Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Night Soul and Other Stories
By Joseph McElroy
Despite the fact that he’s been publishing books for over 40 years and has won just about every prestigious fellowship that exists in the United States, Joseph McElroy has never achieved the notoriety of his contemporaries, like Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, or even, for that matter, the still-criminally-underrated William Gaddis. In publishing circles, McElroy is often best-known for his 1192-page novel Women and Men (by all accounts, a masterpiece), which has the dubious distinction of allegedly being the most-remaindered novel of all time (indeed, I have a first-edition hardback of Women and Men that I picked up in an op-shop five years ago, and which stares out at me from my bookshelf like a dare). But for any reader looking for a place to start with McElroy’s fiction, his ‘new’ collection of short stories, Night Soul and Other Stories (which were, in fact, written over a period of 30 years), is an excellent way to become acquainted with McElroy’s unique and mesmerising style.
McElroy’s work—like the work of those writers he is often compared to—is indubitably difficult, but not in the way that most readers conceive of a book as being difficult; Night Soul and Other Stories won’t overwhelm you with big words, sentences that sprawl for pages at a time or overtly erudite allusions (although there are certainly erudite allusions). Rather, McElroy’s prose works by making language itself strange; he has a (wonderful) habit of using everyday words in unexpected ways that can make an otherwise grammatically straightforward sentence seem completely otherworldly. Moreover, his stories often jump quickly between different points in time and points of view with relatively little warning, forcing the reader to infer these shifts from the context.
Yes, this takes work, but the tales in Night Souls and Other Stories are absolutely worth the work. Most of them have a slightly paranoid atmosphere that develops when two strangers are brought into contact with each other. In ‘Silk, or the Woman with a Bike,’ a young scientist is profoundly affected by a woman he meets briefly on a subway, who—without any explanation—offers him her bike as a gift. In 'Mister X’, an aging architect develops a complicated relationship with his acupuncturist, who may or may not also be involved in a foreign plot to discover the formula for a new building material he has developed (which is, by the way, a new form of water). In ‘Canoe Repair’, several strangers are drawn together by their mutual and inexplicable attraction to an antique canoe made of tree bark.
Other fixations appear across the stories, including a variety of meditations on water and a deep interest in the furthest frontiers of science, such as bio-engineering and advanced physics like String Theory. Indeed, this should be no surprise, as McElroy has penned one science fiction novel—Plus a story about artificial intelligence published in 1977. McElroy also has one science fiction story here, called ‘The Last Disarmament but One’, a story about the sudden and complete disappearance of one country from the face of the earth due to unexplained physical forces, but it’s a science fiction written in McElroy’s deeply idiosyncratic style.
Indeed, if you’re looking for an apt comparison for McElroy’s writing, you’d almost need recourse to a medium outside of prose; the 20th Century poet Wallace Stevens (whose poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ McElroy briefly references in a story by mentioning ‘thirteen ways of looking at a lake’) might be the closest stylist. Simply put, Night Soul and Other Stories is already easily my favourite new book I’ve read this year, and it’s a wonderful introduction to McElroy’s body of work, which represents one of the most important achievements in American literature over the last 50 years. Go buy it now.