Gregg Biglieri reads “into” Actress in the House and revels in Joseph McElroy’s syntax.
Being Inside the Sentence
Being Inside the Sentence
At the end of the course on American Literature I taught this past spring, I had students read and write responses to Joseph McElroy’s 9/11 Emerging. We had read Stein, Pynchon, and Robert Smithson, so students had definitely developed either a taste for, or an aversion to, writing that addresses its own process in the process of its composition. In discussing these works I prodded students by pointing out that the main characters were the written characters. My overarching desire was to stress to them how the action takes place in language, and that they must pay attention to how the syntax of sentences expresses the thoughts exploring the mineshafts of the mind. That is, unless a writer changes the sentence patterns, he is forced to write along tracks already laid down; and then his thoughts will conform to familiar structures, rather than forge new structures and make new sentences.
I sent some of their responses on to McElroy, and his comments, in turn, became the genesis of this piece that you are about to read. In an e-mail McElroy wrote:
However, looking again at the passages from yr students’ work you kindly sent me, I’m struck by the stress on the alleged “chaos” of McElroy’s thoughts in that essay. As material for essay, yes; as thrust, I don’t think so. What do you make of your experience? This is the question that is central from the beginning. What I try to make of it; versus, e.g., what Atta et al make of theirs. Then buildings and architecture - building - art - thought vs. prejudice - Serra - me and my family. It may be that the young are all too eager to grab onto what seems chaotic in texture, or to a statement about something seemingly disorderly, and bypass other statements that clearly stress a theme that makes something of the disorder. What about that as a thought? I mention it only as a sociologist continuing to parse the thinking of those around me.
Early in the semester, some of the students had said that they felt Stein was in their heads as they read. Yes, I said, yes. And McElroy is like Stein. His work de-emphasizes, accentuates, amplifies, and mutes the sounds inside sentences. The prose is phonically impelled. You hear not what wasn’t there before but precisely what was there, though you hadn’t been aware of it at the time. You listen and participate in the remix inside your own head. By the end of the course, my best students had realized that they could make something of their own fragmentary, disorderly experiences, and that the process of composition could transform what appeared to be chaotic into what Robert Duncan has called “a made place.”
Lately I have been thinking of how Pynchon’s sentences begin with an unfurling, a whip-cast like a fly fisher:
Cammed each night out of that safe furrow the bulk of this city’s waking each sunrise again set virtuously to plowing, what rich soils had he turned, what concentric planets uncovered? What voices overheard, flinders of luminescent gods glimpsed among the wallpaper’s stained foliage, candlestubs lit to rotate in the air over him, prefiguring the cigarette he or a friend must fall asleep someday smoking, thus to end among the flaming, secret salts held all those years by the insatiable stuffing of a mattress that could keep vestiges of every nightmare sweat, helpless overflowing bladder, viciously, tearfully consummated wet dream, like the memory bank to a computer of the lost? (The Crying of Lot 49 102)
“Cammed” sets the sentence in motion as if “to transform rotary motion into linear motion or vice versa.” One paradox of this style is that the apparent openness of the sentences’ unreeling simultaneously holds something back in a kind of secretive unspooling. This initiates a dialectic between a hidden message and pure speculation, framed by the subjunctive tenor of his extended similes. Pynchon’s commas serve to mark each crest of clause like waves that carry the reader further from the initial curl. The sentences seem to begin with a backward gesture; as if already pulling back from what they will eventually extend, offering the reader unspooling threads, increasing in slack as these threads never seem to reconnect at the other end. In contrast, McElroy’s sentences work inward, and qualify through apposition, so that the further one reads into them the further in one is - the further inside them one burrows. The qualifications are not evasions but complications. McElroy’s sentences work progressively inward, tightening and becoming increasingly compact, coiling like springs. They are labyrinthine; they are the threads that lead one out of, and back into, their complexity. Here the secret is not some other message hidden in the words, but located in the syntax, the transit back and forth between the beginning and end of the sentence. Pynchon’s sentences lead you further away from where they started, whereas McElroy’s lead you further in.
There are times I realize that most people don’t think enough about how others might be thinking their own stories through their own peculiar plottings. Perhaps an example from Actress in the House might show what I mean: “Telling so that over him came a chill of overtaking on its way elsewhere no doubt” (370). This is not the normal route that syntax takes: one would expect something like “a chill came over him;” and the repetition of “over” in “overtaking” makes the reader pause as if overtaken by the syntax itself until he takes possession of his own sense of what this sentence means precisely by attending to its unexpected syntax. Shifts in syntax shift thought; syntax forges the transition between anticipation and retrospect as it catches itself and is caught in the act of writing. “[O]ver him came a chill”: passive subject followed by active “overtaking” that is the “telling.” The telling itself is the active agent. Which is the telling? At any rate, “telling” is in the “subject” position and telling demands an object or someone who is told, someone who listens. That “chill” that comes “over him” places him (Daley) in the position of the prey, as if beneath the approaching wings and talons of an osprey, as will become clearer in the context of this novel and in this essay. This sentence does not fling itself out into space; rather it immediately interrupts itself. It seems that there is an invisible period after “Telling” that emphasizes this word and retools this action so integral to the theme of this novel and makes it, regardless of rules of grammar, the subject of the sentence. For McElroy, one might say, shifting slightly Blake’s apt phrasing from “The Mental Traveller,” that the “I” altering alters all.
