McElroy's "Letter"

McElroy's "Letter"

2004-08-23

Charles Molesworth on style and spatial form in McElroy’s Letter Left to Me, a novel whose poetic making is also an ethical growth.

The American poet Charles Olson once advanced a theory, called Projective Verse, that included claims about the nature of the sentence. For Olson, the sentence was ineffective, because it could never fully reflect the process of thought. The sentence as produced in English grammar was especially deficient in this regard, Olson theorized, because its sense of action and its verb tenses were limited. What we can see, however, in Joseph McElroy’s The Letter Left to Me, is that the English sentence has more flexibility at imagining and recording thought processes than Olson would perhaps have admitted. It is at once important to say that the novel uses the traditional device of interior monologue, but does so in a way that is especially sensitive to the movements and relationships between and among the thoughts - and the processes of thought - of the first person narrator.

Just a word of further introduction before I look at the novel in some detail. McElroy’s work overall is best seen, I believe, in the tradition of what I would call the post-Joycean novel. [see William S. Wilson on McElroy’s field, eds.] On this view, Joyce’s Ulysses is the commanding model of modernist fiction, and its authority comes from the way it extends the poetics of naturalism by its skill in creating a symbolic web in which naturalistic detail can flower. Eliot’s seminal essay on Ulysses and myth, and Robert Martin Adams’ study, called Surface and Symbol, set out the terms of what I consider the best reading of Joyce as the originary figure of this tradition. Added to Eliot and Adams’s readings, I would also mention phenomenology, that is, the concern with states of interiority and their structuration in and through the intentionality of consciousness. What this tradition rests on most solidly is the use of well-made sentences. Grammar and style in this tradition are more than mere pyrotechnics; they become the measure of veridicality, in a way that combines psychological and aesthetic standards of accuracy and appropriateness. The sentences do not just tell the story; they measure it.

As for the novel itself, in consonance with its traditional rhetorical presentation, The Letter Left to Me proceeds in a somewhat deceptively simple manner at the level of the events narrated. The story centers on a letter written by the narrator’s father and meant to be read by the narrator only after the father’s death. Virtually a model of propriety, the father is a Wall Street investment consultant, socially and financially secure, who wears a Chesterfield coat and a Derby hat. The mother is a gifted decorator with a high sense of color, who enjoys a poetic sensibility and a talent for playing the piano. The narrator, for his part, is a high school senior when his father dies. The young man loves both his parents, is still a virgin, and is eventually accepted into a fairly elite college (but not Harvard, which is where his father graduated). The action takes place in 1946-47, and spans, roughly, the time from the father’s death shortly after Christmas, until the opening weeks of the narrator’s first semester in college. In terms of ostensible subject matter, then, the novel depicts a representative family drama centered on the thoughts of its youngest member as he goes through a significant rite of passage, in short a bildungsroman in a thoroughly American idiom. Yet the novel is not at all like the traditional American domestic melodrama, so beloved by Hollywood and the mainstream audience for best-selling fiction.

Much of the complexity of the novel results from the young man’s thought processes, which are rendered in a naturalistic way - full of sudden shifts in attention, logical and illogical connections, recurring images, and so forth. But the curve of the thoughts, their very texture is clearly what McElroy is after. The feel of thinking, we might say. This feeling might strike some readers as distant and detached, especially in a first reading. The narrator seems a bit too cool, even when confessing to his adolescent awkwardness, and his world appears almost too verbally sophisticated to be emotionally convincing. But like all good sentences, the novel itself must be read at least twice. In a second reading, what we notice is the level of attention that the narrator gives to the events and thoughts leading up to and occasioned by the letter. More important, perhaps, we notice that this attention, doubtlessly felt as detached in the first reading, is not only psychologically appropriate as the young man’s way of coping with his grief, it is also the register of the growth of his affective wisdom, his coming to know that the “how” of what we experience is as important as the “what” or “why.” [see McElroy on 9/11, eds.]

