Actress in the Houseby Joseph McElroy
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In the middle of an otherwise nondescript play in a "twelve-dollar-a-seat" downtown warehouse theater, an actress is staggered by a violent slap in the face from her co-star. As she gazes into the audience with a bloody nose, immediately a connection is formed with a middle-aged man, drawn in by this unmistakably over-the-line violence, seated in the eighth row. Almost against his will, with disconcerting speed and a hypnotic power that unearths buried memories from their haunted pasts, her life will invade his own. With its nuanced and compelling story of love and discovery, a plot as intricate and absorbing as a thriller, and continually startling literary innovations and lucid, omnidirectional prose, Actress in the House is a haunting and resonant reading experience from one of the most acclaimed voices in contemporary fiction.
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- 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.15(d)
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- 18 Years
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Actress in the Housea novel
By Joseph McElroy
THE OVERLOOK PRESSCopyright © 2003 Joseph McElroy All right reserved. ISBN: 1-58567-350-1
A shock, that's all it was, in the darkened house. The girl struck by her partner very hard. It had staggered her, it was over the line, you wondered how she was standing. Her partner had clapped her one to the side of her face with the full flat of his hand, and it had swung her right around toward the audience, almost knocked her off the stage, and she was hurt. The man in the eighth row from his angle hadn't seen it coming; but neither had she seen it you could almost believe, the actress herself. Something wrong up there. He was stunned and amazed, he was honestly thrilled, not stunned at all.
A sound from the house, a gasp, a groan, almost a word. You could probably understand her partner's reaction, what she'd sprung on him, meddling in his home life. God, a small disaster in his life. The actor's arm coming up out of nowhere so quick it wasn't acting. It was over the line, assault, a desire to rid the place of her-her not-to-be-denied voice, her face. But he can't. At one blow it all goes to pieces. A blow like that. It says it all. But what? It all comes together. The man in the eighth row could be up there with her.
Anger recoiled through him, protest condensed and was gone. He'd been miles away yet following the action.The woman next to him whispered, "I knew it." What did she know? What did Helen know? He smelled her scent leaning up against him now reminding him of whatever she can. He had forgotten she was there and why he was here. His last name whispered is all the years she's known him. "Daley?" It's quite some whisper. "What did you say, 'He can't'?"
Daley hadn't said a thing.
"Can't do what?" The whisper threatened to be chatty. When up there on stage the actress stood in some danger. Who was she to get clobbered like that? She acted like her hands were tied. The actor had smashed her, wiped her right off the stage, but he couldn't do it. She wouldn't fall out into the audience. Who did she think she was?
Across his brow fell a lock of lank, black hair, his potato-picking broad face virile with obligation and a pride pale and nearly purposeless. Mm-hmm, something of a killer.
Somebody snorted, incredibly. The big fellow directly in front of Helen and Daley. His head lolled from side to side, but he wasn't trying to see; he could see perfectly. The actress was hurt. She was slow now. You could tell, her gaze held in place by sheer damage control, looking out into the house. Daley wanted to remind her of the chair upstage behind her. She looked his way, he thought.
"What?" came Helen's whisper. He had exhaled deeply.
The actor spoke. "Yeah, I did that. Glad I could."
It was a little off, dumb. "Get outa here," the actress said. She tried to smile. Because she cared almost. The planes of her face were young and worn. She was twenty-three, maybe less. Her voice, her shoulders. She took a deep breath and kind of looked into the house-at Daley, it seemed-and absorbed him, her way of thinking. I'm fine, her eyes said. Was the shock look acting? Daley knew a little about concussion. Her ears must be ringing with brother love, and he thought she should sit down in that chair a few feet behind her. The chair upstage of her that she'd been sitting in. It actually sparkled off its legs or the horizontal slat along the seat, couldn't tell, and lifted a little. She had been sitting in it a minute ago, leaning forward, her buttocks alert on the seat, and Daley thought the chair, now empty, lifted an inch or two off the stage, as much as your average pretentious chair, or a star on a summer night budging slightly in the sky.
