In 1971, writer Joseph McElroy published his third novel, the confessional-style Ancient History: A Paraphase. In it, narrator Cy explains the events of his life while scribbling away with pen and paper belonging to his Brooklyn neighbor Dom. The latter is an acclaimed novelist in the world of the book—something of a Norman Mailer figure—who has just killed himself. Ancient History was well received by critics at the time for its disjointed, almost frantic time structure. It will be re-released in paperback on March 25, accompanied by a new essay by Jonathan Lethem. The fresh introduction, an analysis in nine parts, is below.
1. At the center of Henry James’s writings, forming a sort of hinge in James’s shelf, perhaps, stand a handful of tales in which someone contemplates and abides with the mysterious and supervalent absence of a dead or dying writer: The Lesson of the Master, The Figure in the Carpet, The Aspern Papers, The Middle Years. Joseph McElroy’s shelf is double-hinged (at least), with two narratives that resonate with this archetypal plot, in The Letter Left to Me andAncient History: A Paraphase. In Letter, as in the examples from James, the narrator/protagonist is a vulnerable recipient, a would-be interpreter or medium, left to contend with an opaque address from the dark side. Ancient History reverses these charges. It takes the form of an eloquent, garrulous, obsessionally digressive, tender, and yet rebuking address to a dead genius.
2. I’ve just heaved out my effort at categorical description—“a reverse-engineered Jamesian address to the dead”—at great cost. For, like most—all?—of McElroy’s fiction, Ancient Historystymies the categorical impulse to an extreme degree. McElroy’s prose, coming on less like a street gang than like a storm cloud of evocations, intimations, and signifiers, robs the reader of his guidebook and compass. McElroy doesn’t shirk clarity, or particularity; he’s a great bestower of intensely clear descriptive and conceptual moments. His writing consists of almost nothing else. But there are few writers less interested in standing to one side, in the role of ringmaster or stage manager, to interject with comparisons, framing remarks, or encompassing descriptions.
For a reader hungry for announcements as to what he or she is experiencing, before, during, or after the experience of it (and we are all this reader, sometimes, most especially at the fraught start of a new relationship to what fiction can do, the kind a first encounter with a master necessarily entails), a plunge into McElroy can be vertiginous.
3. It is worth it.
4. Another advertisement for McElroy, while I’m risking those: like most writers who throw up such explosive challenges to ordinary narrative “sense,” McElroy’s at heart an adamant realist. A realist, that is, in the sense that his discontinuities generate, it seems to me, from a single pure impulse: to sort out what consciousness—our interval as minds trapped inside bodies on planet earth—really feels like, when pushed through the strange machine of language. Like this, damn it, not like you’ve been told before! It is with such self-appointments, rather than any desire to innovate in narrative or language per se, that a writer like McElroy sets out on a life’s work. And that, in turn, is what makes it (see number three, above) worth it: McElroy is demanding that his machine of language think, with each sentence it sets down, about what life on earth really consists of (hint: it can be vertiginous).
5. Anyone seeking further such general encouragement ought to consult, as I have, Garth Risk Hallberg’s eloquent “The Lost Postmodernist” (on Women and Men), and the invaluable McElroy festschrifts in both Electronic Literature and Golden Handcuffs Review—perhaps most especially Mike Heppner’s defiant envoi “The Courage of Joseph McElroy,” which itself gives a reader courage, too.
