Joseph McElroy Essay - Critical Essays


Joseph McElroy’s novels unfold in the topographies of mind. He has called them “neural neighborhoods.” Within those imaginary spaces, McElroy’s fictions grow from a profound desire for order, for a meaningful landscape of human intentions and actions. Also, they grow from a profound recognition that such orders may be unobtainable amid the fragmenting stresses of advanced machine culture. The point, as his novels illustrate, is not to kick against this crux but to set the mind in motion within it, thus to create form and meaning. This precept is the source of both difficulty and great achievement in McElroy’s writing.

Not that McElroy’s neural landscapes stand apart from ordinary surroundings—quite the opposite: His novels are saturated with the stuff of contemporary society, with references to and metaphors from urban culture, and from such wide-ranging pursuits as cinematography, information processing, linguistics, and the space program. Richly detailed and technically specific, these familiar endeavors illustrate the fragmentary nature of human knowledge. At the same time, they point out unsuspected possibilities for human growth. McElroy’s narrator-protagonists are imbued with an almost claustrophobic variety of concise memories and everyday desires, yet within these mental topographies they are driven to discover order, or “plot,” for novels are also “plotted,” and it is of the essence of McElroy’s novels that the action, the narrators’ attempted discoveries, be seen as contemporary variations on the detective plot. They solve no significant enigmas. Not “representations” of events that have been rarefied by memory, McElroy’s fictions are instead “demonstrations” of the complexities involved in reconstructing any past event. Inevitably the characters’ memories involve their own categories of feeling and linguistic mapping, which themselves become objects of scrutiny. The best one can do, suggests McElroy, is to “smuggle” or “kidnap” a perception or idea over the received boundary of some other. By thus learning to manipulate the inadequacies and paradoxes of human knowledge, one surmounts them.

This brief sketch of McElroy’s principal concerns will suggest the interests he shares with many modern and contemporary writers. With modernists such as Marcel Proust and André Gide, he is concerned to show both the complexity and the potential illicitness of narratively reconstructed events, which are “counterfeit” creations precisely to the degree that they recognize themselves as ordered rememberings of life’s dismembered orderings. With contemporaries such as Michel Butor, William Gaddis, Nicholas Moseley, and Thomas Pynchon, McElroy reflects on the linguistic nature of this narrative activity. Like them, he sees the ability to manipulate hypothetical, alternative structures—for example, the worlds of “stories”—as a condition of social existence, and he reflects on how we also hastily suppose that continuity and causality are absolute requirements of that structuring work.

A Smuggler’s Bible

A Smuggler’s Bible is McElroy’s brilliant first articulation of these themes. By the author’s own account, this novel was not his first, but it developed after several aborted attempts at a rather conventionally sequential, causal type of long narrative. Its title describes the book’s main emblem: A “smuggler’s Bible” is a hollowed-out volume designed for carrying contraband over borders. Similarly, McElroy’s narrative develops by making illicit leaps. Even though its eight parts are essentially disconnected, the reader still “smuggles” bits of information across their boundaries to reconstruct a “story” about its narrator-protagonist, David Brooke. In fact, readers are encouraged in this by another, omniscient narrative voice, which appears in short interchapters. This voice advertises itself as David’s “creator” and comments on his task, itself also the reader’s, which is to “analyze, synthesize, [and] assimilate” details gleaned by “projecting” oneself into others’ experience. This is the task framed by a conventional, “realistic” novel. Yet a smuggler’s Bible is also a clever deception: an illegal, profane business tucked inside an authorized, holy cover. In similar ways, David’s eightfold story, a kind of experimental writing, can be read as trying, and failing, to disguise itself as an artistically conventional novel replete with causal plot.

The essentials of that inner narrative are as follows. David and his wife, Ellen, are passengers aboard a ship, the Arkadia, bound for London. There David must deliver to a mysterious “Old Man” the manuscript of a book he has written, each of its eight parts the story of an event or of characters with special significance in his own life. The ship’s passage takes eight days. During that time, at the rate of a story per day, David struggles to give the manuscript continuity. He provides narrative transitions and “smuggles” characters from one narrative into another. He even attempts to structure each story according to some mythic subtext, such as those of Oedipus, Midas, or the Golden Ass. This technique of highly self-conscious parody—what poet T. S. Eliot called the “mythic method” in reference toJames Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)—is revealed as yet another mode of smuggling, which has lost that sacred magic it once promised to modernist writers. Thus, while David may think of himself as “an epistemological reuniac” attempting an integral, totalizing reconstruction of the past, A Smuggler’s Bible, especially in its interchapters, tends contrariwise toward disjunction and incompleteness. McElroy has said that it “was designed to fracture.”

