Strange Patience: the Fiction of Joseph McElroy

Photo of Josephy McElory.
Photo of Joseph McElroy by Joann Jovinelly via Flickr. Used with permission.

My first run-in with Joseph McElroy didn't go well. Johnathan Carroll included an epigraph from McElroy's Women and Men in his 1988 novel Sleeping in Flame. But somehow I managed to conflate him with crime writer James Ellroy — and was deeply disappointed when Ellroy's rat-a-tat prose failed to offer up lines like: "Isn't that a large shadow on the road running parallel to us or our dream? Is it loaded?"

Later, as a grad student, I "rediscovered" him on a list of postmodern writers, among names like Pynchon, DeLillo and Gaddis. And while I no longer have the stamina to wade through the massive, crunchy tomes typical of that group/era, I frequently return to McElroy's works — and continue to devour everything he publishes.

I started with McElroy's Plus (1977), a science fiction story told by a brain in space, and was immediately captivated by his line-level wizardry, his ability to create shifting and uncertain tableaus.

Plus opens:

He found it all around. It opened and was close. He felt it was himself, but felt it was more.

It nipped open from outside in and from inside out. Imp Plus found it all around. He was Imp Plus, and this was not the start.

Now in his 80s, McElroy last year published his ninth novel, Cannonball, a subtle and complicated story with the Iraq War at its heart.

For me, his second, third and fourth books are the real standouts:

  • Hind's Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (1969) — in which the protagonist obsessively tries to unravel an old kidnapping.

  • Ancient History: A Paraphase (1971) — which, in a 2004 festschrift of McElroy's work, I called "a novel of points, distances, and measurements." The novel opens with the main character breaking into the apartment of a Mailer-esque intellectual who has recently killed himself.

  • Lookout Cartridge (1974) — a paranoid mystery surrounding the destruction of an art film. (The New York Times called it "the rarest kind of achievement.")

Here's the full list of McElroy books available at the library, and a round up of some other recent efforts to introduce him to a wider audience: