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Posts from the ‘Joseph McElroy’ Category

“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 in 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.

McElroy’s Kidnap


To read Joseph McElroy’s 1969 novel Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (Harper & Row) is to be airlifted into the midst of a Joycean thicket of daily life, to find oneself privy to events, references, and conversations that you are not prepared to understand and which may never become clear. Amidst the New York City of one-term mayor John Lindsay and the student protest movement, Jack Hind is obsessed for years with the unsolved kidnapping of a young girl named Laurel Hershey (this was ten years before the real-life kidnapping of Etan Patz grabbed the headlines and put his photograph on milk cartons).  Spurred on by the mysterious appearance of a new clue, Hind again takes up the search for the long missing girl. but it is really the reader who gets kidnapped by McElroy and taken for a meandering trip through the mind and daily life of Hind and, for a brief spell, that of his wife Sylvia. Accustomed as we are to fictions that have edited out the extraneous, everything in McElroy’s second novel strikes us as extraneous at first. Like Hind, we find that we don’t know what constitutes a clue amongst all of the signs, conversations, and messages that he encounters daily. While Hind dutifully analyzes the trivia of his mostly ordinary life, the reader dutifully tries to analyze the overwhelming minutiae that McElroy fearlessly provides. Thus, Hind’s Kidnap sends both Hind and the reader on simultaneous searches for meaning.

Along the way, Hind learns that his obsession for the kidnapping is turning family and friends against him. For years he has played the role of grand inquisitor, treating them as little more than potential sources of clues. As a result, the second half of the novel is largely dedicated to the process of “dekidnapping” family and friends, trying to reset his relationships on a basis other than his single-minded search. Not surprisingly, what Hind and the reader each learn in the end is not at all what either of us set out to discover.

McElroy likes to smother the reader in a blanket of language that, while still about something, feels nearly abstract. At that point, you either sink or go with the flow and enjoy. Here’s a complete paragraph (there is no ending punctuation) from the “Sylvia” section of the book, which occurs about halfway into the book.  Jack Hind’s wife Sylvia has temporarily stepped in as the narrator while he naps. She begins by remembering a conversation that occurred years earlier about the origin of vanilla, which leads to a ninety-page digression about their difficult relationship, before ending back in the midst of the conversation about vanilla. (May is their five-year old daughter, Plante is one of many friends who appear in the novel bearing clues, and I have no idea who Buck is.)

Vanity vanishes into a friendly tongue, shared tongue – wake-wake Jack – as Daddy into you and others, but then too as my Daddy-mystery into other unforeseen mysteries which, as when the breakfast TV show “Today,” mingling with our conversation and your smoke in May’s nostrils as she handled her cereal, multiplied us into one substance and I wanted to tell you that the Gypsy Woman’s Osmotic Interport theory but it was too long a tale and I didn’t, words towed me toward and give me, if not foresight, maybe – so, old hard perspectives (like when we met by Buck’s, which I stupid boring cow though good goose now recall was not the first time I mentioned Plante’s friend’s perspective, it came up over my phone in April, fool that I -) vanish in new sweet (plain ungrounded) si-mul-ta-ne-ities of time place side-by-side-by-thing-by thigh-by calf-by

Granted, this is probably the densest paragraph in the entire book, but there will be readers who will find they have probably wandered into the wrong novel and who will undoubtedly require an extra ounce or two of determination to stick with Hind’s Kidnap. But the rewards are there for the persistent and open reader. Just don’t expect to look for them in the usual places. As KCRW’s Michael Silverblatt said in a fascinating video conversation at Cornell University:”A book is there to make your life more difficult. The greatest books …made it harder for me to live.”

By the way, last month I wrote about McElroy’s 1998 novel The Letter Left to Me, unaware that the seed for that book lies buried in Hind’s Kidnap, where Hind tells us of “a letter sent to me,” a letter that leads to some of the same outcomes as in the novel written twenty-nine years later. Ironically, the content of the letter is quoted at length – if not in full – in Hind’s Kidnap, where it is nothing more than the subject of a passing memory. But in The Letter,a book entirely dedicated to what happens when the narrator receives that letter, McElroy never permits us to read the letter in its entirety. Just as in Hind’s Kidnap, where the details of the kidnapping aren’t explained until more than two hundred pages into the novel, McElroy forces the reader to circle round and round the central mystery, without fully glimpsing it. Such the the special territory of Joseph McElroy.


Who Owns Words – Joseph McElroy’s “The Letter Left to Me”


Who owns words? Can you inherit them? Do you have a special responsibility for words that have been written “to” you? These are just some of the questions raised by Joseph McElroy’s 1998 brief, rich novel The Letter Left to Me.

