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Best known for his complex and beautiful novels — regularly compared to those of Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and Don DeLillo — Joseph McElroy is equally at home in the short story, having written numerous pieces over the course of his career that now, collected at last, serve as an ideal introduction to one of the most important contemporary American authors. Combining elements of classic McElroy with tantalizing stories pointing the way ahead (the spare and dangerous "No Man's Land," the lush and mischievous...
Best known for his complex and beautiful novels — regularly compared to those of Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, and Don DeLillo — Joseph McElroy is equally at home in the short story, having written numerous pieces over the course of his career that now, collected at last, serve as an ideal introduction to one of the most important contemporary American authors. Combining elements of classic McElroy with tantalizing stories pointing the way ahead (the spare and dangerous "No Man's Land," the lush and mischievous "The Campaign Trail"), Night Soul and Other Stories presents a wide range of work from a monumental artist.
Dalkey Archive Press
Over the course of four decades, Joseph McElroy has earned a reputation as the difficult postmodernist. When your peers are Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, being singled out for difficulty is a real statement, sort of like being the most masochistic of the masochists, but to all appearances the charge is accurate. Of McElroy's novels, the avowed pièce de résistance (or nail in the coffin, if you prefer) is the gargantuan Women and Men, which, at 700,000 words, makes such ponderous tomes as Gravity's Rainbow and The Recognitions look like the short stack. Reviewing it for The New York Times in 1987, Ivan Gold declared that it is "most often set forth in a viscous, arch, hectoring, information-crammed, unparagraphed series of the longest sentences since William Faulkner's" before concluding rather anemically "one does not go to this novelist for the usual pleasures."
The matter of which pleasures one reads McElroy for is a question worthy of serious thought; what is less contentious is that those who have acquired a taste for McElroy will be cheered to find Night Soul and Other Stories, a new volume of mostly recent short fiction that shows the author on his mark. With the book clocking a svelte 304 pages, those new to him now have the opportunity to sample one of the major American postmodernists at a length more congenial than that of an encyclopedia.
Part of the difficulty -- and pleasure -- of McElroy is in his unceasing efforts to upend the rules of grammar and syntax. This can give rise to some breathtaking displays of verbiage. Take, for instance, this one-sentence paragraph from the collection's opening story, "No Man's Land":
That I should have found myself here, to relearn a stretch of neighborhood once my father's family's never quite mine you know, but my memory's, my city's -- and pavements and intersections guessed that morning from words of my wife implicitly like love locating it like a clue a couple of city miles at least from the brownstones of our Rutland Road, those long, turn-of-the-former-century's blocks of evolving borderland though no stranger to great Flatbush Avenue, the Prospect Park lake/horses/grackles like iridescent crows owning the territory/lilacs on the way -- to find myself here might prove worthwhile -- a nomad thought more mine than hers to a virtually unemployed male at 7:00 a.m.
First note the tone, a sort of elegiac dreamspeak (with the proper enjambment it could resemble modernist poetry) that McElroy commonly strikes when he breaks out these devilish sentences. Then notice how the sentence swerves at "once my father's family's" -- the reader is left with a dilemma: try to connect what follows to what precedes, or read on as though McElroy has spliced two independent thoughts into one sentence. That fundamental uncertainty is later embodied by "lake/horses/grackles" and "territory/lilacs," wherein McElroy is either letting you choose for yourself or boldly stating that they all fit equally well, no matter that a lake isn't a horse nor a grackle. This multiplicity of coexisting, equally likely possibilities is something that characterizes not only McElory's woollier sentences but also his stories on a whole: the narration is so carefully elliptical that it does not tell you what happened, it merely suggests a number of non-exclusive possibilities. Arguably, the correct reading is to conclude that they all happened, projected over one another like the glances of different people looking at the same object.
Though it should be said that a good three-fourths of the prose in Night Soul maintains a prudent distance from the level of inscrutability found in the above paragraph, one's enjoyment of these stories will nonetheless depend on one's willingness to tolerate -- and even luxuriate in -- uncertainties. That is because these stories do not entertain with their preening erudition (as in Women and Men), nor with the vivid characterization that McElroy has displayed elsewhere. These are stories that offer a very particular enjoyment -- that of reconstructing their flesh from the fossils McElroy has buried in his escarpments of prose. They do not just invite participation -- they require it -- and as such they raise questions about the role of the author and one's duty to create narratives. To my mind those are fine lines to treat, with the gladly shouldered burden of "Silk, or the Woman with the Bike" on one side, and the overly indulgent "Canoe Repair" on the other. Throughout both the good and the bad in this collection, McElroy can get a little too wrapped up in his flights of free-association, but there are worse things than a prolix style -- boredom, for instance, which you won't find much of here.