What did Daley know? No more than the next pretentious fool. Concussion.
"Well?" the actress said. The actor seemed to be thinking it over. He was a little short on talent, that was all. Some hell that caught up with the two of them. The audience didn't know what to do. Hard to put your finger on. The actor said something. You could hardly hear him. It helped, it was kind of convincing and bitter, and a murmur from the audience at this spread into restlessness against him like another silence. They got it. A young unmarried crowd in this downtown house quick to pick up what they recognized.
The blow had silenced her, yet not really. It had spun her around and aimed her, her ears were ringing, Daley knew. Concussion, commotion in the eye, retina displaced. He'd had it explained to him once, a dozen retina X rays for a litigation. No matter what she'd done the blow was extreme, the stroke to the cheekbone the brother'd given her, the side of her head. She'd told on him. Had she torpedoed the marriage?
She'd taken the blow. That was what she had done. It hadn't bounced off. She'd absorbed it, Daley thought. He liked her for a second for this. Why you were here. She makes them stop and take notice. Loudspeaker voice came out of nowhere from time to time soft and strangely informative, hers, just like a voice on the phone and everything stops for twenty, thirty seconds, and it's her, Daley knew it at once, it gets inside you, some personal history rerunning now, the kind of thing they would do in the theater, he guessed. If she would only go sit down again in that chair. Is she giving her partner one more chance at her? Anybody who'd let you do that to them. She was looking this way now. It was the shock in the eyes, canny, seeing narrowly but everything; a smile of disquiet above the landscape of audience that was not a smile, thank God.
She had had experience of this, it came to him. She was wiped out, fragile more than you'd have thought (all bets off), thriving on it, determined, foolishly voluptuous, a learning curve in herself, and she was looking this way now, free, edgy, blonde, frizzier, panting a little at this distance, her chest and belly. He'd been taken aback. Siddown, Daley said to her with his eyes, for it was in his direction she stared as if she knew him. His eyeballs tickled and the darkness of the house receded upon the lantern of the stage, Daley shoulder to shoulder with Helen, people in the row behind whispering.
Sit down, he thought. The actress brought her hand up. A pink place grew where she had been smacked. A tiny darkness at the nostril, snot, a crack, a trickle, the woman smeared it over her lip and its blood color came up under the lights, honest blood. Daley's sight felt physical, peeled. To be up there. (Was it him she marked with her look, or a pillar? Or this guy in front of Daley and Helen who couldn't control his head. The big fellow who made the rude sound again.) The young woman's mouth parted, stricken, electric, the cheeks gained resolve. She held up her finger. "Look," she said.
Helen leaned against Daley. "Think she bleeds every night?"
Please. He lifted a hand in the dark. He couldn't believe she'd said it. She'd had to.
The whisper came again, "How do they do that?"
As if faking blood were some technical thing a man knew about, ask him. "It's not how," he murmured; "it's ..."
"I remember it," the actor said. The words surprised the actress. Her blood? Her finger?
"That's right you remember, and you'll be sorry," the actress said. ("Oh yes," Helen breathed.)
"Why did you ever come back?" The actor said his line, but he felt careless of her, the blood leaking, accidental.
"God," Helen breathed. Daley felt her body next to him relax, they were a little mad at each other and he saw them once upon a time taking a bath together.
Would the loudspeakers break in again with the voice-over that had several times already halted the action? A weightless authority in it. You had to like it. What had been was turned into Now. She herself did it. "Have I seen her before?" Helen asked.
"You might have," Daley said, for he had truthfully not seen the young woman before.
"That voice." Helen was the one who knew about these things; she was the one who got the tickets as a rule, but this time he'd had a little surprise for her. She was tired. People had been talking about this play, she'd told him when he picked her up. Really? Mm-hmm. Well he hadn't known about the play. He hadn't? she asked. Then how ...?-as if something had tipped her off. They were leaving the lobby of her building.
