A Talent for Insanity: On M. E. White’s “In the Balance”

October 23, 2021   •   By Natasha Young

IN 2016, I was wandering around cold, damp Paris in an altered state from jet lag and sleep deprivation. It was my first time there, and I was making an obligatory pilgrimage to Shakespeare and Company. In the intimate annex adjacent to the main bookstore, the antiquarian section, I bought a 1967 issue of The Paris Review as a souvenir. I chose it, rather arbitrarily, because it contained an interview with Borges and a diary by John Cage.

Upon my return to my then-home in Los Angeles, I was struck by a story by an author I’d never heard of — “A Summer Evening’s Wake” by M. E. White, in which a young woman named Lee visits her senile grandfather, as she prophesizes, “for the last time.” Her grandfather doesn’t recognize her and rambles off increasingly tall tales from his gold-panning days in Alaska, rife with unwittingly racist caricatures and casual gun violence. Her grandmother’s tiptoeing around the problem leaves Lee feeling even more alone, until an almost comedic tragedy occurs. The rapid-fire prose captures the young woman’s acquiescence to, or acceptance of, a cruel and indifferent universe; she weeps on her way to her grandfather’s house but, once there, sits very still and quiet, determined to endure whatever happens.

A cursory online search yielded nothing about M. E. White. My curiosity persisted after I’d returned to Los Angeles until, finally, I found a novel called In the Balance by an author of that name, published by Harper & Row in 1968, a used copy of which was available on Abebooks.com, a site for rare booksellers.

The novel is narrated by Baylor Irish, a cynical, reckless, sardonic, 19-year-old college freshman with a “talent” for “insanity.” She takes us along on her unhinged adventures between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, veering in and out of hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, to us and to the narrator. The story reads as if she’s being propelled through life in one long take, shot from inside her mind. This unrelenting momentum careens through Baylor’s sideways accounts of her “private battles” and of the violence and absurdity of the people she encounters. Baylor’s lack of control is a kind of bliss, too: the liberation of losing it, the manic lightness of abandoning all rules and expectations.

I had to find out who this M. E. White was.

To find her took an unusual amount of effort for the digital age, for I had to track her down the old-fashioned way: searching the archives of the now-defunct publisher to find out what her full name was and where she might have lived, then cold-calling the landlines of several octogenarians named Mary Ellen White, asking, “Hello, sorry to bother you, but are you by any chance the M. E. White who wrote a novel called In the Balance?” Unsurprisingly, this caused some alarm and confusion, and as my heart pounded with each call, I seriously considered that I might have lost my mind. But finally, one of my targets answered — after a pause of apparent surprise — “Why, yes. Yes, I am.” I asked if I could meet her, she said yes, and a few weeks later I flew from L.A. to San Francisco, rented a car, and drove through torrential rain to Palo Alto, to the well-appointed home she’d lived in for 40 years.

“A lot of my work is the equivalent of screaming,” White told me, seated on an antique sofa set before a grand fireplace. I sat facing her, on the edge of an antique armchair, riveted as she relayed the tragically brief history of her life as an author — a sense of tragedy she seemed not to share, for her acute sense of irony and skepticism toward sentimentality had apparently persisted in the five or so decades since she’d last published a novel.

I wouldn’t describe In the Balance as autofiction, but White did write it as a reflection of her own experiences in the male-dominated academic and literary worlds. She wrote it at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, inspired in part by her freshman year at Stanford, where she was one of two undergraduates in Wallace Stegner’s original Creative Writing program. “A lot of the people I knew there were graduate students, a little bit older,” she told me. “We’d go to parties at Ken Kesey’s house. Everyone was taking LSD, including the dog. That really turned me off. I reflected the world I lived in at the time, but not necessarily every Stanford freshman had the same experiences.”

Like the author, Baylor was born and raised in rural Kansas, but when she was in junior high her parents moved the family to California. Unlike her parents, she maintains a ferocious small-town middle-American sneer at all signs of coastal elitism. She is an aspiring comedienne in her freshman year of college, but she performs her theatrical insanity with or without an audience. To score booze at a grocery store, she takes one of each brand off the shelves, arranges them in an orderly line on the floor, then picks up a bottle of bourbon and leaves with it. “In private battles I usually lose both sides instead of just one,” she says to the fourth wall, so “in an attempt to compromise,” she fills every glass in her apartment with the bourbon, places the glasses carefully around the room as if to serve invisible guests, then drinks them all herself. She wakes up the next morning, in a mess of vomit and menstrual blood, to a man knocking on her door to offer her the lead role in an experimental film: a comedy with no script, where her only co-star is a sexual psychopath whom the director, a washed-up child star, has sprung from an asylum for the criminally insane. “I think comedy is a lack of control,” she says to the man, but he doesn’t get it.

If comedy is a lack of control, abjection is its dark underbelly. For Baylor, horror and humiliation are a given of the female experience. Set in California in the late ’50s, the story begins with a party on the beach, as drunk men roughhouse Baylor and her best friend Inez, exposing their breasts out of their swimsuits. Jackson, a violent sociopath and Baylor’s sort-of boyfriend, nearly drowns her, then carries her to shore like a rescuer. Later, she’s passed out in a strange bedroom in the beach house — hallucinating, beautifully, that a mirror is a painting: “The life-like nipple, a budding shimmering pink, soundlessly nursed the night air” — when Jackson intrudes, pins her down, and strangles her. Sexual assault occurs casually throughout the novel, albeit typically in more at-first-glance playful scenarios. “I didn’t even think about it when I was writing it,” White told me. “I don’t think at that time there was consciousness, like there is now, of that kind of thing. It’s just something that happened.”

