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Colin Barrett

Idly browsing in the remaindered section of a bookshop, I recently picked up Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul and Other Stories, the 83 year old American author’s recent first collection. McElroy is known (where he’s known at all) for the several massive, dense, formally challenging, and vaguely postmodern novels he dropped throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s(though he’s continued to write since then) including Lookout Cartridge (1974) (acknowledged by David Foster Wallace as an influence on Infinite Jest), Plus (1977) a novel written from the point of view of a disembodied brain housed in IMP, an Interplanetary Monitoring Platform floating in near earth orbit, and perhaps most notably his 1192-page opus Women and Men (1987), considered his masterpiece.

His language, at first glance, does indeed look difficult. Texturally, it resembles a species of stream of consciousness, and you will frequently encounter sentences such as the following (where X , an architect and evening cyclist sizes up the good Samaritan who helps him after he spills from his bike one night):.

Self-taught veteran you felt, wounded person (?), with one jagged half broken tooth –partners(he said-but you wondered) in this and the building backing onto it-semi-raw space from two city decades ago, how had it escaped? –who would talk himself out of a job you would bet.

There are sudden switches in perspectives, ‘endings’ that elliptically trail off in a sequence of disconnected images, and moments where the characters thoughts become so elusive and opaque(even to themselves) that the text becomes temporarily impregnable.

Now I know that sort of thing may not be everyone’s idea of a fun time with a book, but I would urge you to give McElroy a go. For all its challenges, this collection is stunning, some of the most alive and humane writing I’ve come across in years. McElroy’s formal complexity is always in service of his characters. By charting the sinuous, permuting flow of private thought as it wends its way toward public utterance, McElroy brings those characters alive in a way that makes more conventionally constructed characters seem flat and rote by comparison.

And for all its ‘experimental’ leanings, McElroy also writes gorgeously straightforward, exactingly accurate prose, and each story is peppered with casual little aphorisms

Abbod knew how to take orders. It was how you learned to give them.

and stunning descriptive moments. How about this throwaway line about a dog being walked in New York:

There passed an expensive dog, lanky, fragile, learning sort of flowingly to heel.

Or here, where a half-smitten character, looking in a mirror, imagines eavesdropping on his acupuncturist as she takes a phone call in an adjacent room:

She would be arrested before the shoji screen, its spiritual grid, the rosewood frame dyed black- and she was looking at the still water in the miniature pool, he could hear her thinking a divided thought under the eye of the caller, and his perspiring face in the mirror made him dizzy. It was a rival.

And then there is stuff that is pure poetry:

What is my job? To see what a child is seeing. However long it takes?
Time pounds the pavements and dissolves in a field of chances.

This last quote is from the collection’s first story, No Man’s Land, about the charmed, fleeting relationship between an underemployed poet, his teacher wife, and Ali, a sweet, bullied child of middle- eastern extraction. A story that could easily be cloying and satisfied with itself is made by McElroy into something enigmatic, generous, joyful, elegiac, and in its own way enthralling as we wait to see if each character achieves the connection they are stumbling clumsily and tentatively toward. These stories are worth reading because for all their formal and linguistic pyrotechnics, they ultimately deliver back to us the frequently confusing and banal, but occasionally rapturous and enduringly mysterious sensation of simply being alive.

Other recommendations of books I have recently read:

  1. The Fun Parts, Sam Lipsyte- scabrously funny stories of hapless fathers, dungeon and dragons playing teenage outcasts and apocalypse-prognosticating cult leaders delivered in Sam Lipsyte’s electric and outrageous prose.
  2. Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel – Babel, a Russian Jew, saw action during the Polish-Russian war in 1920, and later turned his experiences, recorded first as a diary, into the brutal and lyrical collection that is Red Cavalry. Compressed, intense and feverishly vivid, these stories in their panoramic fragmentation anticipate many great works of the latter half of the 20th century, from Denis Johnson’s Jesus Son to Roberto Bolano’s 2666 to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Genius.

Colin BarrettColin Barrett was born in Canada and grew up in Mayo, Ireland. His first collection, Young Skins, is published by Stinging Fly Press in Ireland and Jonathan Cape in the UK.

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