Women and Men by Joseph McElroy (Knopf: $25; 1,192 pp.)

Rolens is a free-lance writer and critic

One of Joseph McElroy's characters asks the question any reader might soon ask himself: "What did you do to end up in this endless community of minds?" Ten years in the making, "Women and Men" weighs in at 1,192 pages. Knopf promises that this book's "scope, philosophical reach, play of language, depth and magnitude of vision embrace a theme of eternal significance: the fragility and enduring value of closeness."

Perhaps. But many of the characters here never meet and those who do suffer unusually tenuous and ill-defined relationships. Some characters who figure prominently are dead or never existed.

This is McElroy's sixth novel in 21 years. As with his previous novels, any serious attempt to describe what happens misses the point, for there seems to be no real plot here. For the first 1,000 pages, what appear to be broken threads of a plot pull the dogged reader along, but McElroy carefully subverts any possible plot in the last 200 pages. What the reader has hoped might be carefully woven turns out to be only densely tangled.

Rather than plot, McElroy delivers an extended rummage through the histories and the personal mythologies of his characters. The two central characters never meet although they live in the same New York apartment building.

Jim Mayn seems to be a decent man, but he is family-haunted and confused about life. This divorced journalist in his mid-40s misses his wife and his marriage. He ruminates about his eccentric, adulterous mother who might have committed suicide by rowing into an ocean that swallowed her. He is bothered by his gutsy grandmother, Margaret, who went West by herself before nice women did such things and who returned with tales of a possibly real Navajo prince. His half-brother Brad, love child of his vanished mother and a local unworthy, gets under his skin. Mayn loves and makes meager connection with his intellectual, socially conscious daughter. The anomalous Spence, Mayn's alter ego of sorts and nobody's hero, may be a dangerous aggressor or simply may be a busybody.

Grace Kimball, the other pivotal character, is a confident priestess of feminism's cutting edge. She leads nude honor-your-sex workshops in her mirror-and-carpet-furnished apartment. Much of her work seems to entail leading group masturbation sessions after the participants have deposited their clothes on vulva-shaped coat hooks. Around Grace swarm acolytes and converts. There is Maureen of the wheat grass school; there is the Chilean economist's reluctant wife; there is Sue, mother of Larry, who ponders divorce while she lives with her newly found lesbian lover.

Larry forms the slender link between Mayn and Kimball. Essentially abandoned by his parents, he half longs for and half resents Kimball; he chooses Mayn as his spiritual father. Larry seems to share with Mayn the gift or the curse of being a "trace window," a channel through whom past, present and future move freely.

The difficulty here is that the characters remain flat. For all the hundreds of pages that meander through the conscious and preconscious of these characters, McElroy generates little depth of feeling because he maintains a safe distance from the hearts of his characters.

In place of resonant human experience, McElroy substitutes numbing billows of language. He thumbs his nose at the reader with sentences that run to 2 1/2 pages as they traverse topics and psyches at the author's whim. He has written a novel to be criticized rather than a novel to be read. There is sufficient obscure, convoluted material here to fuel at least a dozen academic careers.

McElroy is an erratic and self-indulgent stylist. At times, he demonstrates his talent impressively as he relates the subtle, dreamlike, often frightening experiences of these detached and detachable characters in parapsychological space. More often, he engages in lengthy preachments without parable. He includes large tracts of information simply because he has them at hand. McElroy goes on at length about Coxey's Army, Ernie Pyle, the U-2 incident, and America's involvement in Chile. The reader longs for surface, for something to happen in the real world.

Occasional lively and extractable portions serve as respite from the morass of his prose. In one short passage, a child learns to ride a bicycle in Central Park. Another chronicles the unspoken relationship between successive tenants of the same apartment. A series of episodes follows a retarded, black messenger boy zooming through the streets of New York.

McElroy has always been known as a "difficult" writer. This time he outdoes himself, and the reader must remember that some difficult writers are worth the effort. Joyce often may be obscure, but Molly Bloom arrests the attention wherever you dip into her rambly chapter. Dense and sometimes impenetrable, "Finnegan's Wake" is funny as Joyce's wit caroms off the language, and his affection for his characters shines through.

McElroy has been touted as the "pre-eminent American artist of the Age of Systems." This is the clue to the critical indulgence he enjoys and to the weakness at the center of his vision. "System" is the byword for the latter part of this century. We have systems analysts, suffer systemic disorders, and buy cooling systems rather than air conditioners.

Systems and systems thinking may have liberated us in many ways. However, as with any philosophical or organizational set, when they are misapplied, they can cause inappropriate distortions.

"Women and Men" is a symptom of what has happened in one wing of American literature. The reader has been abandoned, and the fiction has become top heavy, overweight in the head. McElroy's last and best- received novel serves as the prime example of the problem. In "Plus," the central character is a brain, removed from its mortally ill host and launched into space where it takes on a life of its own: rather than a community of minds, a solitary mind.

Language is about human experience, and the novel was designed to register a full range of that experience. A terrible impoverishment of the medium results when you overlay a mental set that supersedes primary human values and limits what portion of human experience can be rendered. Bent to the will of McElroy's systems mentality, characters remain two-dimensional as the author builds epicycle upon epicycle of this intensely personal, ingrown universe.

McElroy has been honored, however, by Rockefeller and Guggenheim. Knopf felt strongly enough to publish all 1,192 pages in a shrinking market for serious fiction. Perhaps, for a more subtle reader, there is hidden wealth, but what I believe we have here is a naked emperor.

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