Review: J McElroy’s Ancient History

Issue 34 of the Quarterly Conversation is out, and packed with some great coverage: Mircea Cartarescu, James Purdy, Boccaccio, Christine Schutt, Dalkey’s Korean lit series, and more.

I wrote a review of Ancient History: A Paraphase (Knopf, 1971), and Trey Strecker reviewed Cannonball (Dzanc, 2013). Ancient History will soon be available in re-issue from Dzanc Books. Publication has been continually pushed back since this summer.

Here’s from my review:

Whatever the message is, Ancient History and Cy’s manuscript (for they’re one and the same) confront the impossible: Cy seeks in his project to embrace a totality that’s larger and greater than the limits of others’ minds. This high ambition stands parallel to that of Michel Butor’s Degrees (1960; cited by McElroy as a precursor and model for his early work), as well as McElroy’s first novel, A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), whose central protagonist, David Brooke, has “perfect recall.” Similarly gifted, Cy has in his brain an unusually developed “Vectoral Muscle” that enables rare feats of attention, perception, and intuition. On the page, this amounts to what Tony Tanner aptly termed a sense of “egalitarian respect for the most apparently modest detail.” A name on an apartment directory-board that’s “mint white grooved in velvety black,” for instance, or, an egg sandwich seen with “the gold-gray damp of the grease coming into the Pepperidge Farm white.” Like these minute touches, McElroy’s prose can, at its best, almost conjure synesthesia.

Kudos to editor Scott Esposito for pulling together all that goes into every issue of the QC. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind publication.


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

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