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Margaret and I, Kate Wilhelm

August 7, 2014

margretandiMargaret and I, Kate Wilhelm (1971)
Review by Joachim Boaz

The grayness swirled and became solid, a plain that was featureless at first, then with grotesque shapes emerging from it, obviously things growing, but things that shouldn’t have been. They looked like monstrous scabs, like leprous fingers curled obscenely in an attitude of prayer, like parts of bodies covered with a fungus or mold, misshapen and horrible. (p 73).

Margaret and I is a profoundly unsettling and hallucinatory exploration of a woman’s sexual and emotional self-realization. Or, to use the Jungian terms deployed by Wilhelm in her preliminary quotation, the novel charts the process of individuation where the conscious and unconscious “learn to know, respect and accommodate each other”.

The SF elements – a future political crisis where a third political party threatens to destabilize the country and a newly discovered knowledge that gives insight into the actions of time – are sprinkled throughout. They are not meant to be “descriptions of a future world” but rather carefully constructed metaphors of Margaret’s struggles. This struggled is apparent in the title for the “I” of the title is Margaret’s subconscious. Just as the external political environment is fragmenting, Margaret’s conscious and subconscious are not in unison.

Kate Wilhelm, famous for the masterpiece Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), produced a substantial catalogue of lesser known SF novels and large numbers of short stories that I have only recently started to investigate. Without doubt, her favorite form is the novella – and it is little surprise that her most successful novel is a fix-up work comprised of three novellas. An adept at the shorter form, Wilhelm weaves her trademark dark/claustrophobic ruminations characterized by substantial psychological tension.

Unfortunately, in Margaret and I the psychological tension conjured in the first third looses impetus by the end. However the characterization of Margaret and her subconscious who flits in and out is the most satisfying aspect of the work. Margaret’s slow realization, at the instigation of her subconscious, of her position as an extension of her husband and his desires is convincing and poignant. And, the narrator as the subconscious is more than a gimmick, but a fascinating window into a character.

Recommended for fans of psychological and feminist SF. Although, be aware that the SF elements are secondary to the novel’s aims – they are eluded to as external metaphors for Margaret’s internal struggles. Be aware, there are extensive autoerotic sequences and hallucinatory sexual visions that are not suitable for younger readers. Mature audiences will realize that they are necessary elements of the narrative and characterizations.

Margaret Oliver flees from her husband Barnett to the house of her sister-in-law Josie Oliver. In a strange sequence of decisions, Margaret decides that she rather take on the identity of Josie Oliver, who is absent, and hide her own. She is desperate, urged on by her subconscious who is narrating, to figure out where her life went wrong and what exactly about her husband is so repulsive to her. Also “she is still grappling from the problem of her sexuality and the senseless promise she had made herself” (p 21).

Josie Oliver, the owner of the house, is a well-known costume designer. Her husband, Paul Tyson, a physicist who was murdered…. And whose secret discoveries are locked away in journals in a safe. Various forces conspire to access the safe and uncover its secrets. Including Dr. Bok and his assistant Morris Stein who studies “Perception Distortions in Various Psychological States” (p 63).

Swirling at the edges is the figure of Barnett, Margaret’s husband. Barnett treats her as a object, he believes “buying her pretties” will satiate all her desires (which he never bothers to ask about). Barnett is involved with the sinister politician Arnold Greenley. Greenley wants Margaret to join Barnett on his campaign because she is pretty and speaks like Midwesterners do. His motives at first glance seem obscure, he does not have a distinct political platform but rather lusts after power: “all he can hope for, as he well knows, is to create a schism in the two major parties and wield a power bloc that will make demands and have enough votes on hand to reward whoever promises to meet those demands…” (p 61).

The house itself – where all these characters’ paths intersect at various points in the narrative – seems to spurn hallucinations. It, with the turbulent ocean nearby, is almost a nexus – a point of intersection…. Greenley and Barnett seek to force Margaret to follow a certain path against the will of her subconscious. The subconscious desires to get at Paul’s journals to learn how to persuade Margaret to chart her own way.

Wilhelm adeptly weaves metaphors and images of fragmentation and individuation: the quests for hidden knowledge (the journals/the subconscious/sexual awareness), masquerading as another (costume designer/Margaret as Josie/Margaret as wife rather than individual), and interior searching (Margaret and her subconscious merging/choices vs societal expectation).

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

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