Re-opening Hind's Kidnap
Re-opening Hind's Kidnap
Joseph Milazzo writes about one of the least written about books by Joseph McElroy.
“Don’t end it,” she said.
If you respect the medium’s sequential mechanics, then these are the last words to be read in Joseph McElroy’s second novel Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs. And if you respect the notion that narrative “endings” render both whole and plausible (in the context of narrative, these two terms may be synonymous) all that has transpired in the development and resolution of the story’s conflict, then it is appropriate to ask, and with a measure of impertinence, just what sort of ending is at stake here. What manner of novel ends with such willful contradiction?
“Don’t end it.” Don’t end the novel? Hind’s Kidnap was published in 1969, the end of a decade in American letters in which so much narrative experimentation was brought to bear upon the “metafictional.” And McElroy’s debut - A Smuggler’s Bible (1966) - had already established him as a novelist capable of writing with originality, skill, and uncommon psychological sensitivity about the process of writing. Stylistically, tonally, Hind’s Kidnap can certainly be read as a transition between the pan-stylistic sumptuousness of that first novel and the more taut and excavating sentences of Ancient History (1970) and Lookout Cartridge (1974). I can almost visualize passages from both later books diagrammed on the green-tinted blackboard on my 6th grade parochial school classroom, their grammar transformed into schematics for new machines whose extremities are sharp, or scoop-edged, and can bear heavy loads. But where there is much science, from the hard to the speculative, in those books, there is not so much in Hind’s Kidnap. Instead, there is an abiding concern with things organic; well, make that “natural.” McElroy is never a humorless writer, but there is also an especially noticeable electric current of wit running throughout McElroy’s prose here, its zing and crackle that of an electric guitar amplifier left on but unconnected to an instrument, charging the very air that both constitutes and broadcasts its signals. This “buzz” switches between ambience and audibility, cacophony and harmony, according to our attentiveness (we angle our head, we tune in and out of other noises). Discovery and its corollary, shock (a subject to which McElroy has given much attention lately), are latent in every sentence. And, in fact, the novel is full of music - commercial jingles, Muzak symphonies, Albert Ayler skronk - pouring out of transistor radios and public address systems and hippie nightspots. And Morton Feldman once wrote: “Sound is our dreams of music. Noise is music’s dreams of us.” (2) Puns and homonyms proliferate, and there are as many pages of inspired babble on such subjects as an alternate Earth, industrial architecture, and physical fitness crazes as there are paragraphs suffused with lyric beauty. Characters who are anything but cardboard props are attached via pop-art word balloons to names such as Dewey Wood, Byron Bean, Mitchell Staghorn, Holly Roebuck, and Beulah Love. Metaphor has been stimulated into hypertrophy in Hind’s Kidnap, yet not one word in the book feels gratuitous or out of place. Yet whatever pleasures the book offers are tempered by the fact that those pleasures are complicit with acts of violence: of sundering, of retribution, of deprivation, of stunting, and of deception. The book is one in which playful surfaces screen somber recesses. In retrospect, retrospection being one act by which form is created, the most imaginative and the most captivating passages in Hind’s Kidnap are also most often the ones that “hurt” most acutely.
In the utterance “Don’t end it,” what sort of ending is at stake? What does the sentence mean? Don’t let the distress experienced by the novel’s still-maturing central characters cease? Surely not - or at least it is comforting to tell ourselves this cannot be. Despite the fact that, according to an old idiomatic expression, once extrapolated, to be growing is to be in pain. “Don’t end it.” How are these words said? Flipping back two or three pages, we see that “Don’t end it” does not come in response to any other dialogue. The “she” who says it is not engaged in any conversation, at least not yet. Perhaps “she” is out to instigate conversation. “Don’t end it.” A not-so-sure provocation: an angling. Yet McElroy, a champion describer, does not give us adverbial coloration. In fact, McElroy has removed as much context as possible here. He does not tell us anything about the speaker’s inflection, cadence, the volume at which she speaks, her posture, the kinetic punctuations and glosses of her hands and arms, eyes and neck and shoulders and hips. Nor can we rely upon any omniscient narrator to exposit upon all the words, unsaid, that surround this “Don’t end it” before, as, and after it is given voice. We can, instead, read the following negative speculations on the part of the person being addressed: “No pained grin. Not drunk. Not terribly tired. Presumably not with child” (534).
Yet, with no pronoun or other name to orient us, we could just as well assume that what we encounter with this preface to “Don’t end it” is a reference to the state of a consciousness other than the “she” of “she said” - a reference to, presumably, the consciousness of the auditor in this scene. But the last sentence fragment, with its allusion to pregnancy, must refer to “she,” mustn’t it? We do know for certain that there is a “she” who says “Don’t end it.” Using our readerly eyes as well as our readerly ears, we perceive that the mise en scène is a darkened apartment located somewhere in a building, somewhere upstairs from an undertaker’s, situated somewhere on a block of a street somewhere in a large city. Two people are in this “flat,” one having just arrived, humming during the initial steps of their ascent, while the other person has been here with us in the twilight of inner rooms for a while now. The latter person is seated, while the former is “she,” and “she” is standing at some distance to the rear of the seated person. She is “at his study threshold” (534). But does this he - and now some of the ambiguity of the “not”-leading qualifying clauses begin to resolve - turn to face “Don’t end it”? Or is “Don’t end it” said literally behind his back? (I’ve always thought so.) Whatever the case…we never know “his” reaction, we are only left with our own, which may or may not include speculations about how “he” receives “her” “Don’t end it”.
