The Letter Left to Me

That Joseph McElroy grew up in the Brooklyn Heights section of New York; that he could see the Brooklyn Bridge from the window of his parents’ apartment; that his father attended Boys’ High School and later (on a scholarship) Harvard University, where he majored in chemistry, and later still went into business, attracted by the chance of making the kind of money his own parents never had; that the father, “somewhat puritanical and a high achiever,” died when his son was fifteen, leaving the boy to feel then and later very much in his father’s shadow—all these facts are worth mentioning in a review of The Letter Left to Me because they figure so prominently not only in the life of the novel’s author but also in the life of its anonymous protagonist. McElroy has used details from his own life in his fiction before, but never quite so fully and specifically as he does in this, his seventh novel. Together his works form what McElroy has called “a cryptoautobiography,” but to approach The Letter Left to Me as if it were merely an autobiographical novel is to make a fundamental mistake. The novel deserves, even demands, to be read the way the hero of another McElroy novel, Hind’s Kidnap (1969), says a Dürer woodcut should be viewed: as a remarkably complex surface whose depth of referential meaning is illusory and beside the point, the point being the intricacy of the design. McElroy’s art is therefore not so much referential as it is proof that “to write” is, as Roland Barthes has claimed, an intransitive verb. Even the adolescent protagonist of The Letter Left to Me seems to intuit and, to a degree, to accept Barthes’s point, writing “sometimes lines and lines in my diary called forth by my diary, with its too small pages.” He writes to fill the blankness with his self-begetting words, yet to fill is not enough; even as he writes, he feels constrained, as if the writing needs to spill off the page.

On the one hand the novel invites being read in terms of “life”—the author’s and the nameless boy’s—as an autobiographical novel or a work of psychological realism. On the other hand, the novel resists this kind of reductive reading insofar as McElroy uses narrative not to tell a story but to explore a metaphor. Instead of depicting characters and analyzing their motivations, he writes a prose that is elliptical, discontinuous, and achingly abstract, but also incantatory and surprisingly compelling. Instead of psychological depth, McElroy gives his reader a densely packed verbal surface which resists easy comprehension yet sustains interest by teasing the reader with its own relational complexities. His sentences rarely if ever explain or even describe. They are instead always and only starting points along a labyrinthine and endless way. The indefiniteness of his writing goes well beyond that of Henry James (whose dialogue McElroy seems to parody toward the end of The Letter Left to Me); the sentence “Life is scarcely to be believed and we have to do something about it” nicely illustrates the novel’s drift. Yet even as he disrupts the story line, submerging it under the complexities of the novel’s surface texture, McElroy lures the reader on, not with a mystery to be solved but instead with the very idea of mystery itself.

The novel begins by calling attention to its own syntactical complexity, a sign—or paradigm—of things to come: “The woman holding, then handing over the letter to this poised, dumbfounded fifteen-year-old: is the letter also hers?” The letter in question is “the letter left to me,” the letter left to—or for—the son who narrates the novel (in the present tense) but who here refers to himself in the third person, as the reader soon comes to learn. It is interesting and perhaps significant that he repeats this clandestine self-description just a few pages later, but in slightly altered form, becoming now “the dumbfounded, poised fifteen-year-old” and so suggesting not only a distinction but a difference too, though a difference of decidedly uncertain meaning. Here and elsewhere, whatever occurs later in the novel—which is to say, whatever is narrated later—serves less to clarify earlier events as to complicate them. The letter, for example, is dated February 22 (Washington’s Birthday), but the year (the son and reader only later learn) is three years prior to the mother’s handing the letter to the son in the novel’s opening scene, or sentence. To speak of the letter is, however, a bit misleading, for the letter is plural. It exists less as an object to be held and read than as a sign to be interpreted or, like a good postmodernist fiction, a machine for generating interpretations. Considered allegorically rather than semiotically, the letter is a token that the father still lives, in a manner of speaking; proof that he is indeed dead (something the boy cannot quite bring himself to believe); a subject for family discussions (from which the boy is strangely excluded); a treasure (the boy’s), a “real” message truly meant; a souvenir; a story (the father’s), replete with “proper” ending; and the answer to the boy’s question, “What have I without him here?” Instead of providing an answer, the letter evokes additional questions. Whose letter is it?—the son’s, the father’s, or maybe the mother’s? Was the letter written to the son or for the son? Does it imply separation or solidarity? Is it gift or curse? If it is, as the son says, a “belonging”—“my letter”—does it also serve as a way of belonging, of being part of something larger than oneself?

What has really become of his father? To remember the father is to keep him alive by reconstructing him in words and images (memories). The novel complicates this rather simple point by having the boy wonder whether his father lives in the letter or in what the son makes of the letter. The former implies the authority of the letter and its author, the boy’s father; the latter suggests the autonomy of the reader and the act of reading (a position similar to the one advanced by semioticians and reader-response critics). The son’s efforts to read the letter, to know what it and its author mean, lead him well beyond the letter’s margins to a reconstruction of its author’s, his father’s life. “I’m...

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Booklist. LXXXV, October 15, 1988, p. 364.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, August 15, 1988, p. 1184.

Library Journal. CXIII, November 1, 1988, p. 109.

The New Republic. CXCIX, October 17, 1988, p. 46.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, October 9, 1988, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIV, August 26, 1988, p. 77.

The Washington Post Book World. XVIII, October 30, 1988, p. 5.