Joseph McElroy Essay - McElroy, Joseph

McElroy, Joseph

McElroy, Joseph 1930–

McElroy is an American novelist whose work has reminded critics of Heller and Pynchon. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)

["Lookout Cartridge"] is not an easy novel to describe. It is something like the movie "Blow-Up," let us say, in that its hero thinks he spies with a camera what his naked eyes have refused to see. And it is something like the novels of Robbe-Grillet in that is prose is deadpan, toneless, under a spell, looped in its own obsessions, words whispering inside the head of a madman. It is like Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" in that its symbolic and allusive formulae come from science and technology rather than from literature and other art, and in that one reads through it as one might move through sets designed by a secretive and paranoid demiurge. It is like many novels written by authors from Dostoevsky to Michel Butor in that its unexpected harmonies and novel dissonances sound against the conventions of the mystery novel. It is like the recent work of Norman Mailer in its hero's attempt to sniff out and soak up the power, energy, magic or mana released by violence and fear. "We are in the grip of forces," says Cartwright, the hero whose mind is the "lookout cartridge" of the title, "and also of their absence."…

For Cartwright, who is brawny and wears a trenchcoat, as for Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, the way to uncover a mystery is to make waves. But "waves aren't simple; they hit each other; they interfere, take each other's force, but also reinforce." Cartwright makes things happen that make things happen to him. He becomes the killer behind the killers who do the actual killings, none of which would have occurred without the waves he has made or the powers he has poached. His quest leads him over "fork upon fork, fibres sprouting deltas, alternatives routed into huge parallel families ignorant of each other." Each mystery solved discloses others and provides the motives for new mystifications. The more Cartwright learns, the greater his power, but the less he understands it. He is moved to formulate a law: "You will not have both power and the understanding of it."

The clues to the knowledge and power he seeks are always broken, or buried, or on the periphery of his attention—Mayan calendars, Stonehenge computers, the properties of liquid crystals, the forgotten art of wheelwrighting, Gerardus Mercador, a character in "The Woman in White," his son's interrupted talk about elevation grids, his daughter's resemblance to a number of other women, the relations between his wife and his ex-mistress, a surpressed name, an uncompleted phrase, a bit of history, a section of landscape, a piece of equipment, a face flashing by, something colored orange, the word PROBE on a newspaper headline the rest of which is covered by an iron weight marked LIFE: collages in time and space of memory, perception and illusion. Cartwright comes to understand that he is immersed in "some oceanic conspiracy of refractions."…

The systems of power—financial, criminal, political, domestic, erotic and psychotic—that extend through and around him wheel at all angles to each other and at different speeds. And yet they have the look of subsystems waiting for a supersystem to subsume them.

They have that look because so many bits in one system reflect or echo bits in the others. "No such thing as randomness," says Cartwright, whether hopefully or fearfully, but there is no certainty, this side of godhood and paranoia. The novel ends (with a bang) this side of godhood or paranoia, the issue unresolved, except by violence. "I was not sure what I had seen, but I knew what we had done" are Cartwright's last words to us. And neither are we sure what to see in the flickers of analogy and homology among parts of the systems that wheel through and around Cartwright, but we know that they signal the main sources of anxious fascination and eerie power generated by this novel.

And we leave this novel—the author's fourth long work of fiction in only nine years (his two most recent books were "Hind's Kidnap" and "Ancient History")—with a renewed sense of the systematic disconnection and sinister relatedness among the power systems we detect from our own lookout cartridges, or consciousnesses slotted between what is within us and "the times we live in." As I said, this is not an easy novel to describe. Nor is it easy to read—or to put down. The rewards, for once, are adequate to the effort required. What is easy is to predict that 1975 will not produce many novels as good. For its technical brilliance, its unremitting intelligence, for the rich complexity of the homologies and analogies between its systems and the fearful times we live in, "Lookout Cartridge" is the rarest kind of achievement. (p. 3)

George Stade, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 2, 1975.

Lookout Cartridge is not a novel to be savored in a comfortable armchair by the fire. It should be read at a metal desk in a pale green office under fluorescent lights—or perhaps over a cup of coffee at some long-forgotten Automat. It is a mean and lonely piece of work….

The plot … seems unimportant next to the problems presented by McElroy's prose. He puts words together in a manner so unrelenting that reading the book for long stretches of time induced in me actual physical discomfort—a kind of vertigo with an accompanying tightness in the cords of the neck. McElroy has created a style with all the syntactical complexity of Joyce, but without the lush Celtic melody to carry you along over the bumps.

Whether McElroy is a superb writer or merely a difficult one is too fine a point to answer after one reading of one novel. But he's certainly in earnest and is to be taken seriously if one is tough enough to take him at all. (p. 55)

Carol Holmes, in Harper's (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the May, 1975 issue by special permission), May, 1975.

Barthelme and Barth sometimes; Handke, Hawkes and Baraka frequently; Mailer lately; Heller and Pynchon always; and now, with his fourth book [Lookout Cartridge], Joseph McElroy: these are our writers of stoned fictions. They've altered our rhythms, stuttered our speech, toyed with our timing and besieged us with noise. They've poised their fictions between order and disorder, meaning and nonmeaning, something and nothing, the mainstream and being at sea, the main man and the outlaw. Posing choices, they've pushed us to edges. And from the edge, they've veered not back into certainty, resolution or coherence, but out into seeming chaos, instability and easy-to-mock vulnerabilities. Their fictions are spacy yet jammed with information. But their greatest information lurks in their rhythms, noise-to-signal ratios, and links of bits to other bits. Their greatest information lurks between their items of news….

Unlike McElroy's earlier fictions, Lookout Cartridge makes it impossible for readers to fall back on "connectedness," "coherence" or any other rainy day staple of complacent experience. Nothing in this book makes sense. Rather, Lookout Cartridge and other stoned books show a sort of "nothing" where people sense without making. For his 531 dense pages, McElroy builds no visible structure, edifies not at all, resolves only in flashes. As its main character says, the book is finally "like some instance of Hindu Maya that lets us believe in the rest that may not really be there."

The book takes place in the mind of an American named Cartwright….

Cartwright thinks of his consciousness as a cartridge whose meaning will be revealed by its surrounding past and projected future, by the making and viewing of the film, but both the past and its future are so specifically uncertain that even his own content is in doubt. And if he is a cartridge to be inserted in some prefigured scheme, who's the inserter? These are some of the questions McElroy poses but to which he refuses clear answers. Is anything left?…

From homebody to being at "home with the unexpected" is the distance Cartwright travels in his tale. And that is also, if crudely, the tale of the shift from straight to stoned fiction. Lookout Cartridge does create spaces "not previously there." It's a book that repays rereading and yes, it only grows stronger in hindsight. Still, one wishes in frustration for more of what Cartwright calls "concussion." And that's one of McElroy's nicest touches, for while he seems to defuse his perils he actually compounds them. The deaths in his story are as accidental as its full plenty of details and its ultimate destruction of concrete meaning…. The concussions in Lookout Cartridge are muffled, the tracks erased, and hieroglyphic shimmerings are all that remain. It's not a cheap thrill, not a gas, not a hit, toke or rush. After all, it's a stone. (p. 28)

W. T. Lhamon, Jr., in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 3, 1975.