Joseph McElroy is usually grouped among those postwar American experimental writers--most often he is compared to Pynchon, Gaddis, and DeLillo--known for stretching the limits of both form and acceptable content in fiction. Such a conclusion is understandable, given McElroy's seemingly elusive and disjointed prose and his use of various scientific and technological tropes, but it is not really one that can stand up to an analysis of McElroy's actual strategies and assumptions--or at least I have always thought so. In fact, reading McElroy's most recent novel, Actress in the House, has only reinforced my judgment that McElroy is in many ways a conventional, even derivative, writer engaged in the effort to use the novel as a means of projecting human consciousness through a fairly obvious method of "psychological realism."
McElroy has long been championed by a certain kind of academic critic who sees contemporary ficition as an opportunity to indulge in abstruse talk about technology and communications theory, about suitably abstract and "scholarly" issues of cultural concern, about everything except what it's like to read McElroy's work, of what its aesthetic accomplishents might be. Perhaps the most noteworthy example of this would be the chapter on McElroy in Tom LeClair's The Art of Excess (still a valuable book, nevertheless), which contains passages like this: "The formulating or mastering capabilities of systems are, for McElroy, closedly tied to a 'massed variety of information.' More consistently than any other writer in the systext, McElroy has registered the systems pardigm's contemporaneous scale of information. . .Systems-influenced, information-dense, variously excessive, McElroy's novels are themselves 'collaborative networks,' distinctive and distinguished models of our postindustrial world. Like the other systems novelists, McElroy uses his fictive networks to defamiliarize common experience while pressing the reader to whole-seeing. . . ."
As it happens, the electronic book review is currently running a series of scholarly essays on McElroy. These essays are admirably sweeping in their survey of McElroy's career, but unfortunately they are mostly characterized by observations like these (by Tim Keane):
For over four decades, McElroy's innumerable characters, his voracious novels, and his grammatical and linguistic explorations, not to mention his willful readers, have adhered to the letter of Rilke's famous dictum that we should live out the questions. His novels are not full of events any more orderly than actuality. Nor are they contained by time. Rather, in book after book, his writings are dramatic investigations of noesis - that abstract but evocative concept rooted in Platonic idealism and redefined by philosophers (through Phenomenology) as those ineluctable acts of consciousness that constitute reality. . .
A writer necessarily concerned with the mental acuities and cognitive refinements that constitute the life-work of his characters and their worlds is essentially a poet of emotional intensity and tangible intimacies. For all the comparisons made between Joseph McElroy and half a dozen other brainy American novelists of the Information Age, not one of them comes close to achieving so consistently the emotional truthfulness and the zealous humanism of McElroy's work.
This is the groundwork for essays that go on to discuss such topics as "noesis," "coordinate equality," de-automatization," and describe McElroy's style as the process by which "the reader follows the lines and blind leads of a syntax that defines patterns recursively and as a matter of palimpsestual depth. Focus on the interlacing of cause and effect because they correspond in a strange bilaterally fearless symmetry: causes create effects, which in turn effectively create causes." Taken together (with exceptions, one of them being Charles Molesworth's discussion of The Letter Left to Me), they are, unfortunately, a very pompous and self-involved way of saying what should be apparent to anyone attempting to read McElroy: His books narrate whatever stories they have to tell by focusing on his character's ongoing mental processes, in a rather straightforward "stream of consciousness" style strongly reminiscent of Joyce and Woolf.
Here is the first paragraph of Actress in the House: "A shock, that's all it was, in the darkened house. The girl struck by her partner very hard. It had staggered her, it was over the line, you wondered how she was standing. Her partner had clapped her one to the side of her face with the full flat of his hand, and it had swung her right around toward the audience, almost knocked her off the stage, and she was hurt. The man in the eighth row from his angle hadn't seen it coming, but neither had she seen it you could almost believe, the actress herself. Something wrong up there. He was stunned and amazed, he was honestly thrilled, not stunned at all." After the initial external identification of "the man in the eighth row," the remainder of the novel unfolds through this man's "central consciousness" as he (a lawyer named Daley) proceeds to have a sexual affair with this very actress being slapped. Along the way we learn various things about Daley's past, through Daley about the actress's past, etc., and the narrative ends after the first week of their acquaintance.
To the extent the novel is "difficult"--and it can indeed be frustrating--it is the consequence of its thoroughgoing dedication to the stream of consciousness method. Everything is oblique and discontinuous. Explanations are sometimes delayed for pages and pages, sometimes never materializing at all. McElroy is frequently called "uncompromising" in his use of this method, but in this case the uncompromising merely becomes tedious. (Although frankly this is the response I've had to other McElroy novels as well.) Nothing very special ever happens, and the characters never become interesting except as "ordinary people" in the most dramatically unpromising sense of the words.
I don't think the problem is so much that McElroy is a bad writer but that in the final analysis the stream of consciousness techique, in my opinion, is an extremely limited approach to writing fiction except in short doses or when "compromised" by mixing it with other strategies. (Which, for example, Joyce does in several episodes of Ulysses). We do, by the conclusion of Actress in the House, come to feel we've been exposed very intimately to Daley's preoccupations and habits of thought, but this in itself doesn't get us very far. It proves to be a clinical exercise in psychological speculation--Here is Man Thinking--but not much of an artistic endeavor.
I have in previous posts complained that too many book reviewers engage in free-floating evaluation rather giving an accurate account of what a given writer is trying to accomplish. In the ebr essays I have mentioned, the opposite and abiding flaw of much academic criticism, especially about contemporary literature, can be seen. There's a great deal of very elaborate description of Joseph McElroy's purported intentions as a writer of fiction, but not much in the way of an assessment of that fiction, which conveniently leaves out a very important point to be made about it, especially Actress in the House: It's really pretty boring.