On Finally Reading Joseph McElroy’s Lost Magnum Opus

 

Obsession had brought me to Joseph McElroy’s apartment building. I was vibrating from too much caffeine. I had been up late with his 1,200-page novel, Women and Men, suffering the long-forgotten nervousness of cramming for a difficult final. The elevator opened directly into his apartment—a surprise. I hadn’t prepared my facial expression. McElroy, in a purple checked shirt tucked neatly into neutral pants, greeted me cautiously. As he led me through a maze of books, I noted the strength of his voice and the way, at eighty-seven, he walked with only the faintest hint of caution. I sat in his study beneath a large printed photo of McElroy himself staring angrily down at me. For the past decade, every time I’d entered a used bookstore, it was with the hope of finally finding a copy of Women and Men. Now I was interviewing its author, something that I’d had no desire to do.

My interest in the novel began with Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult,” a takedown of William Gaddis. I wasn’t yet aware of the phenomenon of big-game hunting, the youngish critic making a case for their own fiction by taking down a writer who is either too lofty or too dead (ideally both) to punch back. Franzen’s argument relied on a binary: there was the “Status model” of evaluating novels—artistic greatness regardless of the novel’s popular success—and the “Contract model”—a friendly egalitarian compact between writer and reader. While Franzen allows that certain novels like House of Mirth can be appreciated in both modes, the categories diverge over challenging works. For a contract reader, difficulty is an impediment. I took note when he identified a status canon of “intellectual, socially edgy white-male American fiction writers … Pynchon, DeLillo, Heller, Coover, Gaddis, Gass, Burroughs, Barth, Barthelme, Hannah, Hawkes, McElroy, and Elkin.”

I had never heard of Joseph McElroy, whose 1987 book regularly sells for more than three hundred dollars on eBay. The one volume in the New York Public Library system is impossible to secure, there is no e-book, and I grew fascinated with the elusiveness of Women and Men. I wasn’t alone. Most online discussions of the book are tips on finding it. The novel was notorious, eleven years of labor that quickly vanished from cultural consciousness. Many books go out of print because they are unremarkable, but few acquire the cult status of Women and Men. We who hadn’t read it all had the same questions: Why was it so long? And was it good? And why, despite its failure, did it still fascinate so many? 

*

Soon, all this wonder will subside. Women and Men will be reprinted in paperback on April 15. But for a very long time, the book was my permanently ingrained MacGuffin. Whenever I perused shelves, I would look for that Turgenevian title. I stopped in most often at Cobble Hill’s Community Bookstore. The owner, John Scioli, chain-smoked outside and, judging by the smell, inside too. He sold unsorted used books for almost nothing. Every time, I walked in with the collector’s hope, like buying a lottery ticket with a smack of highfalutinism.

I searched for years, during which I acquired a liking for Coover, Barth, and Barthelme, appreciation for Hannah and Pynchon, vague dubiousness regarding DeLillo, less vague skepticism for Burroughs, and mystification toward Hawkes and Elkin. Then, a breakthrough: a woman I was dating took Women and Men out from the New York Society Library for me. As the massive spine gleamed yellow atop her dining table, I felt overwhelming gratitude. But the next week, things were said in a taxi going over the Manhattan Bridge. I returned the novel, paid an exorbitant member’s fee so I could join the library myself, and took it right back out again. There was a sense of anticlimax. The bibliophile’s journey—I assume because I’ve suffered only from bibliomonomania—needs to end in genuine possession. My fetishism wasn’t satisfied because the library book wasn’t mine. I read the first two paragraphs, renewed it eleven straight times, then retired my membership.

Word came that the Community Bookstore was closing. No preparations seemed underway. If anything, the clutter grew, but Scioli just stood out front, daunting and resolute as Ahab. Then, one humid night, I walked past and saw hundreds of books being chucked into a dumpster. Desperate to save what I could, I entered and headed, as always, right to the m’s. And there it was. The fat hardcover. It was in pristine condition and didn’t even smell of smoke. At the register, Scioli looked me over. I feigned nonchalance as I handed Women and Men his way. “First edition,” he said, as my nerve endings fired. “Five dollars.” I handed the bill over. Was there the slightest twinkle in his eyes? Or did mine have enough tenderness for both of us?

