Women and Men

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Joseph McElroy’s sixth novel is long, complex, and difficult. Women and Men is concerned with the interrelated activities of a large cast of characters, with political intrigues, with myth and legend, both public and private, and with a variety of often-esoteric ideas. Like such twentieth century classics as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), it may intimidate casual readers, yet its very complexity may ensure its popularity among scholars.

The central characters of Women and Men are Jim Mayn and Grace Kimball, who reside in the same Manhattan apartment building and who are closely connected through other people but who never meet. As the novel progresses, attention increasingly focuses on Mayn, his life and his family, and Kimball fades into the background. Mayn is a native of New Jersey who has become a journalist and has traveled widely. He has been married and is the father of two children, but is now divorced and lives in New York. In middle age he remains vigorous and is fascinated by the possibilities of life, but he is also mystified and troubled by what he recalls of his family’s history and mythology.

One of the focal points of the novel is the history of Mayn’s immediate family: his maternal grandmother, Margaret Mayne, who as a young woman traveled to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and then went west to the New Mexico territory before returning to her fiancé, Alexander, whom she married; James’s mother Sarah, a musician who after a frustrating life apparently committed suicide by drowning in the ocean in 1945; his daughter, Flick; his divorced wife, Joy; his father Mel, unsuccessful publisher of a small-town New Jersey newspaper which had been passed down through his wife’s family; and his brother Brad, a conventional man for whom Jim has never felt much affection.

Much of the attention given to Mayn’s family centers on the stories told to him as a boy by his grandmother, stories about the East Far Eastern Princess and her adventures among the Navajo Indians; the Princess is in many ways identical with Margaret, and it is never clear whether Margaret in fact had an affair with a Navajo man while in the West. It is at least possible that she was pregnant when she left the West to return home, and that she miscarried. Jim Mayn is fascinated by these stories, and in middle age visits the Southwest and becomes entranced by Ship Rock, the natural formation in northwestern New Mexico. He also develops an interest in a woman who is dedicated to the defense of the ecology of the Southwest, menaced by strip mining and the huge power plant near Ship Rock.

Much less information is presented about Grace Kimball. She has been married but is now divorced; she has a lesbian lover but does not reject heterosexual relationships; she makes her living by conducting workshops in her home and giving lectures to encourage greater body awareness and more open sexuality. Many of the women who attend the workshops in her apartment are friends or acquaintances of Jim Mayn, but Kimball is not in other ways obviously connected to the history of the Mayn family. The closest connection is in her conviction, when she hears Margaret Mayne’s story at third hand, that in an earlier incarnation she was the Navajo Prince who was the lover of the East Far Eastern Princess (and thus perhaps of Margaret Mayne).

Much of the interest in Women and Men has little to do with the action of the novel or its ostensible plot. Rather, attention is focused on several ideas. One that recurs frequently is related to Jim Mayn’s fantasy that he can visit the future and look back to the present, and that in so doing he is made aware of a future development in which two people stand on a metal plate and are combined into one person who is transmitted to a space colony between Earth and the moon. This is one of many variations on the related ideas of two realities combining into one or one reality dividing into two; it is manifested, for example, in an image of trying to see two television sets at once, or in an image of a double moon. More important, it is central to the idea that many of the most important relationships in life are hidden and can be discovered only by accident or by study. An important example of this is Mayn’s recognition, after his mother’s apparent suicide, that his own father, Mel, was not the physical father of Jim’s brother Brad; it becomes evident to Jim that Sarah had taken a lover, and that the lover was Brad’s father. Nevertheless, Mel and Brad grow closer together in later years, and it is Jim who is somewhat estranged from his own father. Similarly, Mayn’s eventual recognition that he and a man he had thought of as an enemy are two parts of the same personality plays on the idea of one splitting into two or two combining into one.

Family mysteries are not the only hidden elements in Women and Men. There are strong suggestions of sinister plots and plans menacing to Mayn and his acquaintances. One of these acquaintances is a Chilean economist who fled his native country after the overthrow of the Allende government; Mayn met him at Cape Kennedy in the early 1970’s. The economist and his wife are kept under surveillance by a Chilean naval officer who is the lover of an opera singer, a diva who is also Chilean by birth and whose father had supported the Allende regime and is now held in house arrest in Chile. The diva, Luisa, loves her officer but is also bound to him by the hope that he can have her father freed. There are numerous other plots, sinister characters, and suggestions of menace in the novel. There is also mystery in the presentation of characters; such important figures as the Chilean economist and the Chilean naval officer are not given names until very late in the novel, and numerous characters outside the Mayn family have names that begin with the letters “May.”

Mayn himself seems more immediately threatened by a character named Spence, a disreputable photographer who turns up in bars where Mayn meets his friends and who seems to have an unnatural fascination with Mayn’s stories about his family. While Spence and Mayn knew each other in Washington, D.C., and at Cape Kennedy, Spence turns up in New York and seems to be organizing an espionage system of his own, of which Mayn and his friends are targets. Spence subverts a messenger service used by Mayn and others, intercepts Mayn’s private mail, and in other ways seems to represent a real threat.

Women and Men has a number of plots, or apparent plots,...

(The entire section is 2711 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Karl, Frederick R. American Fictions: 1940-1980. New York: Harper and Row, 1983. Well-crafted criticism on McElroy’s first five novels.

Kuehl, John. Alternative Worlds: A Study of Postmodern Antirealistic American Fiction. New York: New York University Press, 1989. An excellent overview of postmodern fiction, including an introduction that suggests that this movement is an outgrowth of such early Transcendentalists as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

LeClair, Thomas. “Reformulation: Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men.” In The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989. A critical comparison of Joseph McElroy, Thomas Pinchon, Roland Barth and other postmodernist writers that brings together issues of ecology, cybernetics, and anthropology in recent American literature.

Porush, David. “The Imp in the Machine: Joseph McElroy’s Plus.” In The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1985. An interesting discussion of McElroy’s fifth novel.

The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring, 1990. Special Issue. A comprehensive collection of essays, an interview, and bibliography of McElroy’s body of work.