6. Ancient History consists of an address, then—to whom? The famous dead writer, a suicide, bears a striking resemblance to Norman Mailer (in as much as he gives speeches in put on accents, runs for office, writes about outer space, divorces spectacularly, punches and bleeds in public, etc.). The narrator, Cy, lives in the same New York apartment building as the Great Dead Man; he’s snuck into the famous writer’s rooms during the police investigation, there to deliver the text as a monologue both written and spoken, with a brief interruption during which he hides, like Hamlet, behind a curtain. Monologue consisting of what? Of centrifugal meditations on Cy’s coming of age in the company of two friends, one—like the narrator—a native of Brooklyn Heights, a city boy. The other, a friend from summers spent fleeing the city, a country boy. The two friends have never met, but may be on the verge of doing so; this possibility is for the narrator strangely destabilizing, and supercharged. So: two sets of men in erratic conjunction. Around them: women, children, careers, fame, public events, the world, outer space. McElroy is a specialist in matters of spatial relation: neighbors upstairs and down, passersby on the street, the eerie distances contained inside nuclear families—generally, he makes a subject of the power of adjacency and proximity in our intimate lives. Yet why should the Mailer-like writer be made to listen—if the dead can listen—to Cy’s stories of his two friends? The answer is that for all the intellectual and political force of the addressee’s public career—and these forces are respected by Cy as considerable in themselves—this monologist may be seen to believe that the addressee has missed something. Missed something of life as it is actually lived, missed a thing as elusive as it is essential. It might even be supposed that it is this absence, this oversight, which has driven the addressee to his suicide. “You thought only the thirsty media cared for you, Dom—to drink you down and piss you out: the meteoric you at San Gennaro taking a flap in the face from one of those flag-exposing twin guinea hens who run Empire Hardware while yours truly watched through the fence with Joseph and Mary and their boy behind me; or you not quite upstaging sweet Seeger on the Hudson babbling huskily over your bourbon to a black news chick while the skipper and his banjo sang us down the stinking tide; you bleeding right onto a hand-mike a rain-collared TV reporter darted to you like an electric prod, against a field of dark Barrio stone the edge of live gunshots one summer night when you were supposed to be not in Spanish Harlem but giving a big birthday party for Dot in Edinburgh; you getting mugged all alone on Brooklyn Bridge a month ago by three kids who it turned out didn’t know who you were then or even by name later in some station house; you vomiting on a TV talk show, pointing at the eggy pool and calling it “Magma,” and after mopping your mouth and tongue tip, answering the host’s original question straight and mild . . . And those excuses posted in the kitchen for any and all callers? And what about “EARTH = SPACECRAFT”? That addendum hardly seems an excuse for anything. Would you use it to put off a media representative? Or is it a hot-line excuse for the President of the United States, to whom if he phone you to congratulate you on being you, you could say, “Sorry, can’t talk now: the earth is a spacecraft.” I’m losing you, Dom . . .”
7. So, maybe Ancient History is a kind of secretly not-too-late intervention: Mailer was, after all, still alive. McElroy’s argument with his titanic soul mate (for, I believe, McElroy may have felt Mailer to be his rare equal in curiosity about the existential implications of the new technology and media that had altered the scope of our planetary understanding, and, assuming I’m right, I believe he would have right to feel this). One Brooklyn boy calling to another to reconsider his “Manichean” (the word is McElroy’s) exaggerations in favor of a view more grounded in awarenesses of bodies in time, bodies in their places, in rooms and in streets and in nature, and most of all as bodies in relation to others, rather than existing in solipsistic outer-space vacuums of ego: “As on the educational channel last week, my small Emma was watching the thin man Mr. Rogers from his own private outer space end his kids’ show, ‘You make each day such a special day. You know how. By just your being you.’ The gossip column Eagle Eye said that your wife Dorothy had got her final decree, but that you were sitting around these days enjoying your life in your ‘vast elegant’ living room, running your slide collection round and round your Carousel projector—mostly ‘candid news shots involving himself.’” McElroy’s narrator persistently feels the uncanny call of his life as both a child and a parent, as well as a resident of the specific and intimate cultural space of midcentury Brooklyn: “I take the measure of my Heights street’s space partly by my two-sewer line drive, which Hugh Blood backpedaled to catch without coming within 30 yards of the harbor-view dead end, whose lamppost and black-iron fence were roughly in the same plane as the street window of my parents’ third-floor bedroom . . ."
8. A speculation, doomed to be incomplete for many reasons, not least my insufficient grasp of literary theory: Joseph McElroy, with his ecstatic depiction of consciousness as a thing incarnated in the unstable but gorgeous relations between humans and their companions here on spaceship earth, may be exactly the great writer who most needed— most needs—the terminology of what is currently called “Affect Theory” to come along and account for what he’s getting at.
9. Ancient History, then, because of the clarifying urgency of its mode of address, is possibly McElroy’s manifesto, a master key, even—the hinge, I called it earlier, of his shelf. At the least, a precursor to his two most daunting (and divergent) masterworks: the densely economical Plus, that outer-space deconstruction of the absolutes of solipsistic estrangement, and Women and Men, McElroy’s symphonic and encompassing depiction of the vast field of human proximities. The way such proximities bind us to the permanent mystery of presence—in our bodies, and in time—despite how consciousness and recollection seem precisely designed to escape such limits, much as a space voyager escapes the field of earth. The way our thinking, no matter how abstract, takes place inside, not outside, our lives.