On Joseph McElroy’s Fiction as a lifelong, dramatic investigation of noesis - that abstract but
evocative concept rooted in Platonic idealism and redefined(through Phenomenology) as
those ineluctable acts of consciousness that constitute reality.
A Poetry of Noesis
A Poetry of Noesis
On Joseph McElroy’s Fiction as a lifelong, dramatic investigation of noesis - that abstract but
Just like our lives, Joseph McElroy’s novels reward those who accept narrative that is honest and courageous enough to engage in as many of the manifold qualities of existence as one necessarily endures. This acceptance - or commitment - is to experience one’s self as energy.
Against prevailing habits of glib simplicities, arid aestheticism, and spiritual pessimism, McElroy’s writing continues to restore, to the American self and to American fiction, those complex energies of overwhelming potential, much the way Nietzsche celebrates his own theories of art as tapping “the mysterious foundation of our being, whose phenomena we are” (Birth of Tragedy).
For over four decades, McElroy’s innumerable characters, his voracious novels, and his grammatical and linguistic explorations, not to mention his willful readers, have adhered to the letter of Rilke’s famous dictum that we should live out the questions. His novels are not full of events any more orderly than actuality. Nor are they contained by time. Rather, in book after book, his writings are dramatic investigations of noesis - that abstract but evocative concept rooted in Platonic idealism and redefined by philosophers (through Phenomenology) as those ineluctable acts of consciousness that constitute reality.
If reality is made up by acts of consciousness (consciousness which, in turn, informs will), then stories (and the language and narrators of stories and even the form of the novel itself) should dramatize how reality comes to be what is made of it by the minds and bodies within it.
A writer’s obsessive concern with perception and cognition as matter for fiction is not new. It dates back to the Book of Job and Don Quixote. But when the constructing consciousness supplants the more familiar physicality of the world as the abiding energy of stories, the results lead to forms of literature and experiences of reading that dramatically disrupt one’s dreary illusions about identity and time and thrillingly transform one’s sense of reality back into that something which it is at all times: quandary, transformation, and self-invention. We see noesis as central to fictions such as Poe’s story, “The Man of the Crowd,” in Kafka’s The Castle, in Melville’s astonishing “Bartleby the Scrivener,” in Henry James’ “In the Cage” and Faulkner’s Pylon, and in postwar literature, through the French nouveau roman as represented by Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur, and Claude Simon’s The Grass.
A writer necessarily concerned with the mental acuities and cognitive refinements that constitute the life-work of his characters and their worlds is essentially a poet of emotional intensity and tangible intimacies. For all the comparisons made between Joseph McElroy and half a dozen other brainy American novelists of the Information Age, not one of them comes close to achieving so consistently the emotional truthfulness and the zealous humanism of McElroy’s work. [see, for example, Paul Gleason’s on the contrasts between McElroy and Don Delillo. - eds.]
It all started in A Smuggler’s Bible, where David’s creations of his self through projections into others come up against the re-creations of David by those other selves, forcing David (and the hyper-narrators of that novel) to appreciate (as the reader must) how one can best understand the “shadow of [one’s] own designs” by reading one’s inchoate surroundings ever more carefully. The paradoxical strength of A Smuggler’s Bible is in how well it dramatizes David’s emerging fluency at articulating his existence and in understanding his motives and destinies even as he fields endlessly contradictory and oblique messages from those close to him - his fellow passengers on the ship, fictionalized memories of fellow residents of the Kodak Hotel, his evolving relationship to his new bride, his mother’s overbearing letters and telegrams, his dying father’s oblique communiqués, and the competing yet inter-related interactions with like-minded intellectuals and assorted strangers and fellow collectors waiting back in Brooklyn Heights. The people in David’s circuits reveal more of their truths precisely because of David’s creative attention to them. He learns how such creative construction (or noeisis) carries with it certain consequences beyond one’s individual consciousness, so that “to be too good a listener is to encourage that kind of contact” (407).