Reading McElroy one begins to climb inside the main frame of the sentence, inside its circulatory or nervous system, where “nervous” is not only a descriptor but also a perceptible qualification. Think about veining / marbling inside a cave: McElroy’s microcosmic, mineral scrawl mapping increasingly deeper interiorities as opposed to Pynchon’s cosmic star mapping of the stelliscript etched across the “vault of the heavens.” The sense of burrowing and digging in, tracing the veins in relation to Keats’ “load every rift with ore.” But here the reader follows the lines and blind leads of a syntax that defines patterns recursively and as a matter of palimpsestual depth. Focus on the interlacing of cause and effect because they correspond in a strange bilaterally fearless symmetry: causes create effects, which in turn effectively create causes. The plot of Actress in the House seems to ramify from a single cause (a slap) and yet as it unfolds one gets the feeling that the consequences have been determining the action from the beginning (ab ovo). As if, were we to examine more closely what we believe to be the initial cause, the prime mover of the action, we would discover instead the monogram of consequence inscribed in its nucleus.
The sound of McElroy’s syntax keeps corkscrewing in your ears, even as its implications, once you get a feel for the reverberating waves of the tuning fork, widen and expand in concentric circles. The zigzag trajectories of the sentences belie an intricate crisscross over similar territory, like transversals that cut across strata. Lacework webs connect across an interior distance; and these webs are not some form of superfluous embroidery but rather are trammeled and tense, curiously reminding you of the dictionary depiction of an axon cell; a kind of vibratory starfish, each point a live wire to whip, parse and pass on a chain of sensations. Or perhaps it’s more like the lacewing, an insect with “lacelike wing venation… and often brilliant eyes.” The key being that the tracery is integral to its function. Mind those veins.
This is not a Pynchonesque stelliscript, but rather a form skiagraphy. The hieroglyph not as picture writing to be deciphered but instead a writing that one needs to cipher in, to move along its contours and explore meaning as it inheres in the material: the interior hieroglyphs of the body, brain, and the entire “neural neighborhood.” I am drawn to the double sense of mine in this mining metaphor. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s line from “The Phoenix and the Turtle” - “Neither was the other’s mine” - which I always read as pronoun rather than noun. Mine those veins for ore (yours).
Part of the reason it feels as if you are in the writer’s head, or in someone else’s head, as you read McElroy’s Actress in the House, is that you have to reconstruct the sense of each sentence in your own mind: you have to make sense of it, you have to make it, you have to make it make sense. Inside the sentence. Curious that this very activity that is of your own doing is what makes you feel as if you were in someone else’s head. But you are trying to make sense of a writer’s words, of the characters, of the letters and the grammar of the sentences, which are sometimes as long as a paragraph. The activity of putting it all together in your own head, making sense of it, makes you move through the writer’s experience as the one who first put these words together in this order (disorder?) and so the process of understanding these words in sequence even when it seems that they are non sequiturs, this process of following along is a kind of tracing or retracing the routes these sentences take and have taken and making or trying to make sense of how they were made in order to see what they mean. Not what is it all about, but what does each particular sentence mean and why was it written in this way, leading toward what end and following what kind of autotelic logic in order to reproduce a kind of thinking which is an activity linking both reading and writing. Putting things together - making sense. Making sense period. Full stop. Next sentence. Losing track of whose head you’re in even as you are following along these grooves or tracks that are sentences. You have been addressed. You’ve been briefed. You have been sentenced to follow the rules of another; or, has the sentence allowed you to imagine how others might think and thus have you been sentenced to get outside of yourself, outside of your own preestablished grooves and sentence patterns? McElroy doesn’t think for us. Perhaps it frustrates readers to have to struggle with a writer who thinks through them.
