The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

While the majority of the characters are more like disembodied voices, the two who stand out most recognizably are James Mayn and Grace Kimball. Mayn’s character is closest to what one might imagine as that of the author’s: thoughtful, able to be in the moment and then quite removed, and relentlessly observant of his fellow creatures, as though such attention to nuance might make a lasting connection between himself and another human being. His heart aches for a remembered time when his family lived happily together, and Mayn also grapples with the wrenching loss of his mother, Sarah. These losses appear to tear Mayn from his moorings, as his psyche travels through space. Beyond the obsessive involvement with his own personal anguish, Mayn’s sphere of compassion extends to those who suffered under the Salvador Allende regime in Chile. Given the frequently elliptical style in which McElroy writes, the novel suggests a dipping into and out of Mayn’s consciousness as he repeatedly confronts the limitations of his own humanness.

With her Body Self workshop, which completely excludes men and focuses on supporting only women in their quest for sexual fulfillment and independence, Grace Kimball might appear to hate men, but this is not true. She anguishes over breaking up her lover’s marriage and in particular over how Marv, her lover’s husband, will cope with the split. Kimball exuberantly embraces her body’s ability to produce pleasure. A 1970’s feminist, Kimball does not necessarily advocate a world devoid of men; rather, she is on a mission to help women awaken the power within themselves to be sensual beings. If this awakening contributes to the deterioration of a marriage, perhaps the marriage was built on an unsteady foundation.

Although the character of Davey, the prepubescent boy whose parents are soon to part, is relatively minor, he is clearly drawn and handled with a special tenderness. He loves his mother, Ann, perhaps with greater devotion as he senses her sadness. Other characters such as the Hermit-Inventor of New York and the Interrogator represent aspects of the human experience rather than individuated people. The reason that Kimball and Mayn never meet may be because they, too, are halves of a whole, the yin and yang of humanity.