There are so many different kinds of reading that it seems a shameful reduction that we only have one word for it. There’s the reading that is really scanning for information in documents and newspapers, and there’s the engaged but passive reading we do with a gripping plot-driven novel, carrying us Atlas-like across its pages, and then there’s the delicate attentive activity of reading a poem, in which we are as involved and as busy as the poet in this joint act of creativity. This last kind of reading is perhaps the only one in which we become truly conscious of what it means to read, of what is being asked of us and the extraordinary alchemy that results when language and imagination and judgment come together in the mind. And it’s this last kind of activity that reading a Joseph McElroy short story most resembles, although in truth, it was an experience quite unlike any other reading I’ve ever undertaken.
McElroy is apparently quite well known in America as a novelist, compared to writers such as Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis. This was my first encounter with him, and in Night Soul and Other Stories I would have put him down as a natural at short fiction because his style seems well suited to it. I can’t really tell you what the stories are about without first describing the sentences in which they are composed. It’s the first thing you notice, inevitably. If you imagine an ordinary sentence, you may appreciate that it has a certain dancing energy, in a well-written book, and a certain supple and elastic grace. In the usual scheme of things, a sentence corresponds to a unit of thought, or a single, coherent image (a complex thought or image may well require several sentences to be fully evoked). Each one is a stepping stone across the ocean of meaning, and as we pass, lifted buoyantly from one to the next, we barely notice the journey. Well, a Joseph McElroy sentence is super-charged with energy and we may imagine it like a ball in a squash court or a pinball machine, as it flies back and forth, rebounding off walls, heading in a multiplicity of directions, dizzying to follow, but making us extra sensitive to the space in which it moves.
Here’s an example, taken from a moment in which a young boy in a shed is carving a boat out of a lump of wood, when a neighbour calls round, looking for his daughter, Liz. The young boy’s mother, meanwhile, is playing the cello up in the house, and waiting for her own friend to arrive. Be warned it begins disconcertingly as if in the middle of another ongoing sentence:
‘Or that we were having a visitor from a foreign country today though he was American, and that the man with me in this tool shed had had a flag July 4th which would have been fun to fly, that they had a cousin whose son had come home wounded and sick – one was like a cut, the other was like a disease inside: country people sent more men to the war than city people because country people could do things but the things they could do kept them from seeing what the war was, according to my father and mother and their friends, wrong; and this morning Liz’s father (though he said, Don’t tell her I was looking for her, he squinched up his nose in a friendly look) had really come to see or scout out my mother whom he hardly knew or the place, because my father was not here.’
Have you ever seen Picasso’s Portrait of Dora Maar? It’s the picture of a woman with what looks like three noses, because Picasso decided he’d portray her from three angles all at once. Well, a Joseph McElroy sentence is a bit like that, whipped up from the myriad of eddying currents of emotions, thoughts, patterns, instincts and impressions inhabiting any one given moment. In the story that the above quotation is taken from, the real focus is on the young boy’s suspicion that his mother may be having an affair with the family friend who they are expecting to arrive any moment if, that is, he hasn’t missed his arrival already (and his father has gone away into town). But covering this basic thought are layers and layers of experience, all mixed up together from the past and the present, and the different characters interacting, which the narrative tucks into its folds.
To add to the complexity, there is a frame around this story; the narrator is, in fact, a grown man now, recalling his boyhood and recounting this ordinary but possibly significant event to a woman he works with. So, like most experimental fiction, the narrative uses obvious artifice in its quest to be more truthful than narrative usually is, to all sorts of shades and half-lives of memory, imagination and fantasy that occurred at the time of the event, and which have coloured its recollection in the days that subsequently passed. As you may have noted, the sentence does not deliver itself of its burden elegantly, in fact, in some sentences the syntax pretty much implodes with the effort of taking so much on itself. And some sentences, to my mind at least, lose their path entirely in the vertigo caused by peering into the chasm of existence and attempting to measure accurately the depth it functions in. But the persistence of McElroy’s sentences in carving out concentric circles of time and emotion does convey an extraordinary richness of narrative, to the reader who is prepared to work with them.
Most of the stories are a little slice of time this way, charting an encounter between a couple of people inhabiting very different spaces, which give rise, much in the way of hot air rising over cold, to an electrical storm of narrative impressions. Often children feature in McElroy’s fiction here, because their exquisite otherness inhabits a completely different experiential realm to that of the adult. But on other occasions, radical differences of mood, or perspective create the necessary discontinuity. In what was probably my favourite story, ‘The Campaign Trail’, two Presidential candidates (there’s a distinct pull towards imaging Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the roles) both go simultaneously off message and off the map, into a piece of territorially disputed wilderness and end up lost and found together, confronting a grizzly bear. That one’s quite funny, too.
So what does the reader get out of fiction like this? Well, if science suggests these days that there are as many as ten dimensions in space, then this is the sort of narrative that gives you a sporting chance of experiencing them. Even without going that far, you get a strange but fascinating glimpse of narrative as it goes about its business, and an even more hypnotic glance into the extraordinary power of the mind and the way that stories work upon it, kneading it out like dough to reach ever further limits of representation. There were moments of opaque bewilderment when I was reading, but others when I felt like exclaiming, wow, I had no idea my mind could do that! The darkness is a necessary counterpoint to the illumination, because if you didn’t have to work at it, you’d fall back into one of those other kinds of reading, where you are a comfortable passenger, or a lazy magpie, making off with just the shiny bits. It’s not easy reading; it’s something else altogether.