“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. Read more
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.
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.
Inspired by Bibliomanic‘s intelligent passion for McElroy’s writing, 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. Read more