Now, at last, I could read the novel. But unfortunately, I had meanwhile become a professional writer—it would be imprudent not to write an essay. I pitched several editors. The word fun was used. One publication suggested that I find out if there was going to be an e-book, so I reached out to McElroy’s publisher’s publicity person, who, according to my Twitter stalking, promptly embarked on an indefinite cross-country road trip during which he did not once check his phone. Eventually, I turned to McElroy’s website, which had a contact form. I copied and pasted my pitch and my question about the e-book. Garth Risk Hallberg once wrote of McElroy, “He may be the lost postmodernist, but he’s right under our noses, waiting to be found.” This turned out to be more accurate than pithy. The next morning, I received McElroy’s reply, which read, in part:

Though “a fun piece” is a little bewildering to me. You’re speaking of an ambitious and serious and very long novel widely written about—see the citations in the front matter of the Dalkey Archive 2nd edition, also essays in a volume of The Review of Contemporary Fiction Spring 1990. If you want to read the novel or other novels of mine, you will. And if you want to write about my work, you will. But I’m reluctant to express opinions about Women and Men to be used as some substitute for the book itself. I’m sure you understand.

Think what you want to do. all best, Joseph McElroy

There ensued a period of physical panic. I hadn’t even asked for an interview. I discovered that McElroy had most recently given one to Vice in 2013. It opens, “I spoke to Joseph McElroy, my friend’s dad and one of postmodernism’s major players” and meanders downhill from there. (The kicker is “You seem to like to take your sweet time with your writing.”) Better understanding his tone, I wrote back with the phrase “fall on my sword.” We arranged a meeting. I had six weeks to read his notorious epic.

I quickly understood why the book was little read. There are physical limitations. It was too bulky to read on the subway while standing; the spine strained with the slightest flex. The critics who overcame these obstacles gave Women and Men a reception that focused on the book’s difficulty, as with the New York Times review: “For me, by the close, it was like having listened for several days to an all-news station in a foreign language: you have a rough idea of what’s been going on, the news is worse than you imagine, and, while you feel more or less informed, you can’t really say that you’ve enjoyed yourself.”

This kind of takedown makes me want to defend Women and Men. On the other hand, that desire possibly stems from the gleam of the unusual. Would I like Coldplay if I’d somehow never heard of Coldplay but had discovered Parachutes in the dollar bin of a record store? I might! When something has been rejected and we have the thrill of personal discovery, it can’t help but alter the way we receive it.

*

What I can say is that Women and Men is pyrotechnically written and, yes, I can’t delay saying it any longer, extremely difficult. I’ve never said “hoisted by my own petard” more often than while reading this book. Women and Men behaves like a Fibonacci sequence, gaining complexity as it goes in a grid that never squares off. The action is centered on a seventies New York apartment building that both the protagonist, Jim Mayn, and Grace Kimball, the female sort-of-lead, inhabit. Though they’re in a massive meet-cute scenario, they will never meet. Jim is a pop-science journalist and has repeatedly seen a vision of the future in which women and men will be joined colloidally by standing on a metal plate and warping in twos into space, where they will become one. (A colloid is a mixture with particles of one substance dispersed discretely through a second substance). Grace leads nude feminist workshops, and her goal is the opposite: “get it together, keep generally women and men apart.” Jim sleeps dreamlessly, but characters from his life inhabit Grace’s dreams. The two nearly intersect constantly and even ring each other’s doorbells, but they never connect.

Jim is also piecing together the fragments of his life: Is Spence, the evil, well-connected anti-Pinochet spy, actually his brother? Why was Jim’s grandmother traveling through the American West with a “Navajo Prince” as the “Far Eastern Princess” in 1894? And did his grandmother actually kill herself, and did his mother kill herself, too, or did she board a submarine lurking off the coast of New Jersey? Is the tapeworm that was retrieved by a Native American healer that is now weaving its way through Luisa the Chilean opera singer’s bowels so she can lose weight to impress her lover a misbegotten attempt to please Allende’s murderer? Eventually, Jim and Spence form an unlikely alliance. As with Infinite Jest, the action is suspended in a graveyard, with two diggers about to achieve clarity.

There are dozens of subplots, too, from a mentally disabled bike messenger gang to a boy doing his econ homework. The strongest of these sections is a sequence that anticipates modern cyberwarfare, “The Dream as Later Reported,” which describes a bomb that “would destroy non-living structures, leaving anything alive unharmed.” It makes for great sci-fi, but it’s so buried that it’s likely that few have read it.