What you will find is McElroy agglutinating seemingly disparate themes in memorable, intriguing ways. For instance, try on this sentence: "After the long day at the day job branching and hopeless but not as jazz is." For a story-length example of this, look to "The Last Disarmament But One," an absurd trunk of a tale about the consequences when the last nuclear superpower's arsenal suddenly immolates it, leaving a crater in the exact size and shape of the unspecified country. The fun comes when the residents of the nation's neighbor, who have not been touched 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 a search for the soul, revealing submerged connections between the two.
As that might imply, these stories are not the easiest to fathom, but a reader is sustained through blocks of inscrutability by the faith that the eventual revelation will have been worth any stumbles in the dark. On the first reading, one often feels like E. L. Doctorow's hypothetical writer, who gets to the end of a manuscript as a driver on a foggy night reaches home: by keeping his eyes trained only so far as his headlights allow. Reading McElroy one glimpses just enough sense within the beams of those headlights to reach the end, and a second reading frequently reveals the story's bizarre logic, as obscure as it is intriguing.
A good example of that would be "No Man's Land," first published in 2008. With a post-9/11 NYC setting, a family of Muslims, 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 enough details to keep terrorism just within the story's frame, but "No Man's Land" is interested in bending the post-9/11 narrative in directions it's never taken. It spends far more time with family's nine-year-old son, Ali, than with the shady relative, and the story is further complicated by the fact that everything we learn is filtered though a poorly defined narrator who befriends Ali and calls himself "Mo." With terrorism on the back burner, the story becomes a meditation on relationships, embodied here by Ali's obsession with the idea of a nomad, which travels from character to character like a theme passed from instrument to instrument through a symphony orchestra. As references to both nomadism and Ali's possibly terroristic uncle pile up, the plot begins to flicker closer and closer to its climax -- an elliptical page and a half (out of thirty-four) with references to cops and gunshots. Yet this barely-glimpsed payoff is submerged within a swamp of scenes that show how, in the author's phrase, "words circulate in our city like thoughts, contagiously." An eight-page coda of fragmentary thoughts leaves us convinced that the true subject of "No Man's Land" is the way people attempt to close the distance between one another despite the fact that everything is always in motion.
I only stumbled upon this interpretation of "No Man'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 diligent reviewer. 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 Campaign Trail," "Mister X," and "The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne." The measure of these stories' success is their ability to fascinate the reader, to make us want to understand McElroy's far-out aesthetic. After all, such an aesthetic can only succeed if it intrigues readers enough for them to not throw the book out the window. Some stories in this collection fail to meet this challenge, yet more often than not they 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 uniform literary landscape: the genuinely new.
The little brother Ali was little enough but you didn't know what he would come up with, and they laughed when he told what his teacher had said, that we are all nomads.
His little sister laid the table, the mother from the kitchen calling Ali, the bread was waiting and the bowl of meat, and the very big brother Abbod tapped in a phone number, while Ali's father and uncle, aware of Abbod because he's only just unexpectedly blown in from Canada, to say nothing of sleeping on the couch, were plotting a new business venture, eased by aromas of lamb and onion, herbs and crusty, paper-thin lavash just out of the oven—so no one asked at first why the fourth-grade teacher at a Brooklyn public school had said what she did about nomad to Ali.
What is your job? I ask myself, on the move.
In the small shopping plaza above the B & Q train stop, they posted a news photo of a patrolman killed in line of duty. This not far from Ali's family's apartment, which in turn is a walk from his morning bus stop on the way to school with a walk at the other end.
Nomad? Nomad?—just like that? What does she know? the uncle said at dinner.
In geography Ali had the answers and then some. Original was the only word for it. And when the teacher said a river takes us where we want to go and he put up his hand, the class became quiet. "Sometimes they take the river and they move the river," Ali said. Class quietly laughs at the nerd terrorist, yet waiting for teacher. But Ali proves his point. "Once they moved a river to try and win a war, I think." In the yard later someone would trip him up and he would fall and skin his cheek on the hard, black rubber surface by the jungle gym, but fall lightly.