Throughout this long, stylistically brilliant performance, the image one gets (not a “picture” but an immanence or field theory) is of women and men existing in a grand relational network. Yet only David’s acts of memory hold that web in balance. This field of charged particles did exist, and had “reality,” but only when a single mind was composing it, and that mind is, in the best sense of the term, trivial: It finds pattern and meaning in the accidental minutiae of ordinary lives. A few examples: In the fourth of his “principal parts,” David recounts the story of his acquaintance, at the University of New Hampshire, with an intellectual con artist named Duke Amerchrome. An immensely popular historian and theorist of American culture, Duke engineered his fame on forged sources and blustering rhetoric. He is an exemplar of the literati who smuggle themselves into positions of “authority.” Tony Tanner has asserted that the character is patterned on Norman Mailer, yet almost any other (such as Marshall McLuhan) would do, and one could also point to the autobiographical aspects and note that McElroy may have been exorcising personal as well as professional demons. In any event, much of Duke’s story is transmitted to David through his son Michael, who discloses the man’s use of counterfeited trivia about the Battle of Ticonderoga. Michael, however, has selfish motives for these disclosures, such as coveting his father’s nubile young wife (Duke’s third).

This Oedipal motif broadens; the idea of “shadowing” a (supposed) father, tracking him and absorbing the minutiae of his days until one knows enough to expose and supplant him, recurs in other chapters. The first memory concerns a bored rare-book dealer named Peter St. John who is being followed by a boy who thinks that the man resembles his father. In the second, David’s association with a group of eccentric fellow boarders eventually centers on a rare-coin dealer named Pennitt, who may be a counterfeiter; whether he is or not is never certain, because the old man brushes David off before disclosing any conclusive evidence. In the final part, David’s father spins through his last, trivial thoughts while dying of angina and rectal cancer. David inhabits these memories, seeking safe harbor between antinomies: the imploding heart of humanity, symbolizing powers of empathy and connection, versus the exploding rectum, David’s symbol of dispersal and “apartness.” The book ends there, with the mind shuttling in between, never resolving that antinomy but finding art in the act of composing.

Hind’s Kidnap

Hind’s Kidnap, McElroy’s next novel, takes these ideas a step further. Once again the concern is with detection, with the mind moving inside a labyrinthine network of information that points equally to integral order and to zeros of disorder. This novel, however, falls short of its ambition. Critics have aptly noted that the book succeeds better in its idea than in its stylistic performance, which often becomes tiresome.

The reasons are several. One is that the narrator’s attention to matters of trivial but feasibly significant detail achieves a still closer focus than in A Smuggler’s Bible, but this attention must be borne by units of narrative (sentences on up to chapters) that strain from sheer length, and hence from the span of attention demanded of readers. Another reason, and doubtless an attempt to explain (that is, to naturalize) the first, is that in Hind’s Kidnap the narrator-protagonist is virtually obsessed with the dialectic of detection.

The story is related by Jack Hind, a six-foot, seven-inch lookout tower of a man who, for years, has been intermittently tracking his way back and forth through the same case. A four-year-old boy, Hershey Laurel, was kidnapped from his rural home, and for seven years there has been no trace of the boy. Desperate to solve the enigma, Hind tells and retells the known facts to everyone he knows; in time, his auditors become so knowledgeable as to seem implicated in the original crime. Hind’s recollections thus become a labyrinth without boundaries, as if all were “suspicioned” into the plot, often on the slightest of linguistic associations, such as a name. Midway through the narrative, with the book’s reader now equally knowledgeable of the main “facts,” it becomes necessary for Hind to “de-kidnap” everyone, to extricate them from the paranoid plottings of his own mind. Thus, Hind also becomes implicated. In the novel’s second part, he turns his detective skills onto his own past: the early deaths of both parents, his childhood with a guardian (a linguist, as it happens), and the question of his own paternity (the guardian appears to have been his actual father). These matters explain his obsession. Hind’s quest for the boy is a means of asserting his own guardianship, and so of questing into the self, of separating illusion from reality and discovering how he was misled by language. As the novel’s subtitle—A Pastoral on Familiar Airs—implies, Hind thereby seeks to become a truer shepherd of both memories and the discourses used to shape them.

Ancient History

The intimidating density of Ancient History comes from McElroy’s ongoing philosophical interrogation of language itself as a dynamic field within which meaning—and for that matter plot and character—is recovered only at great risk to the intricacy of the larger construction. Language cannot be relied on to “translate” experience into conventional linear narratives, those aesthetic structures that privilege the trajectory of character growth toward inevitable insight. Rather, McElroy conceives of language as a paraphrase of experience, a reinterpretation of experience in which the original text, or experience within the temporal world, is reconceived within a dynamic field that draws less on the artificial structures of narrative theory and more from mathematics (particularly Kurt Gödel), quantum physics, and, supremely, chaos theory. Indeed, in the novel, McElroy applies the liberating dynamic of paraphrase to the assumed realities of experience, a premise that anatomizes the complexities and viability of memory itself, the flimsy construction of responsibility, and ultimately the enterprise of friendship (all of which are, after all, exercises in paraphrasing experience into convenient terms). Language, for McElroy, is our only technology for clarifying the rush of experience into the...

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