The central focus of the book’s action, the father’s letter, is at once ordinary and strange. The letter itself is never given in full all at once; nor does the narrator ever sit down and read it, or at least no such reading is ever recorded in the book. (The narrator, incidentally, is never named in the story, by himself or others. This reticence is more than a stylistic device, as it bespeaks the sense of privacy that we share with him.) The contents of the letter, as we are able to slowly and inevitably reconstruct them, are fairly predictable - heartfelt advice about working hard, realizing one’s potential, just the sort of sound and necessary advice that fathers are supposed to give sons, but which often gets overshadowed by the press of mundane events - what Shelley called “the slow stain of the world.” What lifts the letter beyond the mundane and the mysterious, however, is its dissemination. This process interweaves the gradual - or staged - making public of the letter with the young man’s maturation and socialization. This dissemination, then, applies not only to the letter but to the father’s incarnated version of himself in the narrator, and the narrator’s coming to terms with his own createdness, or to use an even more phenomenologically oriented word, his “thrownness.”

This interweaving of the fate of the letter and the fate of the narrator gives the book its formal beauty. Recall the article by Joseph Frank, “The Spatial Element in Modern Literature.” Frank argued that the great modernist texts were meant to be visualized, in a reflective and even meditative sense, as possessing a spatial form. This spatialized form resulted from such devices as the use of collage and complexified narrative “lines,” and as such offered the main aesthetic contribution of modernist poetics. McElroy’s formal invention in this novel produces an especially striking instance of spatial form. Because the letter is referred to again and again, but each time in a different context, and because this recursive use of the letter’s words - as well as the conditions of its making and sharing - shape the central thrust of the narrative, the best image for the spatial form of the novel is that of two intertwined Moebius strips. The Moebius strip, as we know, is a two-dimensional strip that has been turned and rejoined to itself, so that it has only one surface and one edge. (Indeed, the image of two intertwined strips will recall the double helix that models DNA. McElroy may even have had such a possible visual form in mind, as the knowledge of modern science, especially biology, is pervasive in his fiction.) [see Andrew Walser on McElroy and science, eds.]

One of these strips represents the letter; the other represents the narrator’s growing self-awareness. The first strip can be visualized as representing the father’s actual written words to his son, and the words as they are made increasingly public. The narrator is entangled in trying, against all odds, to separate these two dimensions of the letter; in fact, one of the last scenes in the novel has the narrator trying to recover printed copies of the letters from his classmates dorm rooms and wastebaskets, like Isis trying to gather the limbs of her brother. As the letter’s contents are increasingly “publicized” they induce in the narrator a need to understand his own place in the world, and to come to terms with what Henry James called the “awful devouring publicity of life.”

The other strip also has a single surface that represents two aspects: the boy’s thoughts as he generates them to himself, and those thoughts as we overhear them, so to speak, in the form of the sentences in the novel. In each case - the letter and the boy’s thoughts - two apparent dimensions have been melded into one, and these two “single” surfaces intertwine as the father’s letter and the boy’s thoughts inter-animate each other. The narrator is constantly trying to clarify his new found sense of identity - or the new threats to his identity - both of which would be precarious in any circumstance, but given the death of his father, the continuing presence of the paternal voice in the letter makes all such clarification doubly difficult. Each strip, then, represents the unfurling of a process, and the two processes eventually become the same. The letter left to the narrator is the genesis of the novel and the ontogenesis of the narrator’s selfhood. [see Alicia M. Miller on McElroy and private history, eds.]

This “visual” feature takes us into one of the main elements of the book’s style. I refer here to the sense of the audience of the book - of course, not just its actual readers, past and present, but its virtual audience as it is imagined and thus created by the narrator. This audience is manifold, in part because the novel convincingly uses the interior monologue in such a way that the book at times seems to rest on the assumption that the young man desires to have no audience whatsoever. Like “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” before it, the narrative of this story of social threat and personal unease is true only if told by the one who suffers it; yet the conditions of the story and its narrator would seem to insist on total privacy, that is, on total silence. The novel thus explores, among other things, the phenomenological space between our thoughts and our words. McElroy’s sentences are rich with the felt textures of that interface, or liminal area, between the said and the unsaid, and this richness makes the liminal a major thematic concern of the novel.

