Stream of Thought
Almost 40 years have passed since the publication of A Smuggler's Bible, his first novel, and Joseph McElroy remains a figure too often banished to a subordinate clause, or buried in the middle of a list. Lauded by critics, singled out by other writers, he nonetheless gets a fraction of the academic and popular attention bestowed on contemporaries Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo, and Powers. The publication of Actress in the House - and, later this year, the reissuing of A Smuggler's Bible and the landmark Lookout Cartridge by Overlook Press - may help McElroy achieve the prominence he deserves.
Like the late author of JR and The Recognitions, McElroy has sought a new mode of realism - a way to depict the interlocking systems and channel the diverse voices of global capitalism. Yet McElroy differs from Gaddis in a crucial way. The older writer followed the muse of speech, but McElroy prefers thought; his prose is full of loose ends and hesitations, doublings and triplings back, missed connections and epiphanic flashes, all of which add up to a version of consciousness more persuasive, really, than Joyce's stream. (Franco Moretti called Joyce's "a technique of the meaningless." McElroy never forsakes meaning.) McElroy shares a love of the technical with Powers and a fixation on conspiracy and connection with DeLillo. One might describe Galatea 2.2 as a pop version of McElroy's brain-in-space opus Plus, while Underworld resembles nothing so much as a streamlined Women and Men, a more conventional attempt to move metonymically from New York to America to the world. Gore Vidal once separated writing into R & D (Research and Development) and R & R (Rest and Relaxation) - and McElroy, unlike Powers and DeLillo, is pure R & D. In each of his eight novels, he has refused to settle for a form less distinctive and complex than the content it carries.
When Tom LeClair called Women and Men the Gravity's Rainbow of the 80s - the literary equivalent of dubbing a songwriter "the new Dylan" - he made a familiar link: Pynchon and McElroy, two polymaths, both conversant with real science, both in the literary vanguard, both fond of baggy monsters and modern epics. But the link is misleading. Pynchon uses his narrative gifts in the service of a cackling paranoia: he looks at the poststructuralist's web and discerns, at its center, something black and venomous. McElroy, by contrast, sees as much possibility as peril in interconnectedness. Sometimes his novels feel like a form of pedagogy, a way to train his readers' minds to make sense of a world more intricate than any fiction.
Readers new to McElroy may find Actress in the House a good way in. The book starts with a slap. Onstage, an actress gets smacked - but Bill Daley, a lawyer and the novel's central consciousness, realizes right away that he and the rest of the audience have witnessed a real act of violence: "[I]t was over the line, you wondered how she was standing" (7).
Characteristically for McElroy, things do not go forward from there. Daley and the actress, Becca, do meet; they spend a week in sex and conversation; they learn a few of each other's secrets. Much of the book, however, twists its way through distant, remembered events - the misadventures of Daley's brother Wolf, the strange relationship between Daley's late wife and her diving coach, a slashing by the docks, a first deposition, a war crime. The slap is simply the act around which the others organize, and it is within the field it creates that Daley and Becca move.
Early reviews have missed the way that sudden violence structures the novel - from that slap in the theater to a kick that bloodies the diving coach's nose, from a bridge collapse that throws Wolf "two hundred feet...into a terrific Southeast Asian river" (49) to the unseen push that sends four Vietnamese captives plummeting from an open helicopter. Like a memoir that one of Daley's clients writes, Actress in the House doubles as a "brief history of abuse" (172). Each moment of impact - each act of violence - is a kind of big bang, from which a universe of consequences expands. The novel becomes a record of the crossing ripples, the places where energy comes to matter.
Nietzsche serves - secretly -- as the book's patron saint. McElroy's main character, after all, is called Will, and his last name slyly evokes the famous 341st section of The Gay Science, the account of a "well disposed" übermensch whose daily actions are so apt that he can will their eternal return. (In a recent review of Gao Xingjian's One Man's Bible, McElroy defends Nietzsche as "that great questioner and liberator.") When Becca refers to Daley as "'Mister Experience...Mister New York'" (308), and complains that he is "'never shocked'" (294), she means that he has the Nietzschean ability to take whatever comes his way and convert it, to turn life's violence into will-power. (Machiavelli calls this knack virtú.) Daley sees the same talent in Becca - in her reaction to the slap, and in the one-woman play she fashions from the jolts of an incestuous upbringing. "The blow[s] had silenced her," he notes, "yet not really. [T]hey had spun her around and aimed her" (9).
McElroy might have titled the book Actor in the House, if he had wished to make concessions to the patriarchal. "'It's a good time for women'" (230), though, and Actress - like most of McElroy's novels - abounds in interesting female characters. Della improvises on the piano and in her dance, a master of what she calls the "'Nietzsche manner'" (356); Lotte has so little tolerance for inaction that, after an earthquake, she plans to sue the epicenter. There is Becca, of course, but also the observant and tolerant next-door neighbor Isabel, and Helen, Daley's old friend who is "usually right..yet with no real right to be" (89), and the secretary Donna, and the Vietnamese woman Than, and the Australian girl who lets Daley listen to a turkey's gizzard at work.
What makes Actress in the House a necessary book, however, is the author's style. Always "ready for surprises" ("Midcourse Corrections," Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring 1990): 13), McElroy takes each simple sentence and explodes it from within - accentuates the connections, elaborates the ambiguities, subverts or inverts or reclaims the clichés. His prose has long-term side effects; it tampers with one's habits of attention and reconfigures one's consciousness. True, a reader who demands a traditional plot will find the answers maddeningly slow in coming: McElroy does not practice the sort of formalized proliferation and pruning on which most novelists rely. Actress does not temper its idiosyncrasies with the familiarity of a genre, either - the way Plus played with science fiction, for instance, or Hind's Kidnap subverted the detective novel. But the book gives back more than it takes. Alone among his peers, McElroy has found a way to call up, in sentences that create their own sense of time, the infinite network of causes and consequences, resonations and interlacings, that grows out of every moment.
Overlook Press deserves praise for its commitment to the work of this most uncompromising of American writers. Actress in the House should send readers back to its seven predecessors, and it should spin them around and aim them, too, toward whatever Joseph McElroy does next.