That kind of contact.
Like the contact in Plus, as the orbiting human brain communes (“do you read me?”) with engineers on earth (“acrid voice”) and thus undergoes a neurologically-based growth that manifests itself in a simultaneous re-birth of language and a human body, in “wendings, falderals, shearows, morphogens…new words for what he had become” (142).
Plus dramatizes noesis in its purest and most compressed form.
But the beautiful contradictions and bewildering conclusions of the constructing consciousness also electrify the prose of McElroy’s three massive novels that precede Plus - Hind’s Kidnap, Ancient History: A Paraphase, and Lookout Cartridge - three thrillers in which male heroes attempt to solve, respectively, a kidnapping, a suicide, and a theft, only to find their quests conflated with information systems and personal histories they bear within their consciousnesses (as we all do). Whether those frames of reference are cryptic genealogies or analog computer programs, lost love affairs or missing and neglected children, the drama in those books flowers forth in how the characters negotiate these multiple fields of knowledge and feeling (all at once) in order to solve the particular mystery which set them in motion in the first place.
Even in the bildungsroman, The Letter Left to Me, the main character reads from (or into) the unending interpretations of his dead father’s cliché-ridden letter, those “facts which might be just my comfort in the page - an appetite making mysteries…or exotic endlessness” (88). What the boy reads in the disparate interpretations and reactions to the letter are clues and insights he uses to outwit or to manage the agendas of those adults around him (including his dead father) who exert repressive, often physical control over this boy’s “privileged” existence.
Reading the world is necessary to living your way into it. It is also essential to any serious writing.
Rather than taking place in some fiction called “time,” the stories of our lives unfold within spaces of dramatic intensity so momentary that we need a fiction in which every sentence contains within it the awareness and the conflicts and the doubts of both a moment and an entire life.
In Actress in the House Daley realizes that, for his lover Becca, sexual abuse is not a static condition that will “heal” or that happened once upon a time. Rather abuse is mysterious in its causes and elusive in its effects, especially when one tries to translate such experience into language: like much of what happens to us, abuse is an echoing experience that is always and at every moment being processed by the self which (still) experiences it. The dynamics involved in such a processing of experience are essentially what draws people to people, as Daley is drawn to the abused actress who, through her play/fictions on the stage and in Daley’s house, re-presents those acts of consciousness within her family that shaped for better or worse the young woman she is. Daley reads her carefully, as he witnesses her
story, the truth there, the mother’s gold comb lost with grease and hairs stuck in it, curled on the child’s bed, Mom manipulating the family story not telling you who it was left the note for Dad under the front door till the point where we learn how angry he got when our little girl spilled marshmallow on her shoe and then the mother brings up the note; yet the suspense is when, when will she gather her little girl into her arms, the sweet smell on her breath, the sweat of her loins. A little girl who was found. (189)
Within this single sentence, Becca’s mother and father, the girl Becca was and the woman she has become, as well as Daley’s own mind and his own desire, compete in converging acts of cognition that affect every subsequent sentence (and act and consequence) in the novel. And, as the book’s open ending suggests, far beyond the frame of the novel.
With its contemporary energy, its focus on noesis inherent in personal intimacy and its obsession with how contemporary lives in Manhattan reveal histories across the continent, Actress in the House could easily have worked its way into the countless “stories” that make up the overall “building” of McElroy’s most ambitious project, Women and Men.
Like the thousands of New York City tenements whose purpose is to house ever-changing residents, Women and Men is a structure of stories in the architectural and literary senses of the word, containing within one overall space those many spaces (stories, dramas) which depict how New York City came to understand itself through social, economic, technological, and political upheavals of the mid-1970s.
