Joseph McElroy, Night Soul and Other Stories, Dalkey Archive, 2011
Reviewed by Jonathon Walter
I've read Joseph McElroy's Women and Men. All of it. Now, why did I do that? Was it because it had a reputation of being long and difficult? Was it because I hadn't understood the previous McElroy book I'd read (Lookout Cartridge) and wanted to make amends, after a fashion? I felt like I had to, I guess. So I read it, and understood nothing. I was disappointed in myself. But I don't think there are many of us anyway. I think about all of us getting together, all of us who've read Women and Men, a book whose difficulty makes The Recognitions read like Goodnight Moon, getting together maybe in some hotel bar or conference room (for some reason a dull Midwestern chain hotel seems appropriate here) where we would sit and drink liquor and reflect quietly on our shared horrors in the manner of a gathering of veterans, a group of retired police officers, or perhaps the last remaining survivors of a terrible plane crash.
I hope that this somewhat tortured metaphor doesn't imply that I think Women and Men is a bad book. I only mean to say that reading it is...special. A significant event in your life. You might not remember the content of the book itself, but you will remember reading it. It is not a task to be undertaken lightly. There are books called "difficult" and even "unreadable", but only after plowing through the 1100+ page opus of McElroy, one of the most brilliant and maddening writers I, and probably everyone else, has ever encountered, can you really understand the relative elasticity of those terms. What I'm saying is that McElroy's writing is, basically, incomprehensible to me. All of it. I read his work and I see words, words written in the English language, and therefore they pass through my brain, sometimes even accompanied by vestigial bits of sense, of coherence, but nevertheless a quiet passing-by is all they accomplish; they do not remain. I have read an 1100+ page novel (Women and Men), and another 500+ page novel (Lookout Cartridge), and, now, a 300 page collection of short stories (Night Soul) and I could hardly tell you anything about them if they paid me.
I realize the danger inherent in admitting something like this. Several years ago Jonathan Franzen published an essay called "Mr. Difficult" in which he discussed the writing of William Gaddis, another infamously "difficult" American author. Aside from its generally snide tone, the essay contained several logical errors, of which the most obvious was this: basically, "I, Jonathan Franzen, find William Gaddis difficult to read, so therefore he must be difficult for everyone." However, I find post-Recognitions Gaddis—that machine-gun, dialogue-heavy style—to be an absolute breeze to get through, once you've eased yourself into his style. The point is that it is dangerous to make categorical statements about the relative difficulty of various authors' styles; I, to give another example, find Proust as easy to read as it is easy to breathe, but reading Dickens is like swallowing toys. This can get even more complicated, because the concept has absolutely nothing to do with personal enjoyment: I've never read a Philip Roth book I've liked, but nevertheless have plowed through each one (it has to be over a dozen by now) in less than two days. Similarly, it took me nearly a month to struggle through each W.G. Sebald novel, yet, their presence has never left my mind, and my memories of those books are fond ones. So if, obviously, there is no real connection between difficulty and quality, what is our concern with it? How do we even define the term? And why is McElroy, in particular, so difficult?
Difficulty is not even a function of length—case in point, McElroy's Night Soul, a collection of short stories. McElroy is known as a novelist, and in fact before the publication of this collection I was not even aware that the man had published short stories at all. The postmodernist writers of McElroy's generation did not particularly make their mark in short fiction (with the possible exception of Robert Coover and the definite exception of Donald Barthelme); huge, all-encompassing novels were the order of the day. Great American Novels. Anatomies (Gravity's Rainbow, The Sot-Weed Factor, The Recognitions, The Public Burning, the list goes on and on and on). How does McElroy's work translate into this new realm?
Well, it translates fine, if McElroy's goal is incomprehensibility. There seems to me to be only one overriding theme in his work, and it is formal: the total and complete avoidance of cliché. McElroy avoids clichés—well, like the plague, I suppose. There is not a single sentence he's written that has been written before. Pound's dictum, "make it new," that simple three-word phrase that is burned on the brain of every American writing student like a sizzling brand on an ungulate, has been accepted by McElroy and carried to a level approaching a religion. Here is a passage from "Character," a story in Night Soul:
"Remembering little things the way you can't not remember some larger ones—now that's confusing, the way I put it. Animal smell of the sun on the earth at the exposed root of an outstanding sweet white oak that now belonged to us; or on the other hand my mother and father's parallel love of life, I suppose."
I see in McElroy's work a desperate desire to avoid the thoughts, the characters, the language, the themes that have been beaten to death by other writers; yet in doing this he seems to have repeatedly and continuously occupied a place where what he is writing—and, by extension, his ideas, what he wants to communicate—all of this often ceases to make any sense. He sacrifices coherency for originality. It was remarkable, when encountering McElroy's work for the first time in six or so years when reading Night Soul, how quickly I recognized it: the logically twisty but basically meaningless statements ("remembering little things the way you can't remember some larger ones"), the obsession with taciturn American spies (the lengthy story "Mister X"), and, most of all, the meaning—the purpose—that always seems just out of reach. McElroy is fond of undercutting every statement he makes; there are no simple, objective facts in a McElroy story, merely temporary impressions, liable to be changed in the very next sentence, or even in the same one—witness these lines from "The Unknown Kid": "Val is older by a few months, yet younger." "So strong I won't be able to get over it, or won't for years." This happens constantly in McElroy's work. One or two of these might be okay, but when you're presented with such language over and over and over again the brain tends to rebel: "Jesus Christ, make up your fucking mind!" It's as insufferable as Brodkey's The Runaway Soul was insufferable, only in a different way. And of course someone will tell me that such equivocation is a reflection of the uncertainty inherent in our modern society, etc. And that overly large, categorical statements about humankind went out with Tolstoy, Proust, etc. I don't buy it anymore.
Still, they aren't all like this. "The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne" is some kind of a masterpiece. It's about what its title says it's about, and no more; it's about Paris, and a man throwing boomerangs, and the narrator's perceptions of both; and thoroughly unpretentious at that. It's short too, and, oddly enough, the shorter pieces in this book seem to be more effective than the longer ones—although, I wonder, perhaps that's less due to McElroy himself than the natural reader's tendency to become more impatient with a lack of real narrative structure over 70 pages than a lack of said structure over only 7 pages.
The only other author I can think of whose work produced a similar confusion in my mind, a similar incomprehension, is John Hawkes, and yet Hawkes' tiny, Lynchian tales of horror and degradation (The Lime Twig, The Cannibal, The Beetle Leg) run through my head and leave their terrifying slime on its walls even today; after reading a Hawkes novel, you get the unsettling sense that something awful has happened, even though you can't define exactly what it is; basically, the salient emotions (fear, terror) have been communicated by the author effectively, even if the actual events that engendered them in the text (the plot) remain obscure (which may well be the author's purpose in the first place). The emotion is clear, even if the story is not. In Night Soul, McElroy neglects to even communicate the emotion, so when we close our fists to take hold of something at the end of a particular story, they grasp helplessly at the air, and we are left with nothing. There is nothing inherently wrong with the strict avoidance of cliché; only by destroying and recombining the products of our elders are we able to construct new forms of literature so it does not die out. Sometimes, when we're at work, staring at the clock at break time, and we tire of the old ingredients in our hastily put-together lunches, it's only natural to seek out new ones to alleviate the tiring sameness. But it will not do to replace, in a fit of boredom, one's turkey and cheese with rocks and dice in the name of novelty, and shortly thereafter starve to death.