Though the plot is challenging, the novel’s true difficulty lies in structure: a postmodernist layer of “breathers” takes up about three-eighths of the book. Idiomatically, there should be the expectation of a break, but instead, these are a flurry of textual experimentation: Rilkean angels who speak in the first-person plural offer a disorganized rendering in which many of the novel’s 122 characters appear associatively in a fractured multicentury timeline that spans the Western Hemisphere. These breathers are especially challenging because McElroy, according to his essay in the spring 1990 edition of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, “cut 300 pages one month before we went into galleys … by squeezing breathers and translating talk into wordless telepathy.” The ensuing ramble is what McElroy calls “the colloidal unconsciousness.” Take this representative sentence:

The future her father had sloped out onto was like us the slope, static but for the shadow it threw, which was him, back upon Now, the Present, which was really the past from the vantage of that future he had gone into like a shock of memory which gave off a desire to return to what was a void and had to be reinvented, namely this present: God! he thought it wasn’t him, this future position, it felt causeless, caused by an absence of cause, it came at him a sure home, not someone else’s.

The breathers rest on top of a Modernist layer of action, about six hundred pages in length, that features the novel’s principal characters (six chapters with Jim Mayn, two with Grace Kimball, five with other men) and forms the narrative core of Women and Men. The sentences in those sections are long but mostly clear, with assorted flourishes. The chapters are written in different forms, as with the striking “Mike-Whipped Landscaped Specially Flown In,” whose paragraphs all start with a variant of “pull away”:

He pulled away from his father’s house, having pulled away from his father, from the fondest interrogation he could ever recall as if he and his father, who had never after all died, might be closely related; and he took his father with him moving inch by inch here and there in the house at times so unmindful of a car, a dark blue car he could swear had followed him, that he hardly wondered what was on his mind but recognized that he was content and his father was curious, and he had never been content like this with his father that he could recall.

Then all of that exits on top of a realist layer that is largely comprised of discontinuous short sequences that feature secondary characters. These interpolated stories are readily pleasurable. The only difficulty in reading them is connecting them to the larger plot. From “The Departed Tenant”:

“Sometimes he stayed overnight, but sometimes he didn’t. But he liked staying overnight with her, so that when he didn’t stay, it lingered, like a bad time. It wasn’t a bad time, but you might call it a bit dumb. But it was his life.”

(There’s also a 113-page telepathic letter by a prisoner named Foley that has all three styles going at once and is, for better or worse, the novel’s crucial skeleton key.)

*

Women and Men is complex, but I had an issue that extended beyond incomprehension. I have a theory that long novels often feature a hedonistic body character and a chilly mind character so the novelist can split their life experience. Here, Jim is meant to be the mind character, and Grace the body. I favor a Gately, a Pierre, a Bloom over the Hals and Prince Andreis and Stephen Dedaluses of the canon. This is one thing Franzen missed in “Mr. Difficult”—a great difficult book can do both. The most heady status novels make up for their challenge by giving us contract characters, often the most beloved figures in literature. We wouldn’t love Queequeg if he didn’t stand apart. But McElroy, in my view, overweighed the book toward Jim and lacked authorial admiration for his body character. It’s not just a question of screen time. When we first get Grace’s perspective, she’s masturbating, and the language gets noticeably simpler. In her sealed-off, sexualized apartment, which boasts “cunt hooks” instead of coat hooks, she’s passive observer of story, not actor. Throughout the novel, female characters are denied the centrality that the title Women and Men suggests, and the humor at Grace’s New Age women’s group’s expense seemed to me to be a mockery of the feminist movements of the seventies.

This concern about gender had me nervous for our interview. I wasn’t sure how to raise the subject with McElroy. As I looked up at the large photograph and fiddled with my tape recorder, he smiled, offered me watermelon and almonds. I relaxed, and we talked for hours. McElroy spoke as he wrote: in winding paragraphs with bursts of deep intelligence.

(On America: “It’s unfathomably various, and it’s also disappointing”; on Odessa: “Odessa is a dark and interesting and dilapidated and dangerous place”; on the eBay value of Women and Men: “I am aware of it and why I didn’t have two to three boxes of the edition—I didn’t think about that. Stupid of me”; on Barthelme: “He wouldn’t look after himself. I mean, he wasn’t even sixty when he died. Couldn’t stop drinking”; on himself: “I’m now getting older. I’m very old.”)

When I finally broached the topic of Women and Men, he immediately tried to change the subject. “It’s in the past, long ago, although the writing I think stands up … I can talk about it, but it’s not a subject I’m interested in expounding … If they need to know, if they need to have the novelist explain what it’s about, what you meant and all that, then something has gone wrong.”