But I know surely that readers other than myself are dying by now to ask - in terms of the plot of Hind’s Kidnap, “don’t end” what? Before we inquire as to what “it” may be, we first have to establish who “she” and “he” are. “He,” the person told or asked not to end “it,” is Jack Hind, Hind’s Kidnap ‘s six-foot, seven-inch protagonist. The dominant consciousness in a McElroy novel is typically a person blessed with rare intelligence who is nevertheless quite incapable of surmounting whatever eminence blots his or her own character.
Individuals unaware of, uncertain of, slowly reaching into an awareness of, or borderline-truculently resistant to their own super-human or inhuman nature are frequently encountered in McElroy’s novels. David Brooke, the authorial intelligence dominating A Smuggler’s Bible, is a master projectionist; Cartwright, in Lookout Cartridge, has intimations of his own divinity; Attorney Daley (Actress in the House) has a “gift” or “quality,” even if it is one he barely comprehends and has difficulty commanding. Hind, no exception to this pattern, is arguably the most classically sculpted of these unusual men - or it feels that way because so often we do not even have the most basic sense of what McElroy’s protagonists look like. But we know Hind is tall, if not freakishly tall then tall in athletic proportions. (Hind’s past, though pointedly not his present, presents us with a figure at times reminiscent of Updike’s dissolute Adonis, Rabbit Angstrom.) And, if he had ever bothered to make the connection, Hind is tall in a family way… Hind also “feels” familiar to a contemporary reader such as myself who has been bombarded with the pop psychological type of “the fixer”: one who assiduously pursues his or her own denial via radical agency, doing for others because he or she fundamentally cannot do for him or herself. A simplistic notion when stood alone, nearly buckling and flopping back on its cardboard self, and certainly not a worthy interpretation for a novel this subtle in its development of character, but, yes, the idea is not so insubstantial and dull that we can’t use it to pare away the layers of behavior Hind exhibits. The apparent smoothness of Hind’s altruism is crazed with good intentions gone slack and even outright bad. Hind, though indubitably a man of stature, may appear to be tender in his concern for everyone, his compulsion to view himself as a “city shepherd” (10), but we also can sense his fierceness, his snapping, brittle intelligence. Hind is a particularly dynamic example of what McElroy himself (in his “Midcourse Corrections” essay) describes as “the wilderness wandering in the wanderer” (54). A potentially great man, Hind never does win my sympathy. But I do award him the full force of my concentration. It is common for us to claim we “admire” an individual, and that verb granting, rather than exposing our predilections more often than not grants us the opportunity to say, with the idea of sparing our audience, that the individual in question is impossible to love. Hind is definitely admirable. I myself feel closest to Hind at the moments where he is most wrong, just doesn’t get it, or when he chooses what I would not (want to) choose. Of course, I would not make some of Hind’s decisions simply in order to keep a guard on my own vulnerabilities. So, at times, I disagree with Hind on his own courage, because I question whether he understands the proper context for recklessness, at least the kind of obsessively blocked-out recklessness to which he is prone.
And “she”? “She” is Sylvia, Hind’s wife, a woman to whom, as well as a partner in a marriage to which we are introduced in the novel’s very first paragraph:
Hind surprised a tall old woman in his vestibule one morning shortly before the mailman came. He had hurried down the three flights of marble stairs, the heel of his palm on the cool black rail, his long legs wishing to play the stairs three at a time; for he was going round the block to his wife Sylvia’s to make up his differences with her - and he was late, though he had not told her he was coming. (1)
The sheer consistency of McElroy’s design infuses even these seemingly “functional” - expository - sentences with added significance. Especially if we consider the plot of Hind’s Kidnap unfolding to spread out into trompe l’oeil shapes of deduction in whose ultra-fine, coiled renderings themes of childhood and growth (the diction “play” and Hind’s height, hinted at in this glimpse of his long legs), as well as control and freedom (note the image of the extended hand), are surrounded. Hind is late only by his own calendar, and Sylvia, who surely has her own differences with her husband, may be in no state of mind to see them “made up”: that is, imagined anew, and probably in new permutations, even in the act of being redressed. Not to mention the fact that his differences as such cannot exist without her. (“Don’t end it” - don’t end this argument, then? Now that “we” are reconciled, or at least re-united, don’t end “our” marriage, which can embrace this difference - is almost certainly dependent upon it?) In fact, as the story opens, Hind lives in relative isolation: he has been separated from Sylvia and their daughter May for almost a year; his birth parents died when he was just an infant and remain virtually unknown to him; his legal guardian and single parent, John Foster, is also deceased; and he has drifted somewhat far away from old friends, individuals who have known him since he was a child, and their lives (or the intersection of their lives and Hind’s) have been consigned to troubles abbreviated in scrawl on a since-crumpled “to-do” list. So that when Hind chooses not to take advantage of that “page one” morning in question to unalienate himself from Sylvia, the reader has to be a little skeptical as to how well he comprehends his own situation. What Hind does choose to do is read the note left for him by the “tall old woman,” and it instructs him: “If you’re still trying to break the kidnap, visit the pier by the hospital” (1).