The family wanted to know a little more about it, this "nomad" point because ... because Ali's an original boy, in need even of monitoring, of serious questioning—for what could happen? Unafraid, called "terrorist" and "Arab" by the boys in the school yard, what was he? A nine-year-old, a terrible asker of questions, small for his age.
Where is Mexico, where is Canada? asked the teacher, wondering at her own map hanging over the blackboard, where is California, the Arctic, the ice fields and polar bears, Brazil? Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea! What is the mouth of a river? Tigris River where they used to fish—no more. Where is Turkey? OK, where is Syria? See what country they have borders with. Borders? See the lines—one line is mostly river. "Sometimes—" she begins, but one question can interrupt another, the teacher was so quick with a question she interrupted herself, a happy person (and to have this Muslim child in her class who picks up her turns of speech), she and her map routes, a river is a moving road, she said, and was off. Caves, said Ali, the bell rang, he raised his hand too late.
Nomad can wait, we know. Because he moves in season. He and his people. Everyone busy. Nomad knows his job. Children quite safe. He may return next fall to where he was, even when things fall apart.
One day the boy would have to make a living, he would have a job to do, said the father. A dreamer, Ali's head was in the clouds, you didn't know what he was thinking—and then he told you. Imam passing through had said that the boy had mouths all over his body.
All over? she asked Ali (his teacher, one lunchtime, one-on-one, for she said he was better at math than even she ...). Well, this imam was from Mosul, visited New York, got followed but not before he had trained his camera on the evil billboards and the great bridges, Ali told her. Did she know an entire bridge had been moved part by part from England to Arizona? His uncle had told him.
His uncle knew. His uncle got mad, not at him, stood up for him. ("Ali can crunch the numbers.")
Who all were these nomads? We know roughly where they are. In olden times the Scythians would surprise the enemy, make some trouble and retreat. Let's make a map of nomads, the teacher said. What is a map? she said. Anything that came into her mind, she would say it. The bald kid at the back who'd been sick but wasn't anymore showed his notebook to the kid next to him.
Abbod wore a hunting jacket he'd picked up in Canada. He was bent on obtaining a New York driver's license hopefully. What matter if it's stamped third class not valid for U.S. government purposes? He'd always known, from birth, how to drive—what's the problem? He had driven a white taxi from Beirut to Dimashq and when his uncle's cousin had shown up to collect the fare at the post office by the train station, it was how things worked, which always came first. Didn't he get paid? Ali asked. Post office next to a theater where you are too young to go, Abbod jigged his eyebrows.
Abbod knew how to take orders. It was how you learned to give them.
Ali, age nine, thought if he didn't ask for a camera he wouldn't get one. But who could he ask?
What is my job? Ask no one but yourself, things falling apart some days like a song high above the street or in the distance.
Photos on the living room wall—a dark man, his eyes bugged at some awful thing about to happen. Next to it a picture of a gold-and-silver-threaded pharaonic tapestry with a band around it showing ducks flying and their wings like crowns, very pretty Islamic thing. And a tinted photo of, you'd guess, a rug and leaves growing all the way around it, and Ali would look at the leaves. Of what tree? A fruit tree, maybe existing someplace. Look, too, at their California calendar peeling the months up and back, with a hang glider or backpacking trail above each month of days, or high, bellying waves of surf, or a quake-proofed bridge.
Nomads, said Ali's father, the way he said things. The big brother had left the table to make a phone call and Ali recounted only that teacher had a picture of a tent in the desert and had asked what a nomad was, and Ali had told about their sheepherder cousin. "Maybe a cousin, maybe not a cousin. A singer, we heard he was a singer," said the father who had an attitude because big brother on the phone again or because Ali storytelling.
Forsythia, the surprise along Newkirk, its early yellow bearing in its very light a suspicion of green in a front yard next to Ali's building. Late winter, early spring, seasons in question, a matter for the authorities.
And now big brother couldn't drive legally without at least the third-class license Albany had promised if Governor would only stop changing his mind every other week on the three-tiered plan, what's the matter with him? (Didn't you get paid in Dimashq? said Ali remembering from two nights ago.) Cops see it, maybe they stop you maybe they don't. Third category license was for driving, not I.D. except if you're stopped with it you're an immigrant in limbo, you could be on the BQE or Coney Island Avenue. Abbod had just arrived in New York Limbo? asked Ali. It means trouble, said Abbod. Did he fly from Canada in an airplane? How else you gonna fly? (Did Abbod answer Ali's question?) Ali hopes he will stay. "What the dickens is the BQE?" "What's the BQE?" laughs big brother. "The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, man—what did you say, Ali, what the what?"
