Everything in One Room

Nature is said to abhor a vacuum, and Harald in The Group is "a perfect fanatic about waste space." For someone whose ideal apartment is "a machine for living," his speech, though mechanical, lacks economy. He's so verbosely inexpressive--of which lifting Le Courbusier's famous phrase is an example--he has class stupidity. He is, despite his fanaticism, a fan of lofty form evacuated of content: He reads the Old Testament and Marx "for the style." His vision of the perfect household might use space efficiently, but perhaps it can be more clearly regarded as empty forms: "everything built in: bookcases, beauros, chests. The beds were going to be mattresses and springs, supported by four low pegs, and they were thinking about having a table to eat on that would fold up into the wall like a Murphy bed--a single leaf of wood shaped like an ironing board but broader." Having just moved into an apartment consisting of two rooms and less than 200 square feet, this domestic vision filled me not only with dread, but with a kind of cross-eyed, doubled sense of too-closeness. Not only did it describe the very conceits that would in theory liberate a tiny space like my own (and therefore underline the tinyness of that space) but there is a peculiar cramped sensation that accompanies reading about an aspect of your life that you try to ignore. Like watching Portlandia in Portland, or watching a television show about someone with a stressful occupation having just come from a stressful occupation earlier in the day.

There is almost nothing in The Group that isn't a little funny. The narration is uniformly amused and cruel. One might characterize this disposition as "detached," "distant," or "cold," like Lakey is said to be. But while not warm, the narration has friction with its many subjects. That is, this kind of mercilessness seems to come not of distance but intimacy. If it were cinema, we might be close enough to see the pores of the group's skin--almost dehumanizingly close, and not nearly distant enough to be sexy. This is not a narrator who runs on desire, projecting into other minds, but rather seems to be laboring to survive among overabundant overcloseness--the group. The strategy is to put all those impinging in their places, to use intimate knowledge to characterize them so accurately that they're kept temporarily at bay. Rather than narrating from a position of presumed subjectivity, the narration is in the process of becoming a subject, eking out a tiny space. Not a room of one's own; not a space from which to speak. If the space were secure, there would be no reason to speak. There would be wonderful silence.

Nothing that's not a little funny, but some are funnier than others, like a fold-out table that's shaped like an ironing board. "Using ironing boards as dining tables" can be a handy metonym for poor, aspiring professionals. Because of course separation of functions is just what they're hoping their future career's monetary gains will enable their living space to have. Space is, indeed, something money buys and tends to mark class. The vast, alienating interiors of the rich have been a cinematic cliché at least since Citizen Kane. The classic image is of the married couple sitting at opposite ends of a table so long they can't hear what the other is saying. It's distance that attenuates relationality, that brings occupants all too close to themselves. But these same estates can be romanticized, not so much for their height and breadth, but for their labyrinthine profusion of rooms, the seclusion of which enables a romantic intimacy. Brideshead Revisisted, for example, is nostalgic for the getting-lost-in-rooms-ness of the English country estate. There's always a room to escape to. There are so many walls that both individuation and eros are possible.

Environmentalism, like the technocracy Harald is so enamored with, views waste with a moral intensity. Interior space must be conserved not because the world must fit neatly together, but because space takes materials to build, and takes energy to heat. Smaller is better, and after all it's cozier, too. This idea has become a movement of sorts, of building and living in very small houses. It comes, of course, with a prescription that one ought to spend more time outdoors anyway. One will want to go outside, if one lives in constant indoor proximity with another. As delightful as The Group is, not everyone can channel their frictional mood into a novel. Moreover, The Group, as you've already surmised from its title even if you haven't read it, does not spring from the friction between romantic partners. The goal is space among others, not space enough to romanticize an other.

The other night I was walking behind a man and a woman, who I assumed from the enthusiasm of their speech were both drunk and on a date. They were arguing, but their tones were not serious. That's different from mock-arguing. The woman, who had moved here six months ago from a city I didn't catch, was defending Portland against the man, who was from Tulsa. "But Tulsa is so clean and lifeless! You don't understand! The people here are so nice!" (I assume nice meant quaint.) The two just went on like this, completely but cheerfully disagreeing about not especially fundamental issues. They were loud, and listening to them was fatiguing. It felt like we were all being rubbed with sandpaper, but they didn't seem to mind. These were two people who may as well have been yelling from separate rooms; their only conceivable connection was sexual. In the same room together they could not have kept it up; that that their words were not hitting home would hit home. Walking down the street, though, allowed them not to care. In an expansive public space their nonconversation could be euphoric.

It's bad enough being in constant indoor proximity with oneself. Having everything condensed into one or two rooms means there can be almost no spatial metaphors to rely on to separate aspects of life at home. The only possible changes of scene become shifts in perspective, rather than different rooms. It could be argued, of course, that the difference between sitting in the chair by the window to laying in bed means just as little as the difference between the living room and the bedroom.

Mary McCarthy has, nonetheless, managed to make the difference between the time The Group is about and the time she wrote it matter. From this era of hyperbolic disgust towards foods fashionable in the midcentury (all things gelatinned, canned, full of preservatives), the novel sounds equally disgusted with the food fashionable in the 30s.

I know, I always have to drag my writing woes into it. I never know how to end anything. Pieces of writing that I don't finish are like a sticky gelatin. They break into tiny chunks that I can't get off. I keep making infinitesimal edits to sentences that even though nobody else has read them are shameful, and uncomfortably close. They populate whatever room I'm in, crop up on the sides of buildings and the trunks of trees. McCarthy has figured it out: the only distance is time.

25 February 2013