The definite article of “the” kidnap is critical, for now Hind’s solicitousness comes into sharper focus. Seven years before, a small boy, Hershey Laurel, was kidnapped from his country home under rather unusual circumstances. Jack Hind is not a sleuth, nor a police specialist or social worker, nor even a member of the extended Laurel family. Hind supports his unusual lifestyle by recording conversations, audio vèritè -style, for a radio program entitled “Naked Voice” (although it is never clear whether he is an engineer, a journalist, or simply a radio personality). Yet Hind had deeply involved himself in the case, collecting evidence, following leads, questioning suspects and witnesses. After the kidnapped boy’s parents, Sears and Shirley, were killed in an accident (as Hind’s own parents were) and even after the police had given up on the case, Hind had continued his search. But his “involvement” had placed a strain on his personal relationships. Hind had kept his kidnap investigation secret from his adoptive father, and the kidnap had so influenced his relationship with Sylvia that he transformed their European honeymoon into another occasion to try and track down, if not apprehend, the perpetrators and recover the boy. Yet while on this honeymoon, Hind’s guardian passed away unexpectedly. Since that time, Hind has suspended all activities related to the kidnap, but for reasons he cannot adequately articulate to himself. Unexpectedly, the cryptic clue left by the mysterious - if somehow familiar - elderly woman offers him a new opportunity to bring the Hershey Laurel case to a happier conclusion, and it is an opportunity he feels he cannot, as if it were a culprit, allow to escape. And so he begins again, with a dual goal: to free Hershey from his captors; and to make (earn?) his way back to Sylvia and May through the kidnap itself.
Hind felt his own role, part, assignment, relation, intervalence, interception, in all this was not worth weighing; the fact…was that Hershey had to be saved; if, moreover, Hind puzzled often over effects in him himself of his ministrations to others, still those ministrations in themselves were good. (143)
Initially, then, Hind veers even further away from Sylvia. Don’t close this distance? Don’t end this separation? Surely not; besides, such an endeavor is fraught with impossibility. For Hind’s mind cannot, “by any stretch of the imagination,” stray from his wife. Rather, she stays with him as he allows his pursuit to swing him into more distant orbits of associations and more frantic and strange uses of what time - in fact, 9 months (!) - is available to him. We collect glimpses of Sylvia as Hind gathers his kidnap clues, and she takes several guises: a memory; a model; a foil; a past and a future, but not much of a present; a witness whose interrogation must be deferred, even repressed, and guiltily so; a representative of “another life”; a nagging voice differentiated from Hind’s internally verbalized ideal of himself largely via the use of quotation marks; a salvation; and, most surprisingly, a personality that can seemingly enlarge of its own volition into a “mode of thought,” an effect McElroy admits was one he was “after” (“Neural Neighborhoods” 207).
But “Hold it!” Sylvia was always saying to his mind. But she knew she was buried so deep inside him he couldn’t hear her… Sylvia’s knowledge of Hind was always in his mind ready to work. (34)
Though his half-acknowledgement of the fact hardly deters him, Hind is aware that one of those differences “made up” between man and wife is the anomalous kidnap itself. The kidnap is anomalous, however, not only for the ways in which it erupts into Hind’s life but also (and it is Sylvia who tells us this) because “neither had ransom been asked nor a kidnap note received” (311). Moreover, the plain facts of Hershey’s disappearance insinuate that the kidnap was really a multi-purpose transaction between various adults - the Laurels, their country neighbors the Loves, and perhaps a third couple related to the Loves - apparently more interested in their exclusive satisfaction than the well-being of the child. One of the most difficult things to sort out through the layers of symbolic clues, pleonasms, confusions of langue and parole, and contrary narrative motion that structure Hind’s Kidnap are the facts of Hershey Laurel’s “case.” These facts are quite removed from one another, spatially, chronologically, and in the circumstances of their conveyance. Yet I don’t believe we are ever meant to come away from Hind’s Kidnap with anything more than an oblique view of what occurred to Hershey, and, indeed, some evidence seems to be in contradiction with other evidence. It would appear, at least to this reader, that Hershey is not so much stolen as much as he is given away. Taking Hershey away from one couple, the biological parents, might have satisfied a wish by another couple to be punitive, or it may have fulfilled a need on the parents’ part to abandon their responsibilities. The child might also have been used as a payoff to another childless and / or unhappy couple. Yet there is also the possibility that a third couple has acted as a go-between, shuttling the child away from “bad” old parents to new, “good” ones. That the motives for the crime may ultimately be boiled down to essences so venial, as well as venal, renders the kidnap more rather than less appalling. Hershey has been used as barter, a token in the very adult game of emotional extortion. Those involved have made specific, we may even say premeditated, choices; the kidnap is not something abnormal that has swooped, like the silhouette of ragged wings, over and into their lives.
