Front to the Future: Joseph McElroy's Ancient History

Front to the Future: Joseph McElroy's Ancient History

Ian Demsky

Ian Demsky on Joseph McElroy’s Ancient History and welcome interruptions.

Joseph McElroy’s Ancient History: a paraphase is a novel of points, distances, and measurements. “It is open-ended like a circle that’s only a moving point whose centrifugal trail fades behind it,” as the main character, Cyrus, writes to the recently suicided intellectual, Dom, after breaking into his apartment (6-7). Through this letter, which will never be read by its intended audience, Cyrus triangulates the distance between himself and the deceased Dom with reference points in their overlapping histories. Two points make a line, but it takes three to map a plane - and many overlapping planes to constitute a field. [ link to William Smith Wilson on McElroy’s “field novel” - eds. ]

Characteristic of McElroy’s work, the individuals in the novel exist within fields of “coordinate equality,” an acknowledgment that our cultural and personal shapes and patterns are consciously hewn from and imposed upon the impersonal and alien equidistance of Things. Could it be a coincidence that the father of Cy’s friend Al, with whom he spent boyhood summers in the country, ultimately ceded to him the connect-the-dots puzzle in the Heatsburg Hour newspaper? “The immediate case was the carelessly executed - or anyway sloppily dotted - picture whose solution I didn’t really see how I’d known…” (61). Cy explores (on Dom’s paper, with Dom’s pen) his potential role in the McLuhan/Mailer figure’s demise, to which he may have contributed by stealing letters from Dom’s family from the mailbox in their shared apartment building. He plots the points for (A)l, (B)ob, (C)yrus, (D)om, (E)v, his wife, and (E)mma, their daughter, (F)red Eagle, the librarian, (G)ail (or (A)bigail, Al’s sister), etc. The lines he draws between them are his attempt to puzzle things out.

Cy can only know his position by knowing the distances between other points, such as his childhood friends Al and Bob, whom he has never allowed to meet. “If I kept them apart thinking they wouldn’t hit it off, I kept close to you Dom” (141). Cy quickly realizes that his mathematic is not stable when used to measure the tenuous phlebography of human lives. “If the points and lines would only stand still my parabolic arc would be fine,” he writes. “But how can you stay equidistant from something that’s cut itself loose from the foreseeable future?” (155).

As Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty states: The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known. This is the problem with trying to be an outside observer of one’s own life: to know where one is, is to lose sight of where one is going. As in the case of the centrifugal circle, if you fix the point, you lose the shape the circle makes with its motion; and if you try to see the circle, the point disappears. Or, as Cy writes, “to wholly grasp it would be to wrongly fix it” (142). It is the interpenetration of fields, of characters in the phases of their “ancient histories,” that allows the reader to grasp at the connection between Dom’s leap from a window during a student protest and Bob’s leap, years earlier, from a study hall classroom. All points in past time and space become equal, without hierarchy or emphasis, until they are woven into a personal web. “No neat ushering from present to past,” Cy writes. “[I]t’s all equal” (33).

Here the reader must allow me to interrupt myself, just as Ancient History is interrupted when visitors to the apartment take away Cyrus’ first pages while he hides behind a curtain. Perhaps I am following Dom’s Code of Welcomed Interruption, which “sprang from [his] sense that our state is now a Field-State of InterPoly force Vectors multimplicitly plodding toward Coordinate Availability and away from the hierarchical subordinations of the old tour-de-force antropols…” (141).

For a long time, I had difficulty articulating what it was about McElroy’s writing that I found so captivating, so important. I found some help in an unlikely place: the introductory note to the second book of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Balthazar. “Modern literature offers us no Unities,” Durrell wrote in 1957, “so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition” (9). Durrell’s desire was to bring the world of literature into sync with a universe freshly minted by modern scientific understanding. “It would be worth trying an experiment to see if we cannot discover a morphological form one might appropriately call ‘classical’ - for our time. Even if the results proved to be a ‘science-fiction’ in the true sense” (9). It was not the content of literature Durrell sought to reform, but its structure on the deepest levels.

This is McElroy’s gift. He has given us a new, classical form, one that is more attuned to our present understanding of the world, which grows ever more uncertain, distant, and mysterious, even as the veils shrouding it continue to be lifted by scientific exploration.

Interrupting my interruption -
As the story develops, as the interconnections in the histories of Al, Bob, Cy, and Dom are fleshed out, we can see that the individuals themselves become more distant. Going back to our centrifugal circle, because it is impossible to see the point and the circle at once, one must shift perspectives continually to have any sense of the multiplicity of the whole. To shift between a view of the whole (circle) and the specific (point), one may need to increase or decrease the intervening distance. The observer - the reader - will have to accept a state of motion and uncertainty.

“All confessions are fantastically banal - even how I may have mildly affected your end,” Cy writes to Dom. But these so-called banalities (butterflies flapping their wings in Burma), which range from Cy’s stolen Junior Corona typewriter to Bob’s pinkeye on Al’s 12th birthday that kept them from meeting, must be taken in their relationship to the greater field (where typhoons may develop). Each of these events must be measured against others to be understood.

“Dom, if you can hear me, have you ever thought that maybe you’re simply a subconscious and that you belong to some unknown person far around you? Or in that unknown being a small central empty space?” (56). These questions from Cy take us to the heart of our engagement with the novel. The story, in book form, exists as a potentiality, coming alive only and existing only in the distances between all its unknown and far-flung readers. But isn’t that why we read in the first place, to interrupt our lives, to better measure the distances between the world and us, to plot ourselves in the greater field?


Works Cited

Durrell, Lawrence. Balthazar (1961). New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

McElroy, Joseph. Ancient History: A Paraphase. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.