Women and Men can be read as one book (one building) of collected stories and can also be read as an intimate epic poem about two particular characters coming to grips with femininity and masculinity in the midst of a cast of thousands. This vital intimacy of Women and Men has been lost in the hyperbolic appraisals of McElroy’s handling of scientific knowledge and cross-disciplinary information systems. Critical readings of Joseph McElroy’s work, so often compared to, say, that of Thomas Pynchon, tend to overlook how much McElroy has in common with Grace Paley, herself a rigorous, avant-garde practitioner of complex fractured fictions. Paley, like McElroy, is a savvy surrealist of New York’s mental neighborhoods and a proponent of how, as she says, “history happens to you while you’re doing the dishes.”
Sixteen of the “stories” that make up Women and Men appeared independently in literary magazines over the course of ten years (during the 1970s heyday of the American short story), culminating in the 1981 limited edition novella Ship Rock and in several stories in The New Yorker, one of which earned McElroy both O. Henry and Best American Short Story prizes. And it’s in these stories that perhaps one can most accessibly appreciate the cognitive accomplishments of McElroy’s complicated novel.
Journalist Jim Mayn pursues information regarding stories on environmental policy and pollution in the Southwest, meteorological phenomena, Chilean political exiles, the George Foley Economic Plan, and the roots of those Navajo (and Ojibway and Anansazi) myths that inform his childhood and now increasingly inform his spirituality here at his mid-life. And as Mayn pursues these stories around America, he is also coming to terms with the stories of his own New York neighbors and the closer-to-home stories about the important women in his past, for example when Mayn realizes how he
chose to be friends with his grandmother - but friends instead of relations or something else unknown to him - having never told her he wasn’t friends with her. Which maybe he never had not been. It wasn’t her fault his mother had taken herself away; and his grandma had been there all along regardless of any view of his; and he even fell thoughtfully in love with his grandmother again, but was more aware of time now, so in knowing his feeling like a man was O.K. but a little early and tough though it didn’t feel tough, he did all over again feel like a man. (800)
The urbane and hip neighbor whom Mayn never meets, Grace Kimball is busy helping an entire cast of Manhattan women (some of whom intersect with Mayn’s acquaintances) come to terms with the untapped freedoms of their gender. That noesis which Kimball explores is more forward-looking and light-footed and even more intricate than Mayn’s self-study. But it is no less serious, even in her infinite, wise-cracking epiphanies, such as
give yourself back your head, a dayful of head coming to a point of nothing but Love/Power cluster: which drew in along her Black-Dude-street-walk an interesting Old Couple, and not married, she was certain, but deep - and they had story - what is your trip? (Grace went), projecting her mind to new people. (105)
Because they live near though not with neighbors, in the same house but not the same homes, and cross paths physically and psychologically, the characters live out the neo-realist magic of Women and Men: their creating consciousnesses are revealed to the reader and revealed to themselves and to the other characters through a chorus of shifting narrative voices that very personally and directly articulate the novel. Thus the book comes alive with the energies of a city (a novel) by becoming a city itself - a network of impulses, habits, will-powers, accidents and gestures of thought of inhabitants inhabiting one another in ways which they frequently if inaccurately come to know.
Just as, in the opening story of the novel, a woman in the process of recalling the painful birth of her first child over strawberry daiquiris detects in her memory’s creative details a series of unhappy perceptions of her husband’s helpless distance from her brutal pain that day in the delivery room. As her story unfolds on the page as much as in her active mind, the drama spirals upward to a sweet acceptance of her husband’s bond (“She found on his face a pursed-lip fixity sharing her pain, she knew he shared it. It was love”). Her series of recognitions unfolds as the childbirth itself happens, so that the couple’s physical transformation is paralleled by a birth in knowledge of their greater closeness and their acknowledged distance. Thus the story closes with the woman hearing the “poor flippancy” of her husband’s version of the childbirth. Yet, out of respect for her husband’s “version” of the childbirth, “she did not turn to look him angrily in the eye” (7). A story of a birth and, for the couple, uneasy re-birth.