A cab had pulled over. Daley had stepped into the street. Helen was tired, for her. He smelled her wholeness. He held her hand in the cab. She asked what had been going on. San Francisco had been awful, she'd wanted to tell him upstairs, tried to now, leaned against him, couldn't think who to be-she looked at her watch, was he glad she was home? He'd been to hear some jazz Monday. Over by the river. Remember that old drummer?
And you didn't know anything about the play?
The young actress looked this way. She had to key on anything, a face, a cast-iron column in this former warehouse. She's nothing like the newspaper photo outside. She's holding on, she's navigating. But something was up to Daley. Is this, her hand said, all he can do to me? Her lip, her cheek said it, absorbing like a terrific blow untold causes of things, telling him, only him. The chair upstage definitely budged then, lifted a little. Like a person in it. It was the light. And the girl glanced behind her, but her hands were tied, you felt-she made you feel it.
"Daley?" he heard beside him. He rested his hand on Helen's thigh, spread his thumb snugly. "Daley" the whisper came at him again, and he turned and looked at her, and the aisle just beyond her. Years condensing into this man who happened to be sitting in this seat off to the actress's left in light shed from the stage, from the two people up there. Her new readiness, her shoulders her hips unprotected, subtle, rich. She wouldn't know him from some other spectral face out in the house, would she? Into the expectancy of this place came a haranguing voice from outside in the street: "You know it," the voice bawled, and a truck, directly offstage in the wing it was so close, tumbled by as if it would fall apart; and out in the city an ambulance speeding north, Daley was sure-a fire truck. Somebody had goofed on the acoustics in renovating the building. "Daley," Helen whispered. The big man in front of them heard. He was superior, head swaying, not drunk, half undone, young but. Dumb? No. Wasn't the actress in some danger? Daley took his hand away from Helen's leg.
The stage went dark. The houselights had come up, like a lowering of the light, the stage now drab and equal. We've landed. The chair on stage sparkled no more. A halfway mediocre show if we were talking about the play itself, in a downtown twelve-dollar-a-seat house.
"Was she looking right at us, or what?" Helen opened her program.
"She had to look someplace."
"That's right, she did." Helen was about to read from the little computer printout.
Slipping out of her shirt, slumped in a straight chair in the dressing room, her legs out, her shoulders pale, holding Kleenex to her nose or a cold red Coke can, the actress - who would go to her? The guy had wanted to kill her. She was telling him something. The actor had burned his bridges. What was it? He had crossed the line. Fuck her, he could just break her neck.
"She's in trouble," Daley said.
"Yeah," Helen said for some reason and laid her head on his shoulder a moment.
"You haven't slept in a bed since the night before last," Daley said; they'd had a little difference of opinion before the play began and it was probably over now. "What person in your position takes the red-eye?" In Helen it was no bad thing to get two or three jobs done at a time. Daley had only the deepest respect for her. He knew her, though she was sometimes misunderstood.
Working all night on a plane, Helen with the aisle, of course.
"From the red-eye to the bathtub to the office," he said. He felt her chuckle.
"The mirror steamed flat," he added.
"That nice message on my machine. That was nice."
"It was great that you got the tickets. People are talking about it."
Glad to be back from the Coast, walking in the door at seven-thirty this morning, jabbing her answering machine, her thoughts collecting. Helen just in toto, the whole package. Working her way back across the continent. Clock hands racing the arc of dark land, yet paused by the breadth of the continent. Daley was familiar with the pale patch of a mountain out the window like a delta. A string of highway visible even at night like snow with a single light here and there. He could be with Helen.
A woman behind them said, "You could see it coming a block away." "Not me," said Daley over his shoulder. Helen elbowed him. A man said, "She had it coming." There'd been a feeling in the house like a test of friendship. "I didn't see it coming," Daley said, "and I don't think she did." "Oh she must have," said Helen. "She didn't and she did," said Daley. "You sound ...," said Helen against his shoulder, pushing him, but didn't mean it; he wanted to tell her. The actress was in trouble but he had known that.
