The lost postmodernist: Joseph McElroy
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As part of our monthlong, fractured discussion of postmodern fiction, Garth Risk Hallberg weighs in on Joseph McElroy’s weighty ‘Women and Men.’
Given the decidedly premodern overtones of the word ‘canon,’ the idea of a postmodern one may seem like a contradiction in terms. Indeed, one approach to constructing a postmodern canon is to set the parameters so wide — Kathy Acker, Philip K. Dick, Grandmaster Mele Mel — that the term becomes practically meaningless. In the narrower purview of literary critics, however, references to canonical postmodernism tend to cluster around a group of white male fiction writers of a certain age: Barth and Barthelme, Gaddis and Gass, DeLillo and Coover and Pynchon.
Obviously, this canon is as hobbled by omissions as the prepostmodern canon it subtends. Still, in light of its demographics, it seems doubly baffling that Joseph McElroy, who turns 79 this year, is so often left off the list of po-mo masters. Like his rough contemporary Thomas Pynchon, he is the author of eight works of fiction acclaimed for their encyclopedic embrace of contemporary life. The New York Times wrote:
- To ignore [‘A Smuggler’s Bible,’ 1966] would be as shameful an act of self-deprivation as that which so many of us performed when ‘The Recognitions’ and ‘Under the Volcano’ were first published.
- [‘Hind’s Kidnap,’ 1969] is full of marvels.
- ‘Lookout Cartridge’  is the rarest kind of achievement.
Yet Google Joseph McElroy, author, and you’ll come up with about 5,000 hits, compared with roughly a quarter million for Pynchon. What gives? The short answer, it seems to me, is a single book, a behemoth called ‘Women and Men.’
‘Women and Men’ belongs to the maximalist subspecies of postmodern novel that includes ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ ‘The Recognitions’ and ‘Underworld,’ somewhat the way the Chevy Suburban belongs to the ‘light truck’ vehicular class, or Andre the Giant belonged to the World Wrestling Federation.
If those other books swing for the fences, ‘Women and Men’ swings for the parking lot. If they represent, in their rigor, a form of literary calculus, ‘Women and Men’ is chaos theory. And — no getting around this — if these books are big, ‘Women and Men’ is bigger. At roughly 700,000 words (that’s 1,192 closely printed pages), it is one and a half times the length of ‘War & Peace.’
The book reached advance readers in 1987 in the form of two 600-page galleys. The reviewer for the New York Times made no secret of having sped through the book in a matter of days. And his tone, which mixed acknowledgment of the novel’s ambition with barely disguised resentment at having to read the damn thing, typified critical response. Apparently the audience for literary fiction needed little encouragement to avoid a book that weighed 4 pounds in hardcover. ‘Women and Men,’ reportedly 10 years in the making, was not so much a publishing event as an anticlimax.
I happen to have a soft spot for underdogs, and another one for the postmodern mega-novel, and having some free time last summer, I picked up a ‘like new’ first edition of ‘Women and Men’ for something in the neighborhood of 10 bucks. I carried the book with me everywhere for six weeks, moving through it at a rate of about 30 pages a day. It quickly became obvious why the book is so rarely read. In persevering, however, I discovered some reasons why I think it should be.
Why it should be read ... after the jump.
Beyond the question of the novel’s length, I found in short order, there is the matter of its difficulty. Plot here means both story and conspiracy, and in the intricacy of the enjambment, McElroy makes few concessions to his readers’ limitations. On the level of story, ‘Women and Men’ follows apartment-house neighbors Jim Mayn and Grace Kimball, who never quite manage to meet. On the level of conspiracy, it traces the nearly infinite connections between the two, uncovering personal and political intrigue stretching from Pinochet’s Chile to Cape Kennedy to the New Mexico of the Pueblo Indians.
McElroy chooses to elide key terms in these connections, which means that important plot points are left unresolved, like circuits that are simultaneously on and off. It also means that the novel overwhelms — intentionally, I think — the reader’s memory. This is frustrating at first. Eventually, though, it makes the book come peculiarly alive; by the final episodes, every detail McElroy mobilizes — seemingly every word — resonates with half-remembered associations. And there is a philosophical method to McElroy’s madness. Where the ‘black comedy’ strain of postmodernism seems to take the instability of narrative as an assault on the possibility of truth, McElroy’s ecstatic brand is asking us to imagine truth as the sum of all the ways to narrate it.
In pursuit of his pluralist vision, McElroy redefines the limits of our language. Short-story-like interludes show him to be capable of taut, stripped-down prose, but in between, ‘Women and Men’ swells to contain some of the longest and strangest sentences yet written in English. Their diction constitutes a straightforward enough matrix of colloquial New Yorkese and specialized discourses (science, myth, theology, meteorology, economics). Yet their sheer length, and McElroy’s syntactical trick of nesting clauses inside one another, requires both vigilance and patience from the reader.
Still, if you can hang with it, ‘Women and Men’ turns out to be an avant-garde variation on what fusty old Henry James dubbed ‘the present palpable-intimate.’ Between, behind and within its compositor-slaying thickets of information, the novel conveys the unutterably dense texture of life in late-’70s New York: what it’s like to teach your kid to ride bikes in the park, what it’s like to hang around Madison Square Garden after dark, and so on. Moreover, McElroy renders the improbable lives of Jim and Grace with wit, urgency and human warmth. It is these old-fashioned virtues that kept me reading.
The critics missed them in 1987, and the reaction to ‘Women and Men’ seemed to disclose a lurking hostility toward McElroy’s uncompromising aesthetic. His next book, the considerably svelter ‘The Letter Left to Me,’ would receive little of the deference that had greeted his mind-bending novels of the ‘70s. McElroy would subsequently part ways with his longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf; 2003’s ‘Actress in the House’ would find a home with the New York-based independent Overlook Press. Overlook has since produced handsome paperback reissues of two other seminal McElroy novels, but ‘Women and Men’ remains out of print. Europeans apparently regard it highly, but in the U.S., McElroy’s work recalls William Gaddis’ description of a composer’s corpus in ‘The Recognitions’: ‘It is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.’
Perhaps it is fitting that ‘Women and Men,’ the apotheosis of a certain strain of American writing, summoned and distilled the ambivalence readers feel about the postmodern mega-novel in general. Indeed, your feelings about his peers are probably a good index of how you might respond to McElroy. For a reader who finds ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ ponderous, a book like ‘Women and Men’ is going to be indefensible.
In my view, however, such dismissals proceed from the misbegotten idea that our job is to decode novels rather than to immerse ourselves in them. It is an idea postmodernists have promulgated as assiduously as their modernist forebears did. McElroy may thus be a victim of postmodernism as much as he is a master. Not that it appears to have fazed him much. He continues to live in the New York area and to write: about Steve Erickson for the Believer, about Sept. 11 for Electronic Book Review, about Gao Xingjian for the Nation. He may be the lost postmodernist, but he’s right under our noses, waiting to be found.
— Garth Risk Hallberg
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of the novella ‘A Field Guide to the North American Family.’ His short fiction manuscript, ‘The Descent of Man,’ portions of which have appeared in Glimmer Train, Canteen and Best New American Voices 2008, was the runner-up for this year’s Prairie Schooner Book Prize. He blogs frequently for The Millions.