The paradox is that, the more information Hind amasses, the more this process of culling and sorting implicates him in a failure to break the kidnap. To open it, to split it into its constituent parts. To label and to collate those parts and thus to master the whole to which they belong and which belongs to them - and in a specific arrangement. Hind cannot prove there was a kidnap, really, unless he locates Hershey Laurel. There is no lack of suspense in these matters. In fact, as Hind labors to find evidence that the kidnap has, in fact, not ended, and that there remains some course of action that will undo whatever injury Hershey Laurel has endured, he plays out the novel’s tensions in his own calisthenic person: flexing, swimming, dashing, climbing. Appropriately, one of Hershey’s likely “fates” will be that his experience will be “blight[ed]” (7) even as it is elevated to the level of the extraordinary, if only the extraordinarily awful. Hershey’s life will be abridged, condensed, edited, and filed away as a (pre)cautionary tale. A retrievable spook. Conversely, will the “freedom” Hind returns to or restores for Hershey be the freedom to learn that the people who have been his parents for the past seven years are, literally, criminals? At one point, Hind speculates on the possible outcomes of not finding Hershey, although he wonders if these “risks” have not been attenuated in the time since he himself abandoned the boy. Whereas the difficulties of what should happen if Hind does find Hershey Laurel… what decisions he, a complete stranger thrusting himself into the boy’s life, unwanted himself, and not a figure of any authority, would have to make at that point, what to explain, what additional action to plan, what counsel and comfort to offer, what role to assume, where to turn… are dismissed with, as we might say, “a wave of the hand” rather early on.
If Hind now, after one of those long delays in your life that are afterward inexplicable, went on and tracked the child, now older but still a child, what would happen? The value of the search needed no outside support. It certified itself. (62)
On the contrary, Hershey may already be more free than Hind suspects. Hind has so very much invested in seeing only one kind of kidnap, and one kidnap extending forever into the province of fate or destiny. For what if couples that “stick it out,” as Hind has it (491), for the sake of their children, do more sadistic harm than spouses / partners who confront their own limitations and work toward a more fair resolution of these difficulties? Child as irritant, child as that which comes between lovers; and, conversely, child as the sweetest fruit of a healthy marriage, child as treasure. What happens when the family unit itself becomes, as it so naturally can, a prison, abusive? Under what circumstances may the nuclear family itself be treated as a licit form of kidnap, a tortuously protracted crime of passion? What if a “traditional” kidnapping could be construed as an opportunity to be rescued from the mounting everyday disasters of family life?
“Don’t end it.” But if “it” is self-evident and self-validating, as Hind tells himself, doesn’t that presume some sort of conclusion, or at least sum-taking? The problem we face here is that the novel puts us in the position of raising all these additional questions. The omission of information which we might, in other stories or in the same tale told differently, presuppose to be crucial is a hallmark of McElroy’s fiction. So, among other matters, we can never know what answer Hind may propose to is wife’s “Don’t end it”. So perhaps we should turn instead to a different, if related (prior) question: can Sylvia be answered? Is it, finally, within Hind’s capacity to answer his wife? Or to answer May, another child he has forgotten? Hind has spent months avoiding Sylvia, and avoiding her, in one instance, by means of an affair with a female student at the city college where he temporarily assumes an old friend’s instructorship (and office hours, and generic identity) for the purposes of his investigations. So he owes Sylvia an answer, certainly. It is not enough - no, rather Hind’s Kidnap is not constructed so as to demand that just anyone say to its protagonist, “Don’t end it.” In fact, the old woman who has been leading Hind further and further into his persevering obligations to this “new” kidnap is, we learn, a relative, a cousin of Hind’s guardian - his adoptive father - whose love for that man is avaricious whereas Hind’s own is grateful and bewildered (there is something of Oliver Twist and Pip even in this giant) to a fault. More than Hind himself in some of his capacities, it is the old woman who wants him and his investigation to continue. But both her methods and her motives are repellant.