Father and uncle were looking into a storefront at the lower, better end of Foster Avenue across from the NYPD security camera mounted above the street and nice older brick and wood houses, and seeking a private source of financial backing which would save their violating Sharia by applying to a bank in Greenpoint where they had once lived and had a dog.
Canada nothing like Syria, Abbod told Ali. Mom told him to go to bed, Abbod can tell you all about it tomorrow, Sharah is waiting for you to read her a story. Abbod slept on the living room couch, gone early in the morning before Ali was up. Ali must have understood something. Was it the job that brother Abbod was looking for? Why did Ali feel he had found it? Abbod wouldn't take the messenger job because he didn't have a bike. That's right, you don't take a job you don't want.
The bedtime story was his job, though only a boy, helping care for a female child in the family. Ali was interrupted three nights running—Mom, Dad, and, strangely, the third night big brother Abbod, angry after a phone call—and each time Ali got back into the story though he skipped a step or two of the tale but added some bits. Same fisherman pulled up in his net: first, a parcel holding a princess's body all cut up into pieces that seemed more than pieces; second, a great talking stone which asked to be dragged onto dry land, a fallow field, and then heavily lifted to discover beneath it amazingly a hole that hadn't been there and a narrow door; third, a jar and a genie plus interactive adventures to enlist the genie's help or escape him and—and little sister Sharah, eyelids trembling with sleep, thought the genie was going to kill the fisherman, had he done so?
Nomads. A considerable tent dipping in the wind with a great flat oblong top. The teacher pointing, Anyone know what a nomad is? Ali spoke without putting up his hand, he had a cousin who was a nomad. He used to keep sheep, you know, but was herding also larger beasts now until he could come to America. Oh? said the teacher. The class laughed with relief, as if they didn't believe in that cousin living out there on the borderland of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, but they did, for this cousin Zam-ma'jid often on the move who didn't speak a word of English to his goats and even camels that might lie down exhausted—and why would he anyway?—he didn't like America and that was final. So why come here? He had a horse to ride, too—the class became quiet at this—but it might be taken from him. Teacher more than sort of liked Ali and she looked at him and said, We're all nomads.
Two boys jeered at the Muslim kid. Get Shorty. An airplane passed low overhead. Was it coming out of JFK? Was it bound for Atlanta, Washington D.C.? Ali might well know. His uncle would. And then a second plane.
Big brother Abbod with the camo fatigues you envied was supposed by the family to have come here by way of Istanbul, Warsaw, and then Quebec, where he had arrived with two Polish jazz players he knew from Lodz who had scholarships to McGill, and it was true. But Abbod had soon left Quebec to come here.
What is my job? To see what a child is seeing. However long it takes? Time pounds the pavements and dissolves into a field of chances.
Teacher had two Band-Aids for Ali, he liked them. She heard the boys talking. What was this store on Coney Island Avenue near Foster Ave. the boys went to? she asked Ali. In Flatbush, she said. He shrugged, but she felt he had not known the location of the store.
The Catholic girls' school near the projects the far side of Flatbush, of Newkirk—Sharah might go there next year. They had asked many questions and had been almost too friendly. It was better than a school where she would be singled out. And homeschooling was not possible, though when they came home every afternoon they studied Qur'an. (Ali's teacher asked him what difference between Qur'an and other faiths—too much to ask.) Some echo here for me.
Air Canada to JFK? Apparently not. Over the border, then drive? Don't ask. Abbod knows the city. Ali wants to know what his brother knows.
One day Ali was late getting home.
All but strangers to each other, the tall and the short, a child peering through the store window at video games, behind him like single file a man. We stand before the wares of the West, does he see me in the plate glass?—sees much that is not immediately visible very likely. What is my job? Above his olive-skinned neck a Low Dark Fade they call it at the barber's school where I go for a $4.99 cut and an experience, the boy small for his age I'd guess, but in the Ocean Avenue game store's plate glass unmistakable, somehow found—viewing a domain he must often have visited—seeing what is in front of him like a prince, subtle, mighty, and, hearing Green Day from the record store next door, he need not turn yet.
