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“Reelin’ in the Years” – Joseph McElroy’s Ancient History


“Why write? to remember? or to give? or at last to forget.”

“Unlike ancient seers, I foretell the past.”

In Ancient History: A Paraphase (Knopf, 1971), Joseph McElroy once again uses a favorite device – the personal letter – in a novel dedicated to reliving, dissecting, and realigning the past. The narrator is Cyrus, a professional anthropologist who seems to work for a foundation. (As usual, basic facts remain elusive in McElroy’s world.) Cy is also what we today might call a stalker. He is obsessed with Dom, an outsized figure in New York literary and political circles – a character often identified as a kind of Norman Mailer figure. “Dom…you’re a hero. A real American one, messy though late-model.” Cy has followed Dom to conferences and public appearances, he has managed to ferret away some of Dom’s unopened mail (destroying letters he thinks Dom wouldn’t want to see), and, most recently, he has moved into Dom’s building. On the night in which Ancient History takes place, Dom has apparently committed suicide by leaping out his apartment window and Cy has surreptitiously made his way into the now empty apartment in Manhattan.  There, using Dom’s fountain pen and Dom’s paper, he writes a letter to Dom (“my ideal listener”), a letter which is the text of Ancient History.

Most of Ancient History, however, is devoted to Cy’s recollections of his two best friends, Al and Bob. For reasons that aren’t clear to Cy, he has never brought Al and Bob to met each other – never, that is, until this night, when Al, Bob, and Cy were supposed to get together for the first time as a trio in a midtown hotel. But Cy has abandoned his two friends so that he can spend the night in Dom’s apartment where he hopes to finally sort out his relationships with the two men and with Dom (we never learn if they meet without him). “And so Dom this is the last time I try to tell about Al and Bob – distinguish, so to speak, between them, as if by spelling out what keeping them apart meant.” I don’t pretend to be able to see critical distinctions between Al and Bob, nor do I understand what, if anything, Cy has decided by the end of the night. But I think that’s beside the point. Even though he had “hoped his paraphrase would be a break-through,” I don’t think even Cy himself feels he has gotten to the bottom of his peculiar friendships. “Sometimes, though, betraying how much of all this I recall seems to be in me merely the power not to grow up.”

What is Cy’s “paraphase”? To some extent it’s a way of reshuffling both time and space to suit his idiosyncratic anthropological research into his own life. Using near-total recall of past events  – every word, every visual detail, every emotion – Cy wants to “vector” between events that occurred at different times, looking for new insights. Here’s a good example of the way in which time and place rapidly whipsaw back and forth within Cy’s memory:

When Bob and I got back from 38th Street with his bag we had a drink in the Biltmore bar, and I have again failed to interrupt myself at an appropriate point to pass ahead to the next rim of my paraphrase from early 1969 on to the fight at the Moon in ’53, thence to Al’s painful part in the student interruption in ’68 and then, in a race against sequence, to the truth about the Heatsburg Puzzles and where Al’s sneaker landed, much less Bob’s open-knuckled fist, Joey’s guilt, and finally, through this mere pen of yours in words which will open new words, the secret structures I have been working on for months now which may make the continuing scene of my early life plain without doing violence to that vectoral muscle I trust I discussed in those pages that have now been taken from me just as the bartender put down two bottles of Bud.

And in this absolutely lovely, brief sentence, Al’s wife Annette seems to witness something happening far away and at some other time:

Annette’s hair draws away from her husband’s sleeping hand as in one gesture she wakes startled, rises on an elbow, and in the windowed dawn sees at a kitchen table two or three hours away Al’s mother study his pearl-satin scar blazed straight across the slope of four knuckles, and hears her say she used to dream that in the car crash he lost his fingers and his tongue.

Readers might feel a bit disoriented as a wealth of details washes over them, details for which McElroy doesn’t always provide a guiding context. But this, I am convinced, is a deliberate strategy on McElroy’s part. In a very Joycean way, this deluge of often disconnected data replicates the way in which the five senses and memory play a continual game of six-layered chess inside the human brain. In a recent interview with Jacob Siefring (Golden Handcuffs Review 19, Fall-Winter 2014-15), McElroy talks about his ongoing interest in neuroanatomy.

I think I often felt drawn between, divided between, threatened by a division that is in us as well as in me, between the organic, normal observer of the world, and someone slightly crazy. And by that all I mean  is that our ideas, our perceptions, our ways of understanding the world and putting that into words – all of that is, seems to me connected to a brain.

Accordingly, Cy sometimes tries to explain his obsessional musings through his own home-brewed version of science.  The central example in Ancient History is his frequent reference to the “vectoral muscle.” It’s “a rare gift” that he is able to exercise (a gift exclusively available to only children). The vectoral muscle “consists in that ripe triangle arcing between (a) the polylinked Pons Varolii, (b) the point in the Spinal Bulb where winking is controlled, and (c) a point so perfectly between the cerebral hemisphere as to be of neither.” What does the vectoral muscle do? Well, it seems to work much like intuition or some sixth sense. “Calmly receiving in the very heart of my vectoral muscle Russell Pound’s remark…” “The girl leans forward at my shoulder and my vectoral muscle picks up her insoluble age and detects some inner soap she cannot control that keeps rising in her pores…”

Like  the endless foldings of the human brain, McElroy’s prose continually loops back upon itself as moments that have been embedded in memory rhyme themselves in Cy’s mind. History, for McElroy, isn’t a linear sequence. In his world (and maybe in ours, as well) the logic of adjacency trumps the rationale of sequence.

To see all of my posts on the novels of Joseph McElroy, click here. For more on McElroy, visit his own website or Jacob Siefring’s Bibliomanic.

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