The strain of angry play in the Old Woman’s manner might mean she intended him to pay for something. But would he know what? Wasn’t it insane of her to acquire and then ration out these alarming Laurel facts? Yet she used them only as a means for something else, yet that too turned out to be a kind of means… [S]he flirted…with knowledge she wanted him to come so close to he would palpably reckon his failure to possess it. (426)
The substance of this “knowledge” (and it is more like an epiphany that a mere “sneaking suspicion” corroborated) is presented not thirty pages before Sylvia says “Don’t end it”. It is the strict, factual truth of Hind’s paternity - or, better yet, filialness - in a devastatingly offhanded way. Red Grimes is a professor of linguistics whose relationship with Hind’s guardian (also “Foster” or “Fossy”) is one of affable condescension and cruelty. It is hard to consider Grimes, one of the few major characters in the novel not to have a name possessing connotations of vegetative or animal life, a nemesis or even a villain, though Hind merely tolerates the man’s presence and Sylvia actively dislikes the “bastard” (277). If Grimes is not trying to humiliate the guardian at a lunch recalled by Sylvia, he is pestering Hind for the deceased guardian’s Ariosto (an early printing of Orlando Furioso?). When, finally, Hind consents to relinquish the book and Grimes arrives at Hind’s apartment to pick up the volume, Grimes’ small talk - consistent with all the other clues, “bracing and punitive hint[s]” (466), Hind has interpreted earlier in the book, even if Hind is loathe to recognize this one - reveals that he has known all along what Hind himself would deny by overlooking all the evidence of his own experience. Despite what devotion was lavished on him, the man Hind never admitted to himself could be called anything other than his “guardian”, the man whose relation to himself he deemed to be merely one of “deeply legal kinship… [unable to] grow” (466), was his biological, “real” father. Hind is the offspring of adultery. What was a distance between father and son has now been closed, but, in being closed, it has also solidified into a wall taller and thicker and more difficult to breach than (the Foster-father’s) death. Hind has constructed an empty simulacrum of a life, and worse, out of materials that he could have actually honored. It is not just the disappointment of finding one’s creation lacking, but of suddenly understanding how many opportunities have been missed, one of which is the opportunity to open oneself up and out to true complexity. Remorse does not factor into Hind’s response so much as a wonder that is paralyzing without ever achieving the status of awe. Or the remorse is at the expense of self-diversion to which Hind has been committed. Yet, the information about his guardian has been pouring into the deep reserves of his own mind since before the novel began, and pouring in from every conceivable source. What can be done with it? What communication, what argument, what reconciliation can there be with a dead man? About as much as there can be with a child over whose suspended identity the question of being wanted or unwanted thrives like algae on the surface of stagnant water. As much as there can be with a child whose absence from his family unit has become the matter of his very existence. Wait, wait… How and why did the kidnap belonging to Hind (Hind’s Kidnap) - as pastime, as obsession, as existential mandate - become the kidnapping of Hind (Hind’s Kidnap)? Shall we put an end to this conflation? Not hastily.
“Hasn’t he destroyed you?” (499) is Hind’s abjectly rhetorical question to himself when Grimes, ostensibly offering some sympathy, makes his shattering admission, “Confusing enough to be adopted by your own father. That would have given me enough to think about for my whole life” (499). The rhetorical question is immobility in action, or action arrested in all its agitation, a blur. And it is still interrogatory, even if Hind, ever the doer, does not expect to answer himself in introspection. Of course “he,” Grimes, has. But so has “he,” the guardian, destroyed Hind, by never telling having told him - confessed to his son - that he had an affair with Hind’s mother, that Jack Hind (his own name now a lie, for he is a Foster) was the product of secret passions neither man nor woman could overcome or divert. Hind’s hurt must hurt all the worse for spreading outward, not as a feeling transmitted, but as a feeling received. And Hind has also destroyed himself, if destruction is really what it is. For in building the kidnap he has undertaken the most perverse, because so ingenious, so passionate, and so outwardly generous, kind of destruction. That the novel continues at all beyond this incredibly private moment is something of an amazement. Isn’t it?
If an ending is a kind of culmination of sensations, then one of the sensations endings contain is the anticipation of new beginnings. The many symmetries of even the most intricately wrought artifices are nevertheless open, and open upon themselves. Yet what sort of artifice is Hind’s Kidnap? One could respond that Hind’s Kidnap is certainly a book for young people, or at the very least addressed to individuals facing the crises of being young but no longer so youthful. Indeed, it is fair to say that Hind’s Kidnap owes a much greater debt to the classic 19th century novel than it does to detective fiction: the picaresque aspects; the issue of legitimacy; the primacy of the family - that is, not so much the family’s intrinsic value, or the value inherent in any possible blood relation, but the mere fact that we are born into family as much as we are born into language, both structures always incipient; the meditations on what it means to live ethically, or, to be more cynical about it, to become “socialized”; the psychic tug-of-war between nature and nurture. “Don’t end it.” Don’t abandon the tradition of the novel, don’t end that tradition just yet, or arbitrarily? Possibly. But, viewed from a slightly less structural point-of-view, Hind’s Kidnap may be a response to itself by being an attempt to construct an epistemology of intimacy. Again, don’t end this novel? Paraphrased: don’t stop reading? Perhaps, but there is nothing more of Hind’s Kidnap to read unless one begins reading it again. Bound by this context, having “finished” Hind’s Kidnap, we may be not so initially surprised by this ending that at least sounds self-referential. “Don’t end it.” Despite what action it denotes or what imperative sense it would compose, the sentence seems to snap shut with a fitting inexorability. It feels like a realization, to be prefaced with “Of course,” or a sighing “I know, I know,” or even a slightly trembling “I’ve been thinking it over, and I just wanted to tell you…” Hind’s Kidnap, despite its density and ambition, feels like the kind of novel that requires closure measurable within conventional dimensions. A conclusion that states, “Don’t end it,” that it itself does not necessarily have to be, is also a conclusion that admits to its identity. Yet what sort of work, in defiance of common decency, neither accommodates its own ultimate demolition nor installs itself as a refuge from the debasements of the quotidian? The answer I feel best fits the question is this: Hind’s Kidnap is an allegory about allegories. Moreover, it is an allegory that would teach us the truth about the form, which is that it is very seductive, very engrossing, allows for epic-scope expressions and the probing of crucial issues at great length, but that, ultimately, allegory is reductive. Allegory diminishes us even as it tries so hard to celebrate what is absolute in our nature. Ultimately, implicit in every allegory is an admonition to resist the reductive nature of allegory’s operations.
