What Cheer, Iowa. Photograph by Tony Webster
From The Paris Review:
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is a modernist novel decidedly unconcerned with modern questions.
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: “And his night was his day, and his day was his night, for his twilight was his dawn, and his dawn was his twilight, and his moon was his sun, and his sun was his moon, and his beginning was his end, and his end was his beginning.”
There’s an echo here of Christ at his most runic, in the gnostic Apocrypha. (Here he is in the Gospel of Thomas: “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female…” etc.). Young was a descendent of Brigham Young, and while her contemporaries often compared her to Eliot and Joyce, she insisted her greatest influences were the Bible, Augustine, and the Mormon poets. She bristled when her work was described as avant-garde; it was inspired by the oldest forms of Western literature.
But the novel does feel oddly contemporary—particularly in its fixation on simultaneous realities.