The fifth in my Kate Wilhelm’s SF Guest Post Series (original announcement and post list) comes via Max Cairnduff (twitter)—who reviews literature and occasionally SF over at Pechorin’s Journal. In the past he has contributed to my Michael Bishop series. He is responsible for introducing me to one of my favorite works of all time, Anna Kavan’s phenomenal hallucination of a novel Ice (1967)—so check out his site.
Although he does not seem to have enjoyed Margaret and I (1971) as much as I did, his review does touch on the novel’s extreme psychological power and ingenious set-up.
Thank you so much for contributing!
(Uncredited cover for the 1978 edition)
Nominated for the 1972 Nebula Award for Best Novel
The only Kate Wilhelm I’d read before Joachim invited me to take part in this Guest Post series was her novel Welcome, Chaos. I’ve not even read Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (though I always thought I had, which ironically is probably what stopped me reading it).
Beyond those two titles I knew very little about her work. Joachim though knows his vintage SF, so when he invited me to take part in his Wilhelmathon I was keen.
Margaret and I was first published in 1971, and it’s a book of its time. It’s essentially a novel of one woman’s self-realisation and sexual awakening, with the SFnal elements there mostly to serve as externalisations of her inner development.
Margaret herself is a beautiful (it’s relevant) woman in her mid-20s living in a near-future USA. As the book opens she’s taken a few days out to spend time housesitting for one of her husband’s relatives. Her marriage is, from her perspective, stagnant; from her husband’s, happy. She’s considering leaving him. He doesn’t know that.
It’s the “I” though that gives the book interest, because Margaret isn’t the narrator. Instead, the narrator is Margaret’s unconscious mind.
“Margaret was too tired to think, too tired to care that the house was wrapped in dust covers from end to end. I had her pull the sheets from the furniture and toss them in a corner; if she had no curiosity about the house, I did. I got her started on unpacking the groceries and through her eyes I examined the kitchen; As she put things away I wondered about the house, about Josie, why she had left it like this; I wondered about [her husband], what he was doing, and what Margaret would do next I didn’t care a lot I am interested, but don’t really care.”
Margaret and her unconscious mind don’t really get on that well, in fact if anything “I” rather looks down on Margaret. “I” can influence Margaret, but struggles to meaningfully communicate with her. Margaret, quite literally, isn’t in touch with herself.
Margaret intended to use her housesitting time to think through her marriage and whether she should make a final break from her husband. She’s mistaken locally though for Josie, the woman who actually owns the house, and decides to let the mistake ride. What Margaret didn’t know is that Josie’s partner was a cutting edge physicist and while he’s dead he left notebooks behind in the house and it’s known Josie helped him with her work. Margaret finds herself under increasing pressure as two local researchers turn up demanding that she gives them access to the notes, and to “Josie’s” memories.
The first third or so of Margaret and I is a lot of fun. “I” notices more than Margaret, picks up on details she misses, but can’t reliably override Margaret so finds itself carried along in Margaret’s wake, irritated as Margaret initially fails to realise that the researchers aren’t to be trusted. “I” soon has its own problems though, as what Josie’s partner was working on was in fact a new form of consciousness, and “I” starts to have visions in the house which suggest that in some sense the dead physicist is still very much present.
Margaret’s husband meanwhile is lead adviser to an independent presidential candidate – a vicious populist stirring up riots and trouble in the hope of getting bought off with his own little slice of power. As Margaret is divided, America is divided. Individual and country are both are at war with themselves, unable to join together their own constituent parts…
It’s a great setup, but Wilhelm’s real interest is in using all of it as a means to explore Margaret’s self-actualisation. Given time to herself Margaret starts to realise that she’s capable of an existence outside her marriage. As she learns more of Josie and Josie’s relationship she sees that there can be more to love than her husband’s rather precise and passionless embraces that satisfy him but that leave her wanting something she can’t even name, yet.
As “I” explores visions of what may well be heaven and hell, Margaret launches on a voyage of sexual discovery both in reality and in what appear to be increasingly realistic dreams. As the new reality “I” is discovering begins to intrude however, precisely what is real, what’s dream, and what’s supra-real becomes very hard to distinguish (including, intentionally, for the reader).
Unfortunately, the more the book focused on its real interests the less it interested me. The physicist’s discovery is all about expanded consciousness in a very 60’s/70’s way. It’s not clear what the researchers seeking to acquire it plan to do with it, and Margaret isn’t really in any kind of danger from them. Instead they, like her husband, are present in the narrative primarily as examples of imbalanced gender relationships.
At one point one of the men does use hypnosis and sexual humiliation to seek to control Margaret, but then at another her own husband has sex with her while she’s asleep from a sleeping pill. The point I think isn’t then that the men are a threat to Margaret in some thriller-esque sense, but rather that men generally assume control of Margaret’s body and sexuality until she’s able to integrate herself and assume control of her own psychic and sexual identity.
Similarly, the researchers want Margaret because they mistake her for Josie and think she can give them insight into the physicist’s research. Later in the book her husband visits with his presidential candidate because they think she’ll be useful to them if she appears on stage when they tour the Midwest trying to drum up votes. The various men all want Margaret, but only for what she represents or can do for them, not for who she is.
“I” then discovers a reality beyond the one we all see around us, and Margaret discovers a reality beyond men’s ideas of her nature and role. The problem is, and at risk of getting into some quite thorny contemporary debates on these issues, Margaret is incredibly privileged. She’s young, white, beautiful, and rich enough to spend weeks living in a remote house without any demands on her time other than her own desire for self-discovery. There’s nothing of course wrong with being any of those things, but it does mean that for me it all got a bit Eat, Pray Love as I read about a woman who already had a pretty good life establishing for herself an even better one.
Ultimately, I think Margaret and I has dated fairly badly. The sexual politics of course remains relevant, but the expression of it here reflects the particular concerns of when it was written; the concept of integrating conscious and unconscious mind is interesting but I’m not sure many today would follow this particular theory of how the mind works; and the entire consciousness-raising theme is all a bit Carlos Castaneda.
On top of that, because the book’s real focus is on the internal the external plot elements don’t really go anywhere. The book stands and falls then on how much you’re interested in Margaret’s personal journey, and in the end I wasn’t terribly.
On a final note, I read the SF Gateway kindle reissue of this book. It’s riddled with typos. Some of you may have noticed that the quote above had some missing full stops, that’s not my error. In places it’s clear that the edition is a bad OCR scan (Qty in place of City for example) and at times there are random characters or distractingly obvious errors. It’s great that SF Gateway is giving fans easy access to these books again, but a little proofreading would go a long way.
Joachim also reviewed Margaret and I. His review is here.
List of Guest Posts
List of my previously posted reviews
Collection: The Mile-Long Spaceship (1963)
Novel: Margaret and I (1971)
Novel: Juniper Time (1979)
For more book reviews consult the LIST
For more articles + my Michael Bishop Guest Post series consult the LIST