Though I was hoping that he would explain some aspects of the plot (I’m still not clear if the submarine is Russian or Chilean), I instead asked about the process of writing such a long novel. He said that he hadn’t used a computer and that with one, there would have been more connections between sections, since the realist vignettes were written separately. “I wanted that to be a population, another quiet, half-anonymous population but with vivid, brief people you meet in the city.” That led us into talking about the book’s reception, particularly the New York Times review. “Mostly, reviews don’t bother me. They balance each other out,” McElroy told me. “But I was sorry about that. I thought I deserved better.” I asked him about failure. “Gaddis and I talked about that,” McElroy said. “[He thought] that’s what it’s all about. I said it is not … And we laughed at that. I said we’re probably both right about failure … If you go for something which is a downer, really go for it. Go through to the bottom and the far side.”

He clapped his hands and started talking faster, rocking back and forth with a gleam in his eyes. “I woke up from a really, really bad and tumultuous dream this morning at about five thirty. I know where the dream came from, and it came partly from my reflecting, before I went to bed last night, on what Freud has to say about the censor in us preventing certain things from getting to the surface. I have always, from the beginning, and in different forms, insisted upon writing multidirectional narratives that were on the edge of going to pieces. I don’t think it was mainly self-indulgence, but I think there was sometimes an element of recklessness in the beginning. And it’s risky to do that. Wright Morris said that American novelists—I think he meant young American novelists—try to do too much and then want to take credit for failing. And I think that my sense of form, precariously on the edge of not working, is some self-involved egotism in me but ambition also. That life is difficult and if some books came out long … I’ve always wanted to take something to the edge. And maybe partly because I can’t help it. There’s something in my mind that is at risk, and I write in order to make sense when it’s hard to make sense. But I like to think rather that I think life is interesting. A lot of stuff comes to me, and I want to include it. And I think it is sometimes a fault that I have difficulty excluding certain things.”

That, at last, was the explanation for Women and Men I’d been hoping for. Finally, I asked about the impact that feminism had on the book.

“I was in the midst of it,” he said, speaking gravely. “I was at the terrible ground-zero kind of point because of where I was living.” He talked about how, in downtown New York, in the period in which Women and Men is set, the burgeoning feminist movement had affected his personal life, though he’d also sympathized with their aims. In the stress of that, he said, he’d acted out, then tried to grasp the subject through writing. I was surprised by how forthright he was being—the complication I’d noticed with Grace Kimball had been intentional, not an oversight. In his work, he’d found humor in the movement, but also a threat. “And I don’t think I could have written that big book if I hadn’t felt threatened,” he said. “Terrible anger at some of the women I knew who were in organizations like what is written about in Women and Men.”

McElroy writes every day. He’s been working on a long book about water for at least fifteen years, and after that, he plans to finish a novel that he started in 1948. He never stopped producing after Women and Men. He didn’t consider it a disappointment. He wrote it, then he wrote other things. That’s all. He signed a few of his other novels for me, then walked me out. As he led me through his winding maze of books, I thought about what he’d said about that list of men in “Mr. Difficult”: “These are all friends of mine.” They had seemed like giants when I’d encountered them at the start of adulthood. And McElroy remembered the essay well. “I have never minded being called difficult,” he said. “Usually what they say in the beginning is, ‘Difficult, but it’s worth it,’ or something like that. But … I think it’s almost uniformly not clarified when it’s used in critical pieces.”

I left his building happy—I’d liked him, and it had gone well. It was warm out, so I walked home over the Brooklyn Bridge, turning, as always, to look at downtown Manhattan, the skyline so different from what it was when Women and Men came out. My favorite bit of McElroy’s writing is his 9/11 piece, which revisits the themes of his novel from the perspective of his apartment, which is blocks from Ground Zero. About introspection, he writes, “Is it that we have the leisure to be overtaken by it, and if we were on the run and wounded, losing each other, hungry, as good as dead—that would be our drill and we wouldn’t be free to register emotion, take stock of health hazards, reflect and document? Talk to our children. Women and men talking truly.”

 

Adam Dalva is a graduate of NYU’s M.F.A. program, where he was a Veterans Writing Workshop fellow. His work has been published by The New York Review of Books, Tin House, the Guardian, and others. He teaches creative writing at Rutgers University, is a book critic for Guernica magazine, and is also a dealer of French eighteenth-century antiques.

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