But instead of having no audience, the book has at least three. First, there is the narrator, who listens to what he himself says, but not always perfectly. As he says at one point, “I’m building backwards,” which means more than that the action is told retrospectively, but also that he is building his sense of self by a back-and-forward motion among not only his thoughts but the habitude of his thinking. His poiesis becomes his ethic.

The second audience is the young’s man father, as the narrator tries to answer what his father has written to him - by keeping alive the imagination of his father’s voice, by trying to imagine where his father is now that he is dead, and by trying to see for himself what his father’s words mean. The narrator’s father is “replaced,” in a figurative sense, by several other characters in the novel, especially “Pop,” who is the narrator’s step-grandfather. Pop had married the narrator’s paternal grandmother after his grandfather died, when the narrator’s father was only twelve years old. Thus, the novel represents that classic instance of a doubling of the narrative, as one generation’s loss gets repeated in the lives of those who follow. The narrator’s growing tenderness towards Pop, and his increasing ability to accept the other members of both sides of his family, is a key element in his maturation. This maturation is facilitated by the narrator extrapolating from his knowledge of his father’s way of treating family members; he must learn to answer to his father’s values. Again, the poetic making of the novel’s plot is exactingly appropriate to the narrator’s ethical growth.

The third audience is, of course, us, since the young man, by the mere act of making sentences, is implicitly making them for someone, someone who shares the grammar - the formal structure and capabilities of the language - in which those sentences occur. [see Steffen Hantke on McElroy and structure, eds.] The narrator’s increasingly flexible way of remaining accurate to the nuances of his feelings, even as he is trying hard to clarify those feelings and not resort to either platitudes or mystification, is also part of what leads him towards maturity. A shared grammar of communication serves to anchor, even as it problematizes, a world of social maturation. We especially need a second reading in this regard, and what at least this reader can attest to is that the narrator sounds considerably more grown up the second time around. This reader response attribute causes the novel to seem like a titanic struggle between rendering justice to the phenomenological structure of the present moment and yet “building backwards ” as a way of solidifying the narrator’s sense of being in the world. The novel captures so well the way one person thinks that we are restrictively involved in a very private experience, yet as with Stephen Dedalus, we come to see the inner logic of even the most potentially annoying personal traits.

Much of the formal complexity of the novel occurs at the level of the sentences, their stylistic pliability and inventiveness, their stylistic answerability - if I can adapt a phrase from Milton. But this complexity has its simplifying balance in the straightforward chapter structure of the plot of the novel. This plot shows us the letter in each of the book’s five chapters, and each chapter marks a further dissemination of its contents and possible significance. First the letter is given by the mother to her son (she has retrieved it from a desk drawer in the family apartment, almost casually); the second chapter shows us the remaining family members and close friends who read the letter. The third chapter narrates how the letter is further circulated, beyond the nuclear family, to friends of the family in a printed version arranged for by the step-grandfather. One of these friends is a teacher at the narrator’s high school who mentions it to one of the students at the school, which introduces the letter into the narrator’s peer group. The fourth chapter has the letter circulated to the narrator’s college classmates by the Dean of the College, as a model of virtuous advice; and the fifth relates how the narrator tries to ascertain what his classmates make of the letter, and he eventually shows it to a young woman whom he meets for the first time when she comes to visit a friend of his at the college.

At each stage of public exposure, the letter’s author is more anonymous (the college version of the letter goes unsigned, for example), and this adds to the narrator’s challenge in specifying what the letter means to him. The ever-enlarging audiences for the letter show the narrator how the dissemination of meaning is conditioned by all the elements of context. The dissemination also serves as a subtle, almost invisible metaphor for the narrator’s own enlarging contact with the worlds of society and memory. Such dissemination is felt as a threat in some ways, and yet the boy’s personal reserve, his desire for privacy, slowly adjusts to the circumstances of loss and presence as his father’s voice slowly becomes unvoiced and yet reiterated as a general social code.

