Joseph McElroy Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joseph McElroy’s literary reputation stands on his achievements as a novelist. A number of excerpts from his massive novel Women and Men first appeared in short-story form; the excellence of three of these pieces (“The Future,” “The Message for What It Was Worth,” and “Daughter of the Revolution”) was acknowledged by their selection for the anthologies O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories. In addition, McElroy has published a number of uncollected essays on topics as various as the Apollo 17 launch, the influence on his generation of Vladimir Nabokov’s fiction, and autobiographical aspects of his own work. Between 1971 and 1976 he was also a regular reviewer for The New York Times Book Review. In 2003, McElroy collected some of his most distinguished journalistic pieces—a representative selection of book reviews but also essays on science and technology (an abiding interest in his fiction) as well as his probing analysis of the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001—in a volume titled Exponential, released through an Italian publisher.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

From the start, Joseph McElroy was received as one of the generation of American novelists that includes Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gaddis—writers of long and technically demanding fictions. Among them, McElroy remains the dark star, outshone by their well-publicized brilliance while being acknowledged among his peers as a writer’s writer, one who is committed to giving fictional order to a complex “information society” by optimistically recognizing its possibilities fornarrative art and human growth. In 1977, McElroy’s writing was acclaimed by an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Still, the regard of critics was slow in coming, and reviewers have long argued that the complexity of internal reference and detail in McElroy’s work is too demanding of the reader. In a 1979 interview, McElroy countered that he continued to “hopefor readers who would be willing to commit themselves to a strenuous, adventurous fiction.” As the critical community has begun to explicate the intricate achievement of McElroy’s fictions, and as the author’s place within his generation of audacious postmodern experimenters becomes clear, readers have begun to appreciate how McElroy’s fictions upend the traditional expectations of the reader’s function and in turn open the reader toward an ascendant vision that expresses a stubborn faith in the connectedness of experience, an affirmation that places McElroy in clear contrast to the often bleak vision of his far more noted contemporaries.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Campbell, Gregor. “Processing Lookout Cartridge.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring, 1990): 112-118. Explores Lookout Cartridge’s closed fictional system, modeled on physics and cybernetics, and mentions McElroy’s use of film technology. Notes his love of abstraction and the complexity of the plot. Campbell praises the novel as a “triumph of information-processing design and technology,” and claims that it can be viewed as a 1960’s novel concerned with historical change.

Hantke, Steffen. Conspiracy and Paranoia in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy. New York: Lang, 1994. Offers an in-depth analysis and comparative view of the postmodern themes of two leading American novelists.

Hantke, Steffen. “‘God Save Us from Bourgeois Adventure: The Figure of the Terrorist in Contemporary American Conspiracy Fiction.” Studies in the Novel 28, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 219-243. Lookout Cartridge is one of several novels analyzed.

LeClair, Tom. “Opening Up Joseph McElroy’s The Letter Left to Me.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring, 1990): 258-267. Contains McElroy’s statement on his use of the word “attention” in The Letter Left to Me. LeClair gives critical commentary on this novel,...

(The entire section is 467 words.)