To test the idea that Hind’s Kidnap is an allegory about allegorical systems, we can extend its hypothetical allegorical intent in as many directions as possible. Is this a novel about novel-writing, and is Hind a novelist? Hind’s life resembles that of a writer in its messiness, a chaos which derives some regularity from being the product of one’s most abidingly unbidden desires. Painfully cognizant of possibilities and their multiplications, Hind is haunted as much by the future as by the past. And the general state of his personal relationships should sting any writer with its familiarity. Hind’s intimacy with his friends is one of convenience, first for the extraction of material (clues), later for the purposes of personal redemption. Hind’s friends thus become mere appendages to his character. Yet Hind is aware of his duplicity and his near-pathological cleverness. He acknowledges that he is “quite shifty” (53). He knows that he is trying at all times to split the difference between being an actor and remaining an observer. And he knows that observance can be more manipulative than obvious overtures of intervention in those collective experiences we euphemize as “other lives.” Hind does not sum people up as much as he attempts to identify them with some media value of themselves; he removes the pins and screws and watches his friends drop into a heap of synecdochical quantities, then selects the sample that he will take for the whole. Demands on his time become demands upon his affections. Hind is, at one point, incredulous that anyone would classify him as charitable (403). He also inflates his own faults, or renders them self-fulfilling, as when he “confesses” to Sylvia that he is a bad husband and father (146). It seems a negative confirmation or statement of self-importance, this melodramatic extension of personal inadequacy, because the comment does not emerge from any context of injury he may have caused Sylvia and May. It will come to mean more than what it does when it is said, but that does not mean the comment is prophetic. Besides, Hind is thinking constantly of his family, and of the kidnap itself as an obstacle to being with them. Yet such concern, dormant and self-torturous, is a terrible thing in and of itself. If we were to meet Hind today on the streets of our city (or town), we might take him aside by the elbow and try to solve all his problems with the advice to “prioritize.” But it is not so simple as that. For Hind is also in love with circuitousness and uncertainty: with process. His self-absorption (like that self-absorption one finds in the primary actors in Eric Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs”), his faithlessness, and his fantasies. Much like a great story, Hind’s life may be exhilarating, but it is a life that also oscillates between sadism and masochism. Hind’s affair with Laura, an infidelity situated in a large section titled Faith, or the First Condition, can be understood according to this dynamic. In trying to connect his life back to Sylvia’s, it is Hind who breaks and curtails their bond and who forces himself to reach into places that are not so hospitable.
“Don’t end it.” Hind sits alone, late at night, at a dimly lit desk, his back to the world. He is weakened in some sense, shrunken, his self-regard as protective and bolstering as a plaster cast. This is freedom? This is what he could offer Hershey Laurel? He is poring over what appears to be a call log from the answering service he has been using as much to screen his calls as to record what possible conversations into which he declines to enter. Somehow, the log is transformed as we descend its length - it’s a scroll, I can picture it, rolled at only one end - into notes towards a biography of the guardian. Simultaneously, this shorthand also contains progress towards some final resolution of Hershey’s circumstances. As we have overheard Hind think earlier, “use the known names freshly” (29). At this moment of near-capitulation to the coercion of conclusion, Hind’s mind is what it was as the novel opened, “the equivalent of many ring binders full of data” (7). But by now, both his memory and his imagination have been jostled, and these contents have been dumped into disarray. Still, this is a result of the generative impulse that both obsesses and compels Hind. “Order” is the worst expression of the torments Hind experiences, and, in Hind’s Kidnap, the mind in pursuit of order is an unforgiving inspiration to itself.
[Hind and Sylvia are speaking.]
“Stick to your point. If I give up the kidnap it has to be finished.”
“If you give it up, it will be.”
“Just giving it up doesn’t finish it. You finish what you begin, or it goes on inside part of you.”
“Finishing sounds like killing off. Sounds like your guardian’s perpetual resolutions. And say, you didn’t begin the kidnap.” (342-3)
Late hours at home. A private room in this home turned even further towards the penumbra of solitude by the attentions that depend upon its ecology of silence and cool comfort. Further, a hue in these rooms of purplish twilight, light engorged with color but waning, light lurid but surreptitious. Drifting in it notes and fragments like failures of a now-elapsed present to attain existence; words meant for someone else, not the son Hind. “Destroy these files” - these are something like the Guardian’s last orders, his last advice, to his son. Or perhaps words spoken to no one, words recorded like one of Hind’s “naked” voices - as only sound, divorced from the physical reality of uttering bodies; “naked” also with the intent of telling us we have unmediated access to consciousness of the speaker; “naked” as vulnerable - yet intended only for themselves. All this is at least an apportionment of the writer’s seclusion. It need not be a writer’s lot. The writing self is not equivalent to the dark garret of Victorian anxiety / neuroses. Hind must be a writer. “Don’t end it.” Don’t stop writing, is that what Sylvia means? Don’t stop living with the Guardian? On the contrary. But wait: isn’t Hind here only deliberating whether or not to try and be a writer, not The Writer? To conceive of Hind as merely a writer only cul-de-sacs us back around to allegory and easy symbolic correspondences. Multiplicity doesn’t threaten Hind; it sustains him, even as it verges on subsuming him.
