Over the course of four decades, Joseph McElroy hasearned a reputation as the difficultpostmodernist. When your peers are Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, being singledout for difficulty is a real statement, sort of like being the most masochisticof the masochists, but to all appearances the charge is accurate. Of McElroy’snovels, the avowed pièce de résistance (ornail in the coffin, if you prefer) is the gargantuan Women and Men, which, at 700,000 words, makes such ponderoustomes as Gravity’s Rainbow and TheRecognitions look like the short stack. Reviewing it for The New York Times in 1987, Ivan Golddeclared that it is “most often set forth in a viscous, arch, hectoring,information-crammed, unparagraphed series of the longest sentences sinceWilliam Faulkner’s” before concluding rather anemically “one does notgo to this novelist for the usual pleasures.”
The matter of which pleasures one reads McElroy foris a question worthy of serious thought; what is less contentious is that thosewho have acquired a taste for McElroy will be cheered to find Night Soul and Other Stories, a new volume of mostly recent short fiction thatshows the author on his mark. With the book clocking a svelte 304 pages, thosenew to him now have the opportunity to sample one of the major Americanpostmodernists at a length more congenial than that of an encyclopedia.
Part of the difficulty—and pleasure—of McElroy isin his unceasing efforts to upend the rules of grammar and syntax. This cangive rise to some breathtaking displays of verbiage. Take, for instance, thisone-sentence paragraph from the collection’s opening story, “No Man’s Land”:
ThatI should have found myself here, to relearn a stretch of neighborhood once myfather’s family’s never quite mine you know, but my memory’s, my city’s—andpavements and intersections guessed that morning from words of my wifeimplicitly like love locating it like a clue a couple of city miles at leastfrom the brownstones of our Rutland Road, those long,turn-of-the-former-century’s blocks of evolving borderland though no strangerto great Flatbush Avenue, the Prospect Park lake/horses/grackles likeiridescent crows owning the territory/lilacs on the way—to find myself here mightprove worthwhile—a nomad thought more mine than hers to a virtually unemployedmale at 7:00 a.m.
First note the tone, a sort of elegiac dreamspeak(with the proper enjambment it could resemble modernist poetry) that McElroycommonly strikes when he breaks out these devilish sentences. Then notice howthe sentence swerves at “once my father’s family’s”—the reader isleft with a dilemma: try to connect what follows to what precedes, or read onas though McElroy has spliced two independent thoughts into one sentence. Thatfundamental uncertainty is later embodied by “lake/horses/grackles”and “territory/lilacs,” wherein McElroy is either letting you choosefor yourself or boldly stating that they all fit equally well, no matter that alake isn’t a horse nor a grackle. This multiplicity of coexisting, equallylikely possibilities is something that characterizes not only McElory’swoollier sentences but also his stories on a whole: the narration is socarefully elliptical that it does not tell you what happened, it merelysuggests a number of non-exclusive possibilities. Arguably, the correct readingis to conclude that they all happened, projected over one another like theglances of different people looking at the same object.
Though it should be said that a good three-fourthsof the prose in Night Soul maintainsa prudent distance from the level of inscrutability found in the aboveparagraph, one’s enjoyment of these stories will nonetheless depend on one’swillingness to tolerate—and even luxuriate in—uncertainties. That is becausethese stories do not entertain with their preening erudition (as in Women and Men), nor with the vividcharacterization that McElroy has displayed elsewhere. These are stories thatoffer a very particular enjoyment—that of reconstructing their flesh from thefossils McElroy has buried in his escarpments of prose. They do not just inviteparticipation—they require it—and as such they raise questions about the role ofthe author and one’s duty to create narratives. To my mind those are fine linesto treat, with the gladly shouldered burden of “Silk, or the Woman withthe Bike” on one side, and the overly indulgent “Canoe Repair”on the other. Throughout both the good and the bad in this collection, McElroycan get a little too wrapped up in his flights of free-association, but there areworse things than a prolix style—boredom, for instance, which you won’t findmuch of here.
What you will find is McElroy agglutinatingseemingly disparate themes in memorable, intriguing ways. For instance, try onthis sentence: “After the long day at the day job branching and hopelessbut not as jazz is.” For a story-length example of this, look to “TheLast Disarmament But One,” an absurd trunk of a tale about theconsequences when the last nuclear superpower’s arsenal suddenly immolates it,leaving a crater in the exact size and shape of the unspecified country. Thefun comes when the residents of the nation’s neighbor, who have not beentouched in the least by the event, begin to try and figure out what happened.Into this conceit McElroy blends a kind of ’60s-era nuclear eschatology with asearch for the soul, revealing submerged connections between the two.
As that might imply, these stories are not theeasiest to fathom, but a reader is sustained through blocks of inscrutabilityby the faith that the eventual revelation will have been worth any stumbles inthe dark. On the first reading, one often feels like E. L. Doctorow’shypothetical writer, who gets to the end of a manuscript as a driver on a foggynight reaches home: by keeping his eyes trained only so far as his headlightsallow. Reading McElroy one glimpses just enough sense within the beams of thoseheadlights to reach the end, and a second reading frequently reveals the story’sbizarre logic, as obscure as it is intriguing.
A good example of that would be “No Man’sLand,” first published in 2008. With a post-9/11 NYC setting, a family ofMuslims, and a shady, dark-skinned relative just come over the Canadian border,convention would tell us that this is some kind of morality tale about racism,community, or an overreaching security state. No. McElroy does scatter enoughdetails to keep terrorism just within the story’s frame, but “No Man’sLand” is interested in bending the post-9/11 narrative in directions it’snever taken. It spends far more time with family’s nine-year-old son, Ali, thanwith the shady relative, and the story is further complicated by the fact thateverything we learn is filtered though a poorly defined narrator who befriendsAli and calls himself “Mo.” With terrorism on the back burner, thestory becomes a meditation on relationships, embodied here by Ali’s obsessionwith the idea of a nomad, which travels from character to character like atheme passed from instrument to instrument through a symphony orchestra. Asreferences to both nomadism and Ali’s possibly terroristic uncle pile up, theplot begins to flicker closer and closer to its climax—an elliptical page and ahalf (out of thirty-four) with references to cops and gunshots. Yet thisbarely-glimpsed payoff is submerged within a swamp of scenes that show how, inthe author’s phrase, “words circulate in our city like thoughts,contagiously.” An eight-page coda of fragmentary thoughts leaves usconvinced that the true subject of “No Man’s Land” is the way peopleattempt to close the distance between one another despite the fact thateverything is always in motion.
I only stumbled upon this interpretation of “NoMan’s Land” after three close readings and hours of thumbing through it,something I might not have done were I not attempting to be a diligentreviewer. True, I did eventually come to appreciate “No Man’s Land,”but it didn’t pull me back quite so fiercely as the stories “The CampaignTrail,” “Mister X,” and “The Man with the Bagful ofBoomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne.” The measure of these stories’ successis their ability to fascinate the reader, to make us want to understand McElroy’sfar-out aesthetic. After all, such an aesthetic can only succeed if itintrigues readers enough for them to not throw the book out the window. Somestories in this collection fail to meet this challenge, yet more often than notthey succeed. Perhaps a few misfires is the price to be paid for innovation.For readers willing to take it on its terms, Night Soul offers something valuable in this increasingly uniformliterary landscape: the genuinely new.