Joseph McElroy on my mind

Photograph of Joseph McElroy by Jerry Bauer appearing on the dust jacket of The Letter Left to Me (New York: Knopf, 1988).

Photograph of Joseph McElroy by Jerry Bauer appearing on the dust jacket of The Letter Left to Me (New York: Knopf, 1988).

‘Dad,’ my daughter with the upset stomach, semi-lucid in her disoriented alertness and standing from her seat on the Dulles-bound airplane, lurching, suddenly and opening, as she seemed in slow motion to change, to alter, foreshadowing this eruption of the comically gross (in retrospect) coming out of her — she unleashed a torrent, a stream of foul fluid, bilious, coating the cover of my book with soft pale chunky morsels of semi-digested food, somehow not getting a drop of it on herself. For the rest of the trip — the rest of that plane ride and the entirety of a connecting flight — I perused with great interest Ancient History: A Paraphase (1971) through the transparent membrane of a plastic sheet given to me by our airline stewardess. Not that I should have been worried about releasing the stench from within the plastic bag, because I myself was covered from waist to toe in bile. I’m certain that my wife was not the only one gagging as she got the wafts coming off my humidly encrusted habits.

Six months back, I sat in a plane bearing me towards the same ultimate Ohio destination, mind patched into Lookout Cartridge, my international flight paralleling Cartwright’s tunnelling through space-time (‘Your train like a tunnel draws you home’; ‘you are a tunnel in a tunnel’). Expect more such travels, I tell myself.

Nine books Joseph McElroy has given us. Each challenging and alive as an organic form, the record of a brain at work, a brain exhausting and recharging itself, uncompromising and original in form and subject matter. Just how many are we? Standers in awe of the best-kept secret in American literature? Avid readers, McElroy maniacs. His books now penetrate my life, as my life extends into them. And his books penetrate the lives of my family: nightly I read Women and Men to my wife over a first fall semester while she nursed to slumber our youngest and was eased herself down into benign sleep by the churning of my own voice through and against the eddies and swirls of McElroy’s turbid text, its lush, serpentine, branching generousness the uplifting cushion for our long days.

It’s a commonplace for commentators to refer to McElroy’s obscurity as unfortunate and surprising. (He doesn’t have the high-profile of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, or Don DeLillo, although it may be that the works of all three of these authors show the subtle influence of McElroy (Moody and Wallace both acknowledged admiration and influence; strangely, I’ve never seen DeLillo or McElroy, both long-time native New Yorkers, acknowledge each other’s work, although they probably have).) But, if we note obscurity, let’s not however miss the essential: the reading, the growth, the accretion, the writing: of the eight novels, the book of short stories, the uncollected essays and journalism work. Nevermind the tag-lines and reductionist claims that he’s the ‘lost postmodernist’ (LA Times book review); the ‘most important of all “unknown” postmodernist American authors’ (Larry McCaffrey), whose work is the ‘great unmined motherlode of American fiction’ (Michael Silverblatt). These generalizing claims carry little weight relative to what really counts, for me the unflagging spirit of inquiry and reflection — spiritual, intellectual, epistemological, scientific, idiomatic, and otherwise — that characterizes, perhaps in a fractal manner, the man’s loveable, mind-boggling prose. For the sentences out of which his books are built are the mirror of what it feels like to think; they reproduce for the reader what it feels like to be uncertain, to wonder… to undergo shifts in perspective…

Have a look-see; he’s a master of the opening hook that pulls you into the story. He begins in medias res with a sense that action is already in progress. Treat yourself to a few of McElroy’s memorable first lines:

‘He doesn’t know what I am, but he knows I’m in him and behind him.’ (A Smuggler’s Bible)

‘It was late at night (as some tales still begin), and I now know she was crazy.’ (“Neural Neighborhoods”)

It is a silent flash there in the city’s grid. and as I happen to look down at that precise point I am thinking of real estate prices.’ (Lookout Cartridge)

‘Out there on a ledge threatening to jump if his girlfriend didn’t marry him, I believe that’s what it was, a picture from a novel I haven’t yet quite written–from the fictions of my memory.’ (‘My Life’)

‘It was only money, but it was quite a lot of money and I told him I felt I couldn’t let him have it.’ (Preparations for Search)

‘After all she was not so sure what had happened, or when it had started.’ (Women and Men)

‘The woman holding, then handing over the letter to this poised, dumbfounded fifteen-year-old: is the letter also hers?’ (The Letter Left to Me)

‘My west windows look across a parking lot and a narrow, picturesque, much-photographed street into the windows of another loft building, wher I am used to seeing certain people I think of as neighbors.’ (‘A Community of Strangers’, in the New York Times)

‘A shock, that’s all it was, in the darkened house.’ (Actress in the House)

‘ “Then why did you bother to have me?” my daughter asks, and I think of funny answers, which she deserves. Her question isn’t a question.’ (‘The Unknown Kid,’ in Night Soul and Other Stories)

Every one of these beginnings is a trebuchet, or seed, motion implied, fostering suspense; hanging, like that man off that cliff; suspended from a ledge, incomplete but rendered articulate. Suspension propels the reader forward, pushing him or her forward into the thick of the towering structure that is Women and Men. That ‘colloidal unconscious’ of a brick — colloid itself, nominative ‘suspension,’ conjoined to narrative suspension, narrative suspense– of the sentence? Back to that essential unit of meaning, which doesn’t always need a verb and a subject, but may involve downright peculiar, weird-ass uses of language.

To consistently challenge and at times explode over a half-century what he calls ‘the deceptive coherence of English sentences,’ that’s one towering achievement. (The quotation about deceptive coherence is McElroy’s phrase, from an interview with Tom LeClair.)  This American wants to enlarge our understanding of the world, to see beyond the battered, pre-packaged formulations and phrases that so many of us use to navigate through our unpredictable emotional and urban landscapes. McElroy’s is a generous vision, and it has infused my life.


All posts on this site about Joseph McElroy are archived here.

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