On Joseph McElroy

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.

31 thoughts on “On Joseph McElroy

  1. “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.”

    Thank you. I have the ability to put into words what I know in a nebulous way.

  2. Now here we have a fine example of why one should not weed ones own collection. I owned one of McElroy’s longer (older) novels, and being unsure I would ever read it I sold it to a used bookstore. Obviously a mistake! I like the idea of a book kneading the mind–not sure how often I am up to those sorts of reads, but it’s always nice to know I have one or two on my shelves. Like the above commenter notes you have that ability–one I truly envy, but I am glad you do so I can imagine it all vicariously. I will have to give him a try after all!

    • Oh Danielle – every time I throw something out, I need it 48 hours later! Mind you, I do think a longer work might be quite taxing, and I was glad to have short stories to acclimatize myself. It also took me a couple of goes to get comfortable (well, not quite the word) with his writing. I think it helps if you know that what lies ahead isn’t that sort of sink into reading, but a different kind of activity. It was worth the effort to read him, though. I’d say, try a small bit first and expect it to take a little while to go in!

  3. Wow… I can’t imagine what it’s like reading Picasso. You’ve a vivid analogy here. It might be a bit too avant-garde for me. Maybe it takes certain elasticity of mind and literary appreciation capacity for one to just plainly ‘get it.’ It’s interesting though, how you describe it here. How would you compare a narrative like that with the more traditional one? Could it be possible that the form might distract the content?

    • Arti – this isn’t the easiest sort of reading, for sure. But I expect it is purely down to personal taste whether it appeals to you or not. I guess the real point of differentiation is that this sort of narrative shows you every step of the way that it is being created and produced. Traditional narrative hides its artificiality and asks the reader to suspend disbelief. But I felt that the form and the content were vitally linked – the strange form really makes the reader aware of how narrative chooses to accentuate this detail or that, takes the reader in one direction or another, interprets an event one way or a different way. After all, every reader knows that the story they are reading has been created out of thin air, so being made more aware of that ends up just being rather interesting. But try a little bit of his writing and see how you get on with it – I always think that responses to different kinds of narrative can’t be called in advance.

  4. I agree, there are so many ways of reading books. In this case here it seems almost an act of decoding.
    I have bought this collection when you first mentioned it as it sounded very intriguing. Yesterday, I started Henry Green’s Party Going and it surprisingly has a similarity in the structure. Not sure how alike they really are as I didn’t read a lot and no McElroy yet. I assume you have read Green. Did you see a similarity? The comparison to Picasso is interesting and I’m not sure I have read a lot of books that would have reminded me.
    I’m not sure however whether reading McElroy could be more for me than an adventure in decoding and intellectual engagement (quite a lot already), whether there could be joy in it. I’ll have to find out.

    • I confess I have never read Henry Green – I want to, but never quite get there. Although this is on one level an intellectually challenging read, I didn’t experience it that way. I can’t say, either, that I felt joy on reading, but I did come away from certain sections with a sort of shiver going down my spine and the feeling that I had really experienced something unusual. It was… provocative, I suppose. Surprising, frustrating, taxing and oddly exquisite. As I say, the activity of reading became highly pronounced, in a good way. But I really do agree that you have to try it and see how you get on – not a text you can call in advance, I think.

  5. This is the type of writing I feel increasingly taxed by so thanks for your fascinating comments and clarifications. It makes me think the current developments in brain science and of the way the world is represented by ourselves to ourselves. Just as the rise of science in the nineteenth century and its obvious impact on the lives of the masses (rail travel, photography) probably contributed to the rise of the naturalist or realist novel. Do these stories ever openly suggest that or is it all in the construction? Interesting to consider the philosophical implications if only I had the knowledge and brain-power to do it. Thanks for the illumination.

    • Ooh Bookboxed, good question and one I hadn’t really thought about. This struck me as a really modernist text, in its attempts to get closer to phenomenological reality by artificial textual means – think Virginia Woolf. I felt he was several steps further up the ladder she was climbing. I hadn’t really considered developments in science, but after all, they have their influential role to play in shaping culture and experience. I think that McElroy is quite an elderly man now, and has been writing a long time, but I don’t have any actual dates here to back that up! But on reflexion, I think you probably could equate some of quantum physics with the simultaneity of his writing. I’d need to be clearer on quantum physics myself to be sure!

  6. You write about reading so well in this review! I really enjoyed it. Not sure if I would enjoy the book, but it does sound brain-stretching, and it is nice to stretch the brain once in a while.

  7. I loved your description of the different types of reading and while I haven’t heard of McElvoy before, I’ll certainly look out for him. Those playful shifts of attention seem to work very well and I like the fact that he doesn’t conform to more conventional kinds of writing.

    • Pete – so glad to hear from you! I’ve been thinking about you and wondering how you were. I’ll drop you a line if I can over the next couple of days. I like your description of ‘shifts of attention’ – I think that’s actually very profound in relation to what he’s doing. He isn’t at all conventional, but as you say, it’s interesting, and I respect that, too.

  8. Being more into the Impressionists than Picasso, I would probably find McElroy too much of a caution. I loved reading your review, but I think I’ll skip him. I’m afraid he’d make my head hurt.

  9. Wow, what a great review! I love your thoughts on the different kinds of reading – you’re right, there should be more than one word! Reading a business report, a poem or an article in the Sun, the brain is doing completely different things. Something like this really demands concentrated attention, otherwise you don’t stand a chance. I’d like to try this, and am glad I was forewarned about the possibility of opaque bewilderment, so that I can make sure I only read it when I have a block of distraction-free time to devote to it!

  10. Multi-dimensional narrative, I love it! I’ve not read McElroy before but if I ever do I think I’ll got for the short stories first. “The Campaign Trail” especially right now during a presidential election year when I’d like to toss all the candidates into the maw of a giant grizzly.

  11. A really lovely review. I’m usually a little skeptical when it comes to fiction as experimental as this, but McElroy is really winning me over. He’s doing what I always hoped DeLillo would do for me.

  12. Pingback: A guide to Joseph McElroy resources on the Web « bibliomanic

  13. I’ve read all of McElroy’s books, and your review is, in my opinion, quite possibly the best short introduction to his writing out there. I refer McElroy beginner’s to it on my blog page here: http://bibliomanic.com/joseph-mcelroy/a-joseph-mcelroy-web-bibliography/. You might enjoy a run-down of the books he references, many of them obscure or semi-obscure, in interviews over the years. That’s here: http://bibliomanic.com/joseph-mcelroy/mcelroys-bookshelf/. Keep up your excellent reviews!

    • Thank you so much! I’m very honoured indeed! And the list of McElroy’s literary references was rather fascinating, so thank you again for the link to that.

  14. Pingback: A Joseph McElroy Web bibliography « bibliomanic

  15. Pingback: A Joseph McElroy Web bibliography | bibliomanic

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