I recently decided to dip back into my half shelf of McElroy’s books. I first encountered McElroy sometime in the early 1970s through A Smuggler’s Bible and have had a soft spot for his books ever since, especially Lookout Cartridge. I adore McElroy’s sentence-making and I’m attracted to the breadth of his interests, which includes technology, cognition, history, family, Brooklyn, sports, and more.

In The Letter Left to Me, the teen-aged narrator is given a letter that his father wrote and left to be handed over only after his (the father’s) death. While only a few sentences from the letter are shared with us, it’s clear that it is both a confession of the father’s missed opportunities and an admonition to the son to take full advantage of life – especially through education. In the days following the father’s death, the letter gets passed around among family members, each of whom offers his or her own commentary. A well-meaning uncle who works as a printer decides to typeset and run off a hundred copies for family and friends (this is probably taking place about 1946).

Three years later, the narrator arrives at the tiny liberal arts college where he has enrolled, only to discover that his mother has sent a copy of the letter to the Dean, who finds the heartfelt words about higher education so inspiring that he decides to distribute the letter (stripped of identifying names) to all of the college’s students. The first student that the narrator sees reading the letter comments angrily “What a load of bullshit,” while the horror-stricken narrator wonders how he should – how he will  – respond. He finally mumbles “I’ll have to read it later” and exits.

In the hands of most writers, this tale of the widely broadcast “private” letter would hinge on the ethics if the situation. Did the family and the Dean have the right to share the private letter? What will be the son’s response to this challenge? McElroy does, in passing, somewhat address each of these issues. The narrator feels both powerless and indecisive as “his” letter gets passed from hand to hand and then becomes multiplied into hundreds of copies, his inheritance becoming fodder for family pride and collegiate boosterism. He realizes that he has passively acquiesced to the public sharing. But for McElroy the situation presents more of a philosophical puzzle; he has something bigger in his sights.

As we see in The Letter, the meaning of any word or set of words is contextual and contestable, especially words as loaded as “family.” Everyone who reads the letter owns its words in a different way. “Each letter’s becoming different, it’s the person who’s laid eyes on it,” the narrator soon realizes. Throughout the book, McElroy expands his exploration of language beyond the confines of the father’s letter into everyday usage. The narrator, a preternaturally hyper-aware young man, is becoming deftly attuned to the different intonations and gestures that people use as they speak, realizing that these, too, inflect the meanings of words. “I’m right: his words didn’t come only from his voice. (But from his mouth, putting intentions into shape – mouthing them and his ‘civil tongue’…).” Everything said – and unsaid – becomes thoroughly parsed.

Her voice tipping downward, she says my name, and says it twice. She means, Really! which is more meant, and weightier than when at the dinner table in someone else’s presence she says, “Oh don’t say O.K.”

The pleasure that McElroy takes in the rich and varied oral language of his characters makes him a fellow traveler with William Gaddis in this respect.

But McElroy is after something deeper, more elemental than issues of language. His narrator is trying to understand the topography of his own consciousness. A crucial sentence comes halfway through the book when the narrator says (or writes or, perhaps, merely thinks) “I put words together as if they’re my thinking.” What is the relationship between thinking and words? And, to take it one step further, what is the relationship between actual consciousness and constructed narrative? To an extent, all of McElroy’s books deal with the issue of how to shape narrative (words in a sequence) into a semblance of the complexity of human thought. This results in sentences that continually shape-shift, that can move back and forth through time and bounce from location to location as McElroy attempts to simulate the mind simultaneously discovering and articulating the world. The narrator in The Letter is always talking about “building backwards,”which is his term for deconstructing what is really being said. Here, we witness the narrator contemplate his paternal grandmother:

Her grip on things was her pretty manner. A very social, to-the-hearing cheek-soft, but demanding obvious manner of showing she was “sorry” or deeply sympathetically on your side or shocked, or twinklingly approving or absorptive. It was more slow-rhythmed than soft, it was a regret that she wasn’t going to see you, more than trust that she would see you the next week and talk to you tomorrow or the next day, it was easy to call it a “hold” she had, for even my father, like my mother, called it (wryly) that: but it was force, that I felt in my mental return to it as a thing to think about, “cover” as if I were making strategic plans, plotting a many-dimensioned (or just dramatic) defense…I begin to know these things as I answer my mother’s anguish…”

There is something very Proustian about McElroy’s attention to nuance, his determination to fully examine his characters with a cultural anthropologist’s eye. But this doesn’t always make for smooth reading and his books call for a bit of patience. McElroy’s peculiar dedication is to precisely describe that which is inherently imprecise. And that is what makes reading Joseph McElroy a delight and a perpetual adventure.