"I must say they worked the voice-over for all it was worth," Helen said.
"Those were the letters to the brother," Daley said.
"It was what she was thinking."
"No, it was letters she wrote him from Nepal."
"It was what she was thinking," said Helen.
"That too," Daley said.
Never really hear these voice-over words in the darkened house that came from everywhere and nowhere, passing, stopping everything, they made the people freeze onstage, a voice (an authority) close like a beloved on the phone; amplified but from the outset unmistakably the woman. Coming from the house. Borderline embarrassing, Daley thought, a voice-over. A voice that knew something. That's why you're here, Daley thought. Dominant, unbearably dear, proof against anything that voice, even the blow. The odd story took shape. A young American, an adventure she had come back from. Better she should never have come back, though not really. Kid sister comes home from abroad to find her brother's life in Connecticut something of a mess. Nothing you couldn't live with, but something here, options, and she's in the middle of it somehow after three years in the Peace Corps or two there and one in Nepal, not clear. Her doing partly, you get a feeling; or her way of reminding you. He asked for it though. "She's at the center of it all," Daley said, sounding a little important. (An outsider, it came to him.)
"The brother wanted her back but then he didn't," said Helen.
"The audience liked it. That's what it's all about," said Helen.
"I don't know," said Daley.
"What do you mean, you don't know? 'Becca Lang,'" Helen read. Continues...
Excerpted from Actress in the House by Joseph McElroy
Copyright © 2003 by Joseph McElroy
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Joseph McElroy is the author of eight acclaimed novels, including A Smuggler's Bible, Hind's Kidnap, Ancient History, Lookout Cartridge, Plus, Women and Men, and The Letter Left to Me.
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If you're looking for a book to become truly absorbed in, one you'll probably want to re-read as soon as you've finished the last page, this is it. There is such a richness and abundance of thought in these pages, now that I've read it twice I feel like I can dip into it at random and find something worth rediscovering, whether it be earthquakes, improvisational jazz, the physics and engineering of dam construction,the particularly haunting old structures from pre Civil War years that abide today right next to modern buildings of glass-box construction, of course woven elegantly into the main elements that compose a love story: obsession, personal revelations and concealments, humor, mystery, and enchantment. There is a Proustian consciousness of the profound ambiguities of memory, and how its hidden secrets yield a determining influence on our lives, until they rise to the surface and can be overcome, absorbed.... Perhaps I'm wieghing this down with too many generalities, but this novel contains so much, any simple 'rendering' or 'encapsulation' of the plot would be to do it an injustice. So let something intentionally simplified suffice: a middle-aged man and a young woman fall in love in pre-millennial New York City, both of them are survivors, and in falling in love with each other, both of them come into much closer contact with just what it is that they have survived - its implications and consequences - which brings their budding relationship into serious jeopardy. It seems that McElroy has been compared throughout his career to authors like Pynchon, DeLillo, Coover, Barthelme, and Barth, but here you find much less of the antic (and sometimes silly) humor of the latter three, something much more accessible and less self-consciously 'important' than anything Pynchon has written. DeLillo would be the closest comparison. McElroy has the same gift for capturing the rhythms and nuances of everyday speech, the same sort of global consciousness, the same ability to capture and captivate the reader. But DeLillo, in my opinion, is more likely to be self-indulgent, abuse your attention as a reader (see Cosmopolis, The Body Artist, Ratner's Star, The Names...), where McElroy's serious purpose is always evident, even when he is charming you with humor. Since reading Actress in the House I've also read the author's ingenious first novel, A Smuggler's Bible, and am now looking forward to the December publication of Lookout Cartridge before undertaking the mammoth Women and Men. Joseph McElroy is a true discovery for me. I hope to share it with many, many people. Was this review helpful to you?