Night Soul and Other Stories

Over the course of four decades, Joseph McElroy has earned a reputation as the difficult postmodernist. When your peers are Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, being singled out for difficulty is a real statement, sort of like being the most masochistic of the masochists, but to all appearances the charge is accurate. Of McElroy's novels, the avowed pièce de résistance (or nail in the coffin, if you prefer) is the gargantuan Women and Men, which, at 700,000 words, makes such ponderous tomes as Gravity's Rainbow and The Recognitions look like the short stack. Reviewing it for The New York Times in 1987, Ivan Gold declared that it is "most often set forth in a viscous, arch, hectoring, information-crammed, unparagraphed series of the longest sentences since William Faulkner's" before concluding rather anemically "one does not go to this novelist for the usual pleasures."


The matter of which pleasures one reads McElroy for is a question worthy of serious thought; what is less contentious is that those who have acquired a taste for McElroy will be cheered to find Night Soul and Other Stories, a new volume of mostly recent short fiction that shows the author on his mark. With the book clocking a svelte 304 pages, those new to him now have the opportunity to sample one of the major American postmodernists at a length more congenial than that of an encyclopedia.


Part of the difficulty—and pleasure—of McElroy is in his unceasing efforts to upend the rules of grammar and syntax. This can give rise to some breathtaking displays of verbiage. Take, for instance, this one-sentence paragraph from the collection's opening story, "No Man's Land":

That I should have found myself here, to relearn a stretch of neighborhood once my father's family's never quite mine you know, but my memory's, my city's—and pavements and intersections guessed that morning from words of my wife implicitly like love locating it like a clue a couple of city miles at least from the brownstones of our Rutland Road, those long, turn-of-the-former-century's blocks of evolving borderland though no stranger to great Flatbush Avenue, the Prospect Park lake/horses/grackles like iridescent crows owning the territory/lilacs on the way—to find myself here might prove worthwhile—a nomad thought more mine than hers to a virtually unemployed male at 7:00 a.m.

First note the tone, a sort of elegiac dreamspeak (with the proper enjambment it could resemble modernist poetry) that McElroy commonly strikes when he breaks out these devilish sentences. Then notice how the sentence swerves at "once my father's family's"—the reader is left with a dilemma: try to connect what follows to what precedes, or read on as though McElroy has spliced two independent thoughts into one sentence. That fundamental uncertainty is later embodied by "lake/horses/grackles" and "territory/lilacs," wherein McElroy is either letting you choose for yourself or boldly stating that they all fit equally well, no matter that a lake isn't a horse nor a grackle. This multiplicity of coexisting, equally likely possibilities is something that characterizes not only McElory's woollier sentences but also his stories on a whole: the narration is so carefully elliptical that it does not tell you what happened, it merely suggests a number of non-exclusive possibilities. Arguably, the correct reading is to conclude that they all happened, projected over one another like the glances of different people looking at the same object.


Though it should be said that a good three-fourths of the prose in Night Soul maintains a prudent distance from the level of inscrutability found in the above paragraph, one's enjoyment of these stories will nonetheless depend on one's willingness to tolerate—and even luxuriate in—uncertainties. That is because these stories do not entertain with their preening erudition (as in Women and Men), nor with the vivid characterization that McElroy has displayed elsewhere. These are stories that offer a very particular enjoyment—that of reconstructing their flesh from the fossils McElroy has buried in his escarpments of prose. They do not just invite participation—they require it—and as such they raise questions about the role of the author and one's duty to create narratives. To my mind those are fine lines to treat, with the gladly shouldered burden of "Silk, or the Woman with the Bike" on one side, and the overly indulgent "Canoe Repair" on the other. Throughout both the good and the bad in this collection, McElroy can get a little too wrapped up in his flights of free-association, but there are worse things than a prolix style—boredom, for instance, which you won't find much of here.


What you will find is McElroy agglutinating seemingly disparate themes in memorable, intriguing ways. For instance, try on this sentence: "After the long day at the day job branching and hopeless but not as jazz is." For a story-length example of this, look to "The Last Disarmament But One," an absurd trunk of a tale about the consequences when the last nuclear superpower's arsenal suddenly immolates it, leaving a crater in the exact size and shape of the unspecified country. The fun comes when the residents of the nation's neighbor, who have not been touched in the least by the event, begin to try and figure out what happened. Into this conceit McElroy blends a kind of '60s-era nuclear eschatology with a search for the soul, revealing submerged connections between the two.


As that might imply, these stories are not the easiest to fathom, but a reader is sustained through blocks of inscrutability by the faith that the eventual revelation will have been worth any stumbles in the dark. On the first reading, one often feels like E. L. Doctorow's hypothetical writer, who gets to the end of a manuscript as a driver on a foggy night reaches home: by keeping his eyes trained only so far as his headlights allow. Reading McElroy one glimpses just enough sense within the beams of those headlights to reach the end, and a second reading frequently reveals the story's bizarre logic, as obscure as it is intriguing.


A good example of that would be "No Man's Land," first published in 2008. With a post-9/11 NYC setting, a family of Muslims, and a shady, dark-skinned relative just come over the Canadian border, convention would tell us that this is some kind of morality tale about racism, community, or an overreaching security state. No. McElroy does scatter enough details to keep terrorism just within the story's frame, but "No Man's Land" is interested in bending the post-9/11 narrative in directions it's never taken. It spends far more time with family's nine-year-old son, Ali, than with the shady relative, and the story is further complicated by the fact that everything we learn is filtered though a poorly defined narrator who befriends Ali and calls himself "Mo." With terrorism on the back burner, the story becomes a meditation on relationships, embodied here by Ali's obsession with the idea of a nomad, which travels from character to character like a theme passed from instrument to instrument through a symphony orchestra. As references to both nomadism and Ali's possibly terroristic uncle pile up, the plot begins to flicker closer and closer to its climax—an elliptical page and a half (out of thirty-four) with references to cops and gunshots. Yet this barely-glimpsed payoff is submerged within a swamp of scenes that show how, in the author's phrase, "words circulate in our city like thoughts, contagiously." An eight-page coda of fragmentary thoughts leaves us convinced that the true subject of "No Man's Land" is the way people attempt to close the distance between one another despite the fact that everything is always in motion.


I only stumbled upon this interpretation of "No Man's Land" after three close readings and hours of thumbing through it, something I might not have done were I not attempting to be a diligent reviewer. True, I did eventually come to appreciate "No Man's Land," but it didn't pull me back quite so fiercely as the stories "The Campaign Trail," "Mister X," and "The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne." The measure of these stories' success is their ability to fascinate the reader, to make us want to understand McElroy's far-out aesthetic. After all, such an aesthetic can only succeed if it intrigues readers enough for them to not throw the book out the window. Some stories in this collection fail to meet this challenge, yet more often than not they succeed. Perhaps a few misfires is the price to be paid for innovation. For readers willing to take it on its terms, Night Soul offers something valuable in this increasingly uniform literary landscape: the genuinely new.

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