“Don’t end it.” Read, hear “end” not as an imperative, but as a subjunctive, as a usage holding in ambivalent suspension both the verb and noun forms of the word. End as terminus, and as extremity, end as aim, end as purpose, end as remnant, end as cessation. “Don’t end it”: don’t turn “it” into a justification for doing it. Don’t make “it” an excuse. Don’t cheapen “it” that way. And is this advice or desperation, from Sylvia, a poetic woman who protests she is no poet (331)? Is Don’t end it ‘s real meaning “you shouldn’t” or “please don’t”? In either case, there is an acknowledgment, if a fearful one, that some process has already begun. That it is too late. When we talk about fate, are we only talking about what has been bequeathed to us? Allegories subvert themselves; they are stories that culminate in such double, treble, quadruple… ends, having both a literal conclusion as well as an objective one. This latter aim is to edify, and, in many instances, to acculturate. If we really could compress allegory itself into a formula. One to one, one by one, two in one.
And one of the things that does happen as Hind goes on is that he begins, if not to dehumanize - for the book is more than ambivalent about “humanism” - then at least to reify everyone whom he encounters, to the extent that each person becomes significant only in terms of some “other,” supreme meaning he or she embodies but cannot voluntarily surrender. Friends become “material.” Hind is compelled to bring these clues to the center of his existence before he can believe they are clues, and he does so by believing his friends, neighbors, and acquaintances unsuspectingly “possess” clues he must induce them to manifest. At the same time, he fears that the clues may pose a danger to them; only he has the ability to neutralize that danger, to make the proper use of the information he so desires. Only he, tall and saintly Jack Hind, has access to what ancient Greek scholars called hyponoia, the “hidden thought” beneath the surface of a given text.
Hind was thinking now that the clue-carriers didn’t necessarily know they were. (125)
If Hind did not reach Phil soon enough, Phil might misuse his clue.
Would he know it as a clue? (158)
So Hind personifies clues as people rather than vice versa, and would even want to see each individual’s personality and predicament as integral to the clue, but he can’t have it both ways. To personify people is pretty redundant, isn’t it? Even those names enumerated earlier take on allegorical heft. Yet to transform one’s life into a didactic design, and subject one’s future to the principles of determinism… that seems such an unforgiving discipline for which to make sacrifices. Nevertheless, don’t life and fiction and even fictional life all require some purpose? Or, as Hind comprehends it, what is the relationship between means and ends? “There are so many other mysteries in a person besides the one we use him for” (216).
“Don’t end it.” Hesitate. Don’t wrap it up, “put it to bed,” don’t make any sudden, premature movements. Don’t synopsize or summarize. Don’t truncate it. To treat each imagined kidnap as a facet of a master trope is to deny the fullness of each crime’s true exigencies. “Don’t end it”: don’t end Hershey’s life by giving up. Don’t end your chance to become a “savior” (29). But as much as Hind may be trying to recover a past existence, Hershey’s childhood elapsing with each passing day in captivity, he does so at the expense of making a new life for himself. There is little room for Sylvia, May, and the Guardian, the people most governing his heart and his behavior, in this new life.
As I am against narrowness, so I find I am against allegory. It is choice I make both within and through my living with Hind’s Kidnap. “Don’t end it”? Don’t end the allegory Hind has made of his life? Guardian equals Masculine Ideal. Hind’s own marriage is The Troubled Union. Hershey Laurel serves alternately as the Endangered Child and as Irrevocable Youth. Those friends-of-Hind are the Treasures of Companionship sunken beneath the codified maneuvers and this-for-that physics of some oceanic Game (much like to one the guardian himself foisted on little Jack and his friends). Meanwhile, the victims’ lives are more and more being made to resemble a fiction as it is being composed and revised. If one ideal life is for life to resemble (reproduce?) narrative as closely as possible, then does the recovery of order, of balance, of what is “right” and “just,” a restructuring of the future so that it follows more naturally from the past - does this justify the sort of transgressions required of heroes, of detecting intelligences? Again and again, is anything and everything allowed in the name of creation?
Canvas all chances - still you knew in the shallows of your clammy skin that it was Sylvia, alone. She hadn’t lit the green-shaded landing light; so, now inside, creaking over the floor, she was very dark. But then she was alone at his study threshold, her eyes in the mild overflow of his Anglepoise violet.
No pained grin. Not drunk. Not terribly tired. Presumably not with child. “Don’t end it,” she said. (534)
Who is “she” really? What comprises her person? Although it took me a number of readings to understand the how and why - there is no shortage of anamorphosis in Hind’s Kidnap - Sylvia’s identity is, literally, is the central mystery within the book. The climax of a McElroy novel, so often turning on the idea that what we as readers learn is not always what McElroy’s characters learn, including the fact that we readers may learn something in spite of what they have learned, often leaves one with a feeling comparable to that feeling of knowing someone so well that one finally gains a measure of the sheer volume of all that one does not know about this other person. To the list of things Sylvia “is” constructed earlier, to be added - or perhaps taken away - are: a voice on the other end of the telephone; a sample of handwriting on a letter dictated by little May (one of the children who has not accompanied Sylvia to Hind’s, formerly their, apartment on this night when she tells him “Don’t end it.”); a gold-lame bag left in Hind’s closet; a double entendre about an old lady thrown up at him as Hind tries to get information from one of his acquaintances. Most crucially, for nearly 100 pages, situated at the very heart of the book, Sylvia’s voice is the only voice we hear. Perhaps the novel is really hers after all: of her making, her possession. Or Sylvia is the novel, the source of that 3rd person “limited omniscient” narrative voice we have heard all along.
