a Joseph McElroy festschrift

a Joseph McElroy festschrift

Andrew Walser

Andrew Walser introduces a gathering of essays on and by the novelist Joseph McElroy.

We want the works of Joseph McElroy to survive. Does that go without saying?

To survive means more than to physically persist, of course - since a text can sit in an attic for centuries, or occupy a few bytes in an enormous digital database, but does not survive unless someone (and not just anyone) reads it. A book is a technology for reporting the structure and contents of consciousness: without readers, the device does not work.

Scholars I trust say that Sophocles wrote over a hundred plays, and that their survival rate - about one in 15 - is typical for the texts of antiquity. What to conclude? That scrolls do not age well, first of all. That Plato must have had great institutional support. And, most important, that literature - like life - is a ruthless selectional system.

In his book Wider Than the Sky, the neuroscientist Gerald M. Edelman lists the three essential traits of any selectional system:

1) A means to generate “diversity in a population of elements;”

2) The opportunity for “extensive encounters between individuals in a variant population” and the system in question;

3) A way to “differentially amplify the number, survival, or influence of those elements…that happen to meet selective criteria (41-2).

Literature is not evolution, or the immune system, or a CNS, but it is a selectional system. (We only have debates about the canon because we know that so many works go extinct.) A novel or poem, an essay or play, a hypertext or some sui generis Oulipian experiment - each enters its environment, and each has a chance to survive if it can influence the right authors, please the right critics, fit into the right curricula, or attract a mass audience. Each instant of survival calls forth a new instant of peril, and works that last must be adaptable enough to weather any change of place, time, or intellectual climate.

This festschrift wants to do its part to insure the survival of the writings of Joseph McElroy - from A Smuggler’s Bible (1966) to Actress in the House (2003) and beyond. It centers on an excerpt from McElroy’s work-in-progress, Water Writing , an essay that courses and meanders and makes the sort of deep dives that only a writer of polymathic knowledge and unflagging attention can pull off.

Around that sun - to switch metaphors - the festschrift sets a dozen satellites spinning.

A reader coming cold to McElroy may want to read Tim Keane’s piece first, since the author - as part of his discussion of noesis in Women and Men - offers a superb overview of the oeuvre.

Old hands, on the other hand, can start anywhere, since these essays create a field fathomable in many ways. Ian Demsky reminds readers that Ancient History: A Paraphase is more than just a postmodern dot-to-dot, while Flore Chevaillier looks at the way the little-known story “Canoe Repair” moves. Joseph Milazzo reads Hind’s Kidnap as “an allegory about allegorical systems” - and decides, I think, that the book does not decide, that it recognizes the perils of certain sorts of stories, but also insists on the need to tell them. Salvatore Proietti sets the novel Plus between two bad ideas about cyborgs - a cult of disembodiment on one hand, and a shallow humanism on the other. Stepping outside that mostly sterile debate, Proietti sees in Plus a bit of intellectual lagniappe, something extra for those who will open their minds to an orbiting mind.

Charles Molesworth inspects the projective prose of The Letter Left to Me - a tale of sparagmos, I might add, that rips up one letter and remembers another. Gregg Biglieri shows how the words of Actress in the House burrow into each other and, consequently, into us. Three essays on Women and Men take issue with those critics who would reduce McElroy’s magnum opus to a successor to The Recognitions, a rival to Gravity’s Rainbow, or a precursor to Underworld. (Early settlers in Canada wrote of the gamboling, frolicking moose: sometimes our categories can mislead us.) In his revisionary reading, Tim Keane discovers not a mega-novel or modern epic, but a book about small-scale intimacies - a work more James than Joyce. Paul Gleason discusses the “discourses and disciplines” that McElroy has mastered and that allow him to make sense (for us) of the modern world’s unnerving complexity. Yves Abrioux offers a Deleuzian take on the novel and its notion of “embodied cognition.”

The festschrift also features some older pieces from ebr - McElroy’s popular essays on Mount St. Helens and September 11th, William S. Wilson’s look at field theory in The Letter Left to Me, and three reviews of Actress in the House, by Steffen Hantke, Alicia Miller, and Andrew Walser.

How would I describe the structure of the whole enterprise?

“Shock and response” might be a good start. So many of McElroy’s characters are experts in converting the shock of the present into action that wills the future: think of Cartwright at the start of Lookout Cartridge, for instance, or Becca in Actress in the House, reacting to a backhanded slap that is not just theatrical. When we convert fiction to criticism, we do it to spin readers around and aim them again at the original texts.

“[S]omeone else’s system” (Lookout Cartridge 333) works well too. Because McElroy has inserted himself into a variety of systems and “poached on” (Lookout Cartridge 180) their powers, we readers can insert ourselves in his system and extract “information” - and energy - to “take [us] into the future” (Lookout Cartridge 340).

For a final descriptor, consider “Resistance.”

You do not measure this resistance in ohms, although it might show up on an MRI. (Most readers of McElroy know that his prose seems to tinker with one’s neural connections.) Through their interruptions, their revisions, their focusings and refocusings, his sentences teach the mind to take the inherited present - the one convention constructs for us - and remake it with precision and soul.

Precision and soul - the phrase belongs to Robert Musil, another cognitive realist who wrote of empire’s decline and coached readers on how to ride the downslide. Such subtle instruction insures a special sort of durability for a literary work. In 2003, the Overlook Press put out new editions of A Smuggler’s Bible and Lookout Cartridge (1974), but there is more to material persistence than such visible supports. Even if a million freak fires torched the texts, or a vigorous censor shredded them, their effects would survive, and we would continue to speak of “McElroy” as a particularly useful, particularly attentive cast of mind.


Works Cited

Edelman, Gerald M. Wider Than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2004.

McElroy, Joseph. Lookout Cartridge. Woodstock and New York: Overlook Press, 2003.