As in birth so in death. Much later in Women and Men, a character confronts the news of his impending death which has just been phoned in by his doctor. How the mind might register such information is a major technical and dramatic challenge for a novelist, and McElroy’s handling of the titanic shift in this man’s understanding of himself is masterful: “The news has a future so pressing that his first thought was that he didn’t need to do anything. That is what he doesn’t need. He doesn’t need to do anything. But he doesn’t have time in which not to do anything. His thought has a funny side to it, and he weeps” (1054). His thought’s “funny side” is that fresh energy he’s bravely allowing to change and to enrich him even as it threatens the worst form of the unknown: it is “funny” for its awesome strangeness. The man’s ruminations do not lead to the predictable “action” of sharing this information with his loved ones to whom he immediately speaks on the phone. Rather, the story builds its tensions from the more complex cognitive “actions” of how the man is living into unanswerable existential questions such as “Has he ever done nothing?” and “Isn’t the news positive?” The real “news” here, as it is throughout the novel, is how, through our searching questions and unrelenting attentions, we begin to handle life in more interesting ways and thereby find new purposes for being alive. So the man
dials his second wife and sees that a child of his might answer and today he hangs up. He feels good. He doesn’t need to do anything. He has to do everything… The buzzer is going to go in a minute, and there is someone or something else not unfriendly but interesting here in the apartment. (1055)
Unfolding in slow motion as the man lets in the super’s daughter to repair an electrical socket, the chapter culminates with the man not telling anyone his news, including the super’s daughter. Completely shared knowledge, the man knows, is a fiction. He decides that the news of his looming death is his, but that the news of this new energy loosed within his life is something he can share (and shares) with the super’s daughter. So he confesses to her, “This is a big day for me… I found out I was interested in myself,” to which the girl poignantly advises the man: “Go with it” (1058).
Go with it. An expression perhaps more common in 2004 than it was thirty-odd years ago when McElroy began inventing his own language for the American mind’s relation to such possibilities of being. This “it,” in Go with it, like McElroy’s endless streams of indirect pronouns, captures the ambiguities of language wherein characters give a name to their creative and problematic engagements with the unknown. The tensions involved in naming are often the heart of the matter, even in McElroy’s non-fiction. Witness McElroy the essayist urging his own writing self onward as he writes about the horrific collapse of the World Trade Center, witnessed eight blocks from his own front door: words as slippery as thoughts, hopefully accurate in how they define even the most grueling actualities: “Testimony, hopefully. Putting it like a thought together, making something of it. Of oneself. A woman struck down and killed by part of the South Tower plane’s wheel” (” 9/11 Emerging “).
Not much of the news or tension or conflict in Women and Men hinges on death. But the news is always as large as death. In “The Future,” when the Manhattan diner in which a divorced woman and her precocious son have been sharing a meal gets held up at gunpoint, the actual and very pressing violence of the robbery itself (though harrowing) cannot compete with the intensity of feeling and language that transpires between mother and son; by the time her son sets off to bed, the memory of the hold-up dissolves in those domestic harmonies achieved through the honest self-revelations that both characters have exchanged throughout the story; so the chapter ends in a reciprocal moment of self-understanding for mother and son: “He could see the game only at the narrowest angle; he could hardly see the screen. The light gave her back herself naked on the rug and not alone and feeling upon her curved body the lunar radiance of the TV preserving her love” (317).