White’s novel is a comedic foil to the self-serious “Smart Woman Adrift novels” (a term coined by Katie Roiphe) written by her more famous contemporaries Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Renata Adler, but they all share a core characteristic: the desire to burn it all down. “I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same spot for too long,” the protagonist of Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat muses, “you throw a grenade in exactly the spot you were standing in, and jump, and pray.” Or consider Maria’s bleak refrain in Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1970): “Nothing applies.” But Baylor is unconcerned with the weighty subjects typical of women’s novels of the time — marriage, motherhood, etc. What makes In the Balance so ahead of its time is her perspective — as an unattached, disaffected youth who happens to be a woman — on the coming apart of conventional culture in the ’60s, as family structure and the predictability of a woman’s life eroded, and how such unbearable freedom could lead to insanity. Sort of like Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” without all the moralizing and despair. In fact, Baylor repeatedly calls out other characters on their “moralistic” tones or reactions, as if morals were a logical fallacy and a weakness. Through Baylor, White seems to ask a rhetorical question: What is insanity actually, in such an absurd world? Does it even matter?

“I’ve had, all my life, one interest,” White told me, “and that is: what is the point? Basically — and this is part of the point of [In the Balance] — when you say, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ that has the logical equivalent of a burp. You can take it on faith if you want to, but that doesn’t mean that you can logically derive that from anything. You can either just go with the flow or object to it, and I’ve sort of done both, but you can’t conclude that these are the right things to do or the wrong things to do.”

Baylor does occasionally glimpse the world out of the welter of her consciousness, and she reserves a special ire for the California bourgeoisie. Her unfiltered observations are detached from sentimentality or moralizing. The war in Vietnam, for example, enters the periphery of her experience when a drunken soldier hits on her; she rejects him, so he seeks her sympathy instead with a story about the buddies he lost in a rice paddy. But she is too disaffected to let her heartstrings be tugged by anybody’s tragedy. “The insane are not easily destroyed,” she observes, for “they can rebuild endlessly in their minds.” Like Didion, White tends to reflect indirectly on social issues by foregrounding personal atrocities, but where Didion sees a paucity of meaning where there ought to be a plenitude, White sees the universe as essentially meaningless.

Despite her youthful success in prestigious literary institutions, White’s work never received its due acclaim. “Stegner never particularly liked my work,” she told me. “He would often talk about the fallacy of imitative form, which I took as a criticism.” But White’s use of such a form is anything but an error: it activates the mind out of acquiescence. She read and enjoyed the works of Mailer and Roth, but she was more interested in the possibilities of poetry, particularly Sylvia Plath’s, because there’s “a lot of talk about insanity, and a lot of screaming.”

It is unsurprising that the male-dominated literary establishment overlooked White’s rather radical portrayal of female insanity. After all, Baylor mocks and exploits men with fake tears, eats and drinks to excess, and gets her kicks from public acts of petulance. “The reviewers were all male,” White said. “I think [the book] was considered disgusting, in a way. There’s a lot of people I think would consider it un-serious fiction. Of course, I got very few reviews on the second book.” That book, Con (released by Harper & Row in 1972), was her second and final published novel.

The confusion with which Baylor lives her life, subject to the whims of men — going with the flow, but screaming on the inside — may be extreme, but it is not unbelievable or unrelatable. Endowed with a fatal cocktail of brains and an early-bloomer body (schoolmates called her “Tits”), Baylor is a nubile vector into the absurdity of how women are, in the words of Adrienne Rich, “‘gaslighted’ […] by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience.” Baylor may be insane, but on this subject, she is a lucid observer with a brilliant sense of irony. (“I’m a very sympathetic guy,” says a man who’s just stuck his hand down her shirt.) Baylor’s insanity is a reaction to the world in which she lives, just as women often feel insane, as Rich wrote, “when cleaving to the truth of our experience.”

White would go on to earn a PhD in Philosophy from Ohio State University, become a professor, marry, and have a child. In her spare time, she liked to train dogs in the Schutzhund discipline — three imposing beasts, totally obedient to her, greeted me at her door upon my visit. While she gave up writing fiction after the tepid reception of Con, she never stopped paying attention. In her parlor, she casually demonstrated her wealth of literary knowledge with authority and critical gusto, railing against some modern best sellers with bemused severity. While we joked and discussed current events in her ornately furnished parlor, I felt profoundly sad that her novels aren’t better known, because she is a delight and still has so much to say.

Humor is a sophisticated weapon, while hysteria is an act of defiance against the patriarchal order. Armed with both, women pose a serious threat to their oppressors — though, throughout In the Balance, White never lets us forget the grave truth that, as Margaret Atwood says, “men are afraid women will laugh at them, [while] women are afraid men will kill them.” By the story’s end, Baylor has acquired a gun.

¤

Natasha Young is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of Static Flux (Metatron Press, 2018).