Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Without exaggeration, it is fair to say that Joseph McElroy has been one of the most ignored of major contemporary American novelists. While his novels have been generally well reviewed, he has not acquired a large reading public despite the range and intelligence of his work. This is partially attributable to the difficulty of his writing: His novels make considerable demands on the reader’s knowledge and purposefully fracture traditional expectations regarding plot, sense, and meaning. In his first novel, A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), McElroy portrayed a protagonist in the process of revising the eight sections of his memoirs; hence, the novel is replete with “unedited” and unassimilated materials which the reader must assemble in order to understand the patterns of David Brooke’s life. In Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (1969), as in Lookout Cartridge, a detective-protagonist enters a complicated verbal universe and attempts, like a lexicographer, to sort out its etymologies and allusions in order to understand its significances. In the “science fiction” novel Plus (1977), McElroy created the image of a human brain floating in space, self-supporting, becoming conscious of itself, its past, and the earth. Each of these novels, like McElroy’s others, is an experiment in form as well as an encylopedic incursion into the languages of information and technology; each, in its way, attempts to represent processes of perception and knowledge as they unfold in the present and future. Like Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), William Gaddis in JR (1975), or John Barth in Letters (1979), McElroy is concerned with how communication operates in contemporary America, and in what ways the contemporary novel is a form of communication. While his work has not been as widely recognized as the work of these others, McElroy has continued, perhaps in ways more boldly experimental than their approaches, to probe the limitations of our capacity to understand the world we have made.