the same route. It is at this point that the novel—which begins as a quest—folds in on itself, tunneling into reveries and flashbacks, drifting into the consciousness of other characters, most of them women. There is Vera’s aunt Hannah, an unmarried suffragette who owns fifty wedding dresses; and Esther Longtree, an eternally pregnant woman. There’s Vera’s mother, a bedridden opium addict—“the horizontal person”—whose labyrinthine, hallucinatory monologues are among the book’s many delights: she imagines she is conversing with dead queens and kings, golden harps, chandeliers, Milton, Shelly, subway musicians, and “two sister ravens who had created the universe.”

Around page two hundred, the warnings about the book began to seem less hysterical. The novel is not demanding in any conventional sense: it contains no footnotes, no structural gimmicks, no compendious digressions. What it does require is attention of the kind that Americans find most difficult: the stoic focus needed for meditation—or for driving into the infinite horizon of the heartland. The reader is less likely to throw the book down in a fit of disgust than she is to be lulled into a theta state, a highway hypnosis induced by page after page of incantatory prose. Monologues last for hundreds of pages. Sentences are repeated with subtle, endless differences, reiterating paradoxes [...]

But the novel does feel oddly contemporary—particularly in its fixation on simultaneous realities. Characters are said to be both alive and dead, both pregnant and barren, both awake and dreaming. Men change into women, and women into men. One character, Mr. Spitzer, suspects that he is actually his own twin brother, who died by suicide....

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