As I say, all of this is encoded, if you will, into the structures of the sentences in the novel. Let me offer just the opening sentences of the novel as a paradigm of what I have been arguing. As the novel opens we read:

The woman holding, then handing over the letter to this poised, dumbfounded fifteen-year-old: is the letter also hers? She’s been busy, her hands are anything but idle here in a room of a city apartment, but today what belongs to her hands? The words are echoey-bare - a room, a city apartment - they sound rugless, not yet moved- in, don’t they? - which is not this place at all. (3)

Every phrase is bearing its weight here. Notice the pivot between holding the letter and handing it over, the first act of the novel and one laden with the threat and promise of transferal. The young man is also balanced on a pivot, between poise and the inability to react. The sentence resorts to anacoluthon, as the opening indicative turns into an interrogative. Questions of property (and propriety) and what we can and should hold on to as ours, are thematically and grammatically posed. Then self-reflexiveness rushes in as the narrator questions the appropriateness of his own words, words that at once tell his story but seem to unhouse him from familiar surroundings. And the passage ends with a dialectical realization of where the narrator is by virtue of a moment of estrangement. Each of these points will be thematically completed several times over in the novel.

What stands out from the passage is the way it not only questions itself but answers those questions, so that we are not left with a miasma of ambiguity but rather a richly imagined welter of facts and near facts, even non-facts, such as words that sound “echoey-bare” or “rugless.” The phenomenological accuracy of the perceived world is both driving the structure of the sentences and serving as the poetics of the action. McElroy has mastered this style of writing in several works, perhaps most impressively in Plus, his science fiction novel about a brain that begins to grow a body. The style has a micro-level accuracy, but it also develops certain distinctive macro-level attributes as well. In a way, McElroy is bound by Pound’s dictum, “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” But this allegiance frees him to fulfill the dictates of naturalism so that he can create larger patterns of symbology at a more abstract level. As I have argued above, the novel is exploring the thematics of maturation and privacy, as well as identity and dissemination, with the symbols - which are classically resonant - of a paternal bequest in the form of a written document.

Grammatical analysis might shed some additional light here, but I suspect only a little. For example, the opening phrase of the first sentence - “the woman” - looks as if it should be the subject of the sentence. But the question “is the letter also hers?” renders the first part of the sentence into a noun clause. What began as a sentence about self-possessed control becomes instead a question about dubious ownership. Later, the phrase “the words” might at first be taken to refer elliptically to “her hands,” but by referring instead to “room” and “city apartment” they make the metaphor of “echoey-bare” have a phenomenological accuracy that gives the figure of speech an almost literal sense. The themes of the novel are thus present as part of the way the sentences uncoil and conclude, only to be sent off at different vectors in what follows.

Having started with the opening sentences of the novel as an example of its style, let me close with the ending of the book.

I am wild, in my haste, and I will live a new life. The letter is everywhere and I can’t answer for it. I’ll answer the letter. I can’t. But I will. (152)

Here I think I hear an echo of Robert Frost, whose monologues could serve as a very useful introduction to McElroy’s melding of psychology and syntax. At the end of “Home Burial” you may recall the husband is intent on restraining his wife’s emotional reaction - and imminent departure - because of the death of their son, and the man’s apparent coldness of manner in burying the child’s body. The poem ends with the same two words that end McElroy’s novel. The contexts are in many ways obviously different, but the two word phrase - “I will” - signals in both texts not only an indefinite act of motivation and intent, but creates what Olson might well have called a “projective” moment, when the language of the book spills us back into the phenomenological world of uncontrolled dissemination, a dissemination of meaning and volition.

There is another echo in this brief passage, where the authorial voice closes by opening a new prospect, and affirms by denying, even as his denial conditions any possible affirmation. I refer, of course, to Samuel Beckett, whose words about going on and not going on are one of the central texts of modernist irony. It is not too much, I think, to see McElroy’s sentences as partaking of both Frost and Beckett as stylistic fathers. His fiction often has the plainspokenness of the New England poet combined with the dour lyricism of the Franco-Irish genius. What McElroy brings to his grateful readers as well is an engaging sense of story, that abiding recognition that the lives of people have common ground no matter how isolated they are in extreme moments. Thinking about this can take place in several keys. But thinking about it thoroughly, thinking through it, can only be registered in a great many well-made sentences.