What is one's job?
That I should have found myself here, to relearn a stretch of neighborhood once my father's family's never quite mine you know, but my memory's, my city's—and pavements and intersections guessed that morning from words of my wife implicitly like love locating it like a clue a couple of city miles at least from the brownstones of our Rutland Road, those long, turn-of-the-former-century's blocks of evolving borderland though no stranger to great Flatbush Avenue, the Prospect Park lake/horses/grackles like iridescent crows owning the territory/lilacs on the way—to find myself here might prove worthwhile—a nomad thought more mine than hers, to a virtually unemployed male at 7:00 A.M.
Ali would do anything for Abbod. Ali was up against it in the playground when teacher came out and he was telling his enemies he had a big brother who had come to the U.S. to do a job and Abbod would chill them in a New York minute. "Half-brother," Ali's uncle said.
Green Day Ali hears like a message, a life, a promise—because he would like to learn to play bass like ...
(Never misses school, never home sick, "like a chip off your old block" he will say two, three days later when I recited a Russian poet—in English—"But I love my unfortunate land / Because I've not seen any other.")
And would like to be invited to play video games after school with ... two kids, for it is them he now turns to see. Not yet the man standing behind him, in the corner of his eye in the store window reflection, but his classmates, one pale, strong, bald, the other a "carrot-top," Ali will later call him (his given name Terry), who come sauntering forth jointly holding a single, targeted purchase. Engrossed in the picture on the small packaged game and maybe the fine print, they look up and see Ali and turn away laughing over their collective shoulder at the nerd whose cousin nomad was coming to America, he'd claimed. Knowing nothing of this as yet, the gentleman behind him—as if the Band-Aid on the cheek proves it—assumes Ali is a regular here.
That this proved to be not so seemed later at least as strange as what this boy, small for his age but of a certain stature, turning from the game store window to see two kids leaving the store turning down the block, then said surprisingly to the man standing behind him: "What they came for"—meaning (I realized) the LAB game postered in the window—though meaning to make the best of things by striking up a conversation.
So we're walking down the block, not knowing quite what we're doing—walking is a parallel support for secret hope, man and boy, the talk, the questions somewhere in there like the walking/waiting intersection. Each taking the other as of the neighborhood. Ali not quite answering the unsaid question, whatever it is. The black man we pass, and his hand—"been through the mill," Ali says, finding in his pocket only a leaky ballpoint, so I find a quarter. "Money can be shared," the boy says. "Hit the street, that's what can happen," I said. "Are you real estate?" "No, this is my father's old neighborhood, his family." "Gone away?" Ali asks, out of some depth his own. "Gone," I find the word to answer him, a nine-year-old. He suddenly becomes my friend.
"I'm Mo," I said, putting out my hand to shake.
Extreme caution marked Ali's father's late-night business meetings featuring a risk-benefit analysis for the new partnership, green-card immigrants ever vigilant, uncle so well-informed but irritable and hurried, on the run. Tax preparation, travel of course, maybe real estate though you need a license.
At breakfast my wife would want the best for me. She had taken a moonlighting job, mostly middleman home-based. From her day job, she brought work home too but was not a martyr, though she misses nothing that goes on, children alive, comparing notes, yakking who likes who, an idea a second, my beauty.
Walk where another has walked to see what he has seen, would be a way of putting it.
"That game," I began, "that Ali's friends had bough—" "LAB!" "Labyrinth and laboratory?" Ali shook his head in awe meaning Yes. "—linked up (?)," I continue—with this other game he now outlines for me, enthusiastic about theft on a big, even regional scale—
"Friends?" I ask.
—thefts by agents of one caliph expanding until an entire city is stolen by another caliph towed away along with the weather by his agents and held for ransom down to parks and fish ponds and secret curving lanes with passerelles above like bridges or balconies looking north and south, borders shrunk, streams straightened, the price either a whole nation or inside a dusty vessel a minute horse that has swallowed a ring that brings genie-like military figure named da Vinci if the wearer unconsciously rubs the ring by bringing his hands suppliantly together, and so on, the trick being to find all the ways back "homeward," to "get back home."
Excerpted from NIGHT SOUL AND OTHER STORIES by JOSEPH MCELROY Copyright © 2011 by Joseph McElroy. Excerpted by permission of DALKEY ARCHIVE PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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