Such convoluted yet deep interpersonal connections recur throughout Women and Men. When for example the unnamed father takes his six-year-old daughter Sarah out to Central Park to help her ride a rented bike. While the lucid prose carefully attends to the physical detail (the spokes of the bike wheel, the arcs of the park’s space, the girl’s feet in the pedals, legs pumping like pistons, the weekend vibe of a city), the meticulous narrator renders the father’s cyclical recognitions of his daughter’s young life as a motion wonderfully beyond him, coming as it does in a realization (which Grace Kimball, elsewhere in the novel, has built her life around) that “when she slowed the bike she seemed to be daydreaming, to have forgotten everything except this. It came to him that she could be more free than her mother was” (785). Slowly, through painstaking observation, the father finds his way into a new conceptualization of his paternal duties, letting go of his daughter, at first physically as she rides the bike, and then emotionally, as she succeeds in handling herself, handling the bike and handling the antagonism of the park without his intervention. Her gradual progress the father understands even in moments when his daughter falters and is most needy: “She tried to pedal as she and the bike went down hard… He ran toward her… She was still headed away from him” (785). The connection between the daughter and her father changes slowly from protectiveness to a liberating loosening of that dependency, a grace which is in turn deepened for the father as he appreciates the rare complexity of their love, standing as it does in contrast to the relationship between an abusive mother in the park, terribly at odds with her son who “was not afraid of her so much as of not doing what she said - or of not knowing how to” (787). The chapter’s title “Rent” suggests an economy of personal space and how, in all of our relationships, we are tenants rather than owners of space. The father learns of the analogies between the claims that time and that money and that his daughter have on him, “to be used and not to go unused” (798).
Time, money, space, love: these are the converging and interdependent themes which drive the characters in Women and Men to learn about and from one another. The jealous boyfriend in “The Departed Tenant,” in the aftermath of a failed marriage, finally commits to his girlfriend and her new apartment yet also finds himself creepily jealous about a former male tenant of that apartment who flirtatiously continues to phone her. In turn, the girlfriend’s own ambiguity about the relationship plays out in how she uses this “departed” tenant’s presence to undercut her boyfriend, biding her time while she quietly decides whether she feels safe enough to live in the space with her recently divorced lover.
These breakneck oscillations from presence to absence and back again come alive in every sentence and in every consciousness. It is McElroy’s grammatical music of intimacy and distance.
In “The Message for What it Was Worth,” a man commutes far north of the city to his therapist’s office, picking up along the way random signs and sharing odd encounters which in the morning vitality and busy community of Grand Central Station restore his optimism until, arriving at his destination, he discovers that his therapist had phoned to cancel the appointment on account of his own wife’s sudden death. The tension builds as the patient enters the doctor’s house just as the bereaved doctor’s family is arriving. Angry that he missed the cancellation message, the main character nevertheless projects himself, empathetically imagining what his doctor and the doctor`s family are experiencing. In so doing he earns insights into the pain and longing of others that he takes back to the city, where he and his wife speak convincingly about people-as-angels.
The three young people were being given what I had envisioned as my time, and they didn’t want it, I mean they didn’t want mine. Their father was feeling no pain. They had been talking about who I could possibly be, before their father had hauled himself up to go confirm his suspicion. But before that they had been talking of a whole life. (687)
Talking a life is one way of re-living or re-constructing it.
In “Gordon’s Story: The Year He Skipped,” Jim Mayn arrives back in New York City and invites his neighbor into his apartment for a bourbon. During the extended encounter Mayn comes to learn, in vivid lyrical detail, how Gordon, currently depressed and on leave from his law firm, is still grappling with the emotional fallout from his Brooklyn childhood. Gordon`s unfinished story is abruptly ended when Gordon’s wife Norma makes her way into Mayn’s apartment to water his plants - the woman had assumed that Mayn was still away. Norma’s unexpected presence in the space that Mayn had made for her husband brings to a wistful end the intimacy that had been established between these two successful but wounded middle-aged men. The men are brought closer not by coincidental shared acquaintances like Norma but by the self-awareness and daydreams and fictions of memory which they had elicited from each other and which they had helped build and give form and shape.
The women of Women and Men tend to be drawn closer by shared antagonisms and the excitement of their own liberated spaces, as in the two women of “Still Life: Sisters Sharing Information” who deconstruct one woman’s first marriage to a “second-generation pig” named Dave. While chatting feverishly in a pastry shop these women find out, with the helpful intervention of an eavesdropping male customer, that the subjects of their talk have turned out to be the same Dave.
