(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Women and Men is divided into eight major chapters, five of which are called “Breathers,” with twenty-three sub-chapters. Set in New York and New Mexico, the novel also traverses a universe populated by angelic and earthy creatures, through whom the author discusses the flux and flow of relationships between the sexes against the backdrop of supertechnology. In addition, Joseph McElroy plays with the elasticity of time in an ongoing “dialogue” about the difficulty of human memory to retrieve the past.

The novel opens with a woman giving birth to a child with the aid of her husband. Neither parent is identified, and it is only later that the possibility arises this anonymous child may be the central character or his mother. It may even be the unidentified reader. The book is narrated in turn by James Mayn, a middle-aged science journalist, an “Interrogator” reminiscent of a South American torturer, and New Age feminist Grace Kimball, among others. While Kimball and Mayn are tenants in the same New York apartment building, they never actually meet. Instead, they share what seem to be only tangential common concerns and friendships. Kimball runs a “Body Self” workshop in which a miscellany of women participate in elaborate acts of mutual masturbation. In one scene, the sex guru projects separate slides of male and female genitalia to point out the real lack of visual difference between the two. Grace plays the role of sex goddess for women, urging them to liberate themselves from stifling marriages. With an ability to abandon herself to her own sexuality, Grace has accurate insights into the unhappiness of other women. For example, she can discern the ambiguous feelings Clara, a Chilean woman, has concerning her husband. Occasionally, the narrative follows the interior conversation of a member of the Body Self Workshop as she gives...

(The entire section is 764 words.)