Sylvia’s words, whether only thought or bodily expressed, spool out - they thread far along a shining and fluid edge, not evoking ribbons for her hair or tape slickly viscid with magnetic particles - in what is meant to be real time. Reunited for little May’s birthday as the novel’s first section closes, Hind hurriedly arrives at Sylvia’s retreat, and, exhausted by his fatherly duties, soon falls asleep. But, unlike Hemingway in his “Big Two-Hearted River”, McElroy does not pause the story and bifurcate it. Suddenly, the story is no longer reliant upon his consciousness. As Sylvia speaks, or dreams out loud, or…it is not all that clear… you see, Sylvia can sound very much like Hind, as if, actually, he only dreamed her. Or perhaps what we are reading is not a transcription of Sylvia’s innermost (i.e., confessional), late-night thoughts, partly voiced, partly unvoiced, neither interior nor exterior but both, but what we are presented with is a mingling of words spoken by her and meaning wishfully heard by her semi-conscious, determined, lonely, kindly philandering husband. We must be prepared to entertain this possibility, for, by the next morning, Hind’s memory of all the strange things his estranged wife has told him is already confused: “her talk off and on in the night like broken comments on their bodies” (338). This monologue, then, begins as a bedtime story about Hind for May, but the husband drifts off just as the daughter does, and the story changes shape, but only so much, for we know that May “endured fairy tales politely but preferred thrice-told true tales of Hind’s and Sylvia’s childhoods” (81). The later she awake, the more Sylvia does tells us things Hind seems never to have known. If we trust that Hind is sleeping, he still does not know her divulged secrets: her dependence upon her father, her craving for his love, her searching for a place in her own family; her attitude towards being an object of desire (and a subject of portraiture); her aesthetics; her feelings of inadequacy; a near-death experience she had as a child; many other wondrous things. And, where’s Hind’s is unconsciously so, Sylvia’s complicated story is a self-conscious negotiation among many different intents and outcomes, which is, put pedantically, what Hind himself could most stand to learn regarding narrative. Only not yet. “Don’t end it.” Has it been misplaced, displaced, from where it belongs at the end of Sylvia’s “chapter”? Perhaps. From her position outside Hind’s case, Sylvia can see that the fulcrum of the allegorical form is a function, implied only but nonetheless exceedingly potent: to assign a single identity to a person (including ourselves), a single meaning to an experience, is to perform an act of violence, and to deny ourselves an understanding of the mutual responsibilities that may and do bind us all.
…those Laurels so vivid to you not me, who now stand in my mind behind no one but beside everyone else. (312)
…like your own spirit that obeyed the guardian’s but only by means of wild variations and departures on it… (312)
I will try to drive Daddy out of you… (321)
I may not know who I am, but I know a lot about myself. (329)
Listen again: by virtue of being unadorned, “blunt,” Sylvia’s “Don’t end it” is also not demure, not capitulatory, not fatalistic, not pitiful, not nagging, and not selfless. It is, I think, a very complex, very conditional gift of and, simultaneously, demand for acceptance. With such reciprocity in mind, I can hear “Don’t end it” also as an expression of desire, and primarily for collaboration. Collaboration meant not just in the sense that marriage is, ideally, a partnership. Recall, too, that “Work with me,” and “Let’s work it out,” are more often than not last resort overtures in any troubled romantic relationship. Sylvia is a reader, like us, but unlike us, she is also a Hind, so the novel’s title could refer to the process by which, finally, she is included - somewhat against her better judgment - into this novel. If A Smuggler’s Bible describes a reintegration of the self, a singular consciousness, through narrative operations, then Hind’s Kidnap is about the creation of an entire existence, a “system” embracing more than the self, through a re-imagination, over and over again, of what we know as personal history. As the novel ends, without finality, Hind and Sylvia are united in a common cause, some shared “it” that is not simple engrossment in one another. Nor is “it” some allegorical contraction of a male-female balance into the symbolic. Sylvia’s story is at stake here, and has always been inextricable from the “work” Hind, even in the process of retreat and dismantling - “de-kidnapping” - that occupies the novel’s final third, inhabits as much as this bachelorized apartment he would call home. Rather, the Hinds / the Fosters / Sylvia and Jack are now positioned, by virtue of that “Don’t end it,” in confrontation with a world that exists outside themselves. Sylvia has the last word, just as she was the first reason Hind had to move. “Don’t end it.” “Don’t get rid of me. You already let me in, a long time ago; there is no getting rid of me. I am here to stay.” “Don’t end us, our life together.” “Don’t end anything” - which, in this novel, is the same as offering “Don’t end everything.”
Feldman, Morton. Give My Regards To Eighth Street: Collected Writings. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000.
McElroy, Joseph. Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.
—–. “Midcourse Corrections.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 10.1 (Spring 1990): 9-55.
—–. “Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts.” TriQuarterly 34 (Fall 1975): 201-17.