The narrator and main character in “Daughter of the Revolution” grapples with her sexual identity alone and mostly on her own terms, teaching herself how her obsessive affections for a mysterious “Maureen” lead her to question among other things the “power” of their feminist workshop “leader,” Grace Kimball. The narrator’s thoughts unlock mysteries of physical passion between women as well as intimations of maternal love lost and found. These self-revelations in turn transform her own connection to the “movement” when she discovers that,
What I never knew well enough, even in the honesty of our arms freely finding each other, was that her [Maureen’s] need was not for what she [Maureen’s mother] said: and my desire, if it had passed into her life easily and received, would have given her what she hadn’t known she wanted…some slight curve of a long turning from that life she had found away from the mother who ruled without ruling and, I gathered but only from Grace’s hearsay, did not much love Maureen but did not let her know. (925)
The story makes wildly clear that these labyrinthine insights are not abstract musings but symptoms or consequences of the woman’s passionate gay love for Maureen coming into itself. The confusing maternal bonds of both the “leader” Grace Kimball and Maureen’s absent mother are in and of themselves not simply thoughts but experiences of knowledge-as-love, and the episode closes with the narrator acknowledging just such an intimacy, a “closeness beyond closeness” which liberates her as she learns “how she didn’t see Maureen as a victim any more” (926).
Because noesis is an almost instinctual process of the invigorated creating consciousness and necessarily central to the self’s making of its reality and the world’s actuality, such force necessarily brings with it emotional change and turning-points in reason and perception, often within a single written clause, as in, “I mean I don’t mean how to put a new clutch in a beat-up city bus” (701), or, “And before the host could think to answer the guest’s casual suspicion, he was adding what, as he said, the guest knew little if anything about…”(559), and “they liked each other’s embodiements but not each other, which was suddenly now clear to each as he looked to his left only to find her as she pulled back the operating half of the old steel double-door and stepped forth into the bright gray day” (1077). For McElroy, the convention of a manageable syntax (for acceptable syntax is both a convention and an artifice) yields to halting rhythms and sudden breaks in thought because these fluctuations capture the transforming energies of our living moments and our receptivity to those moments. If we deny the contortions and digressions of our inner life in “waking life” or by lulling our selves by reading soothing settled fiction, then McElroy’s writing is exceptional for how it shows these internal syntactic im-pulses sooner or later playing out in the external reality which we are perpetually shaping for ourselves and for others. This truth is the optimism that informs and colors his entire oeuvre.
That vast intelligence that critics endlessly point out in McElroy’s work is always and at every point connected to realizations and to mysteries and to evolutions in the lives of flesh-and-blood characters - characters in the boldest sense of the word: engaging energies at large in the multi-layered conflicts and thought systems of late twenty-first century life. His shifting, elliptical, and baroque prose constructions are not matters of style so much as means of being true to a mind’s fullness and the world’s mess.
The late Harold Brodkey is perhaps the only male writer of McElroy’s generation to have rivaled his combination of realistic psychological sensitivity and an avant-garde technical sensibility. In a typically catty but still prescient 1977 essay called “Some Notes on Chekhov,” Brodkey regrets how the most talented of contemporary American prose innovators have failed to bring into their fiction the fullest possible range of human emotional experience. He argues that the American heirs to Chekhov and Proust have settled for technical perfection at the expense of the human complexity that informed the fictions of those two master psychologists.
Today, of course, the obverse charge might be laid against the predictable sentimentality and play-it-safe mentality of most mainstream American fiction. It’s a healthy artistic debate that will continue - this question of engagement and risk. It should start with a reminder of how well McElroy’s Women and Men has made the issue moot.
Brodkey, Harold. “Some Notes on Chekhov.” Sea Battles on Dry Land: Essays. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1999.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Translated by Shaun Whiteside. New York: Penguin Books, 1993
Paley, Grace. “Two Ears, Three Lucks.” In The Collected Stories. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994.