You read into McElroy’s sentences as you look them over. Don’t overlook them or they will overlook you. Read into them and think in them as they go inside you, dig in and excavate the craters and pocks of your brain an actual place different from the mind or consciousness. A place where sentences are made, circuits connected, links established. The distance between listening and hearing / understanding (entendre). The moons in your mind, the dark sides. The descriptions are first inscriptions. The mind is a “made place,” a book in which the sentences are telephonic listings to which we listen in. Listen in on. Overhear another’s thinking, thought patterns, beta waves, as one brain waves goodbye to another. Overhead we overhear that “chill of overtaking” that stops us dead in our tracks, so that we have to shift to really take it in, inside our own heads, hear what comes inside us here. These are the chemicals we walk on the paths that are leading us out of ourselves and into another place. And we listen in. Perhaps these messages are meant for us to hear and we realize this when we understand what they are telling us. Are we the ones for whom these sentences toll? The telling for whom these senses tell? What, pray tell, are they telling us? Can we pick up on a “tell,” a tic, a nervous anagram inscribed in the texture of the sentences? They are definitely saying something but do they have something to tell us too rather than just picking up on the tics and turns of their own (our own) syntactic idiosyncrasies? We have to listen in. Turn to and toward the other. Station-to-station. As readers, we have to train ourselves to be trains of thought, vehicles appearing momentarily a bit more visible than the figments of one’s imagination. Now what you’re hearing is this. Does it make sense? And we are back to the sentence itself, inside it. Inside the sentence. But the sentence has many sides and we have to decide which side to look at, dig in, and follow through. As the aim of the pitch is directed by the follow-through and what has happened is answered by an action and what happens after the pitch throws the action back into question. So that “what happens” becomes “what happened?” As readers we will come to know something only after having read through the sentence, having been in there (in the shit), in the process of poiesis, the activity of making. We’ll know what it means by tracing the means. You are the one who has been addressed not me. I haven’t been the one. You are. You are the one who is. You are the one who has been listening and you heard what was not your own or mine but was meant for you to hear as to another story. The simple verbs let us in without getting in the way. You means you. It also means “me” when spoken out loud to one’s self. Who are you to tell me what I think about you?
He could leave, he had places to go in this very house or in another house, he didn’t need to be used as she knew how to not only have the last word quite subtly in this making of her life, her way, but make you deliver it; or turn it into you… (317)
Equal as in crosswise, some myth about the frog just remembered from Sarah Kofman’s The Camera Obscura of Ideology, a reference to the frog’s-eye view: from the bottom, eye level to the water, multidimensional, neither hierarchic nor some higher art kick. Is what is partial to names, or just hinting at a way of following through? It just happens to be what comes out like this, over and above the definitions. What’s left for us - an ecology of echoes, of rogue quotations, taking those words and epithets and inverting them, putting them to use against the ways they would “captive” the imagination (Stevens), a negative captivation as the coercive underside of negative capability. The wind can be a window clear enough when it shows through, not a closet of inhibitions but a camera obscura, a place to exhibit pictures piercing the inside through a single pin of light, the outside-in of imagination as opposed to the inside-out. When it turns itself inside out then the imagination can take effect in the world, constructed of views and schemes never neutral, always susceptible to the cranky insistence of inertia. The sinister wink of the partial that has a ring to it, that rhymes with our occluded sense of things even when we know it’s only partial, or even wrong, working on it to work against it, to make something else of it, not more durable but springy, tensile, elastic. Draft back at what springs, at what springs back, as what bounces back against the springs, against the giant of gravity. A rebound that calls attention to the screen on which you view what is taking place, and yet the screen or blocking-out preceded the rebound. There is a sense that what’s first arises out of this secondhand, ” off hand” version of showing and telling.
With McElroy there must not be a single beginning but a sense of incipient webbing and a reciprocal sense that the narrative that begins to cohere around the telling is already beginning to come apart through an increasing number of partial versions. He’s pulling at the threads (those sentences) that hold the book together, not to create havoc but to tweak order, threads of the story that one lives in for the telling, recounting events that don’t add up to a particular view, a single dominant perspective. Why even in saying things we hold things back, or tell different versions of events to different people. What we tell ourselves of ourselves isn’t necessarily what we write about to others, or we shade it so that what comes out is screened not to deflect but as the very condition of the possibility of expression because we can never say it all and writing incorporates the cracks and gaps and is not just mortal mortar. McElroy’s sentences secrete the glue of this interstitial abandon.
The abalone protein cement breaks little by little, like tiny knots or gatherings stuck together that pull out or break here and there along the length, as if it were a string. How to create materials like this in the lab. (430)
The connections must be made by other active consciousnesses, readers working through the lines and thinking of pages their eyes have already passed over, thinking backward, thinking of the backs of words, the sides they don’t show on initial viewing, scraps that hover in the mind like falling bodies waiting perhaps for the same helicopter that dropped them (or from which they were pushed) to come back and pick them up, to rescue them from their spots, to pickpocket a bit of history from the previously pickproof - the unforeseeable. Where they fell and where they would be airlifted from, airlifted out of to a place where something can be made of them, a “made place,” part of (as in Stein) the making of the mind before one’s mind is made up.
To tell it all in a sentence is not what I wish to do I wish to tell it all in a sentence what they make it do. (How to Write 130)
I can see how it’s done, copy that action in a way that seems prepared, as I am doing now. Someone must have been looking, looking out, paying attention to the details, a novelist like Joseph McElroy trying to get it right. Here the actions are copied so as to cause a slight distortion in the ripple effect of quotation (the telling), to make them seem the same, to work up against in order to work out slight changes in the routine that might disrupt the pattern even though the pattern itself as cited might just turn out to be the cause and not the effect.
“ ‘You’re not being. You’re being told. It’s a relief passing it on,’ said Becca, ‘I’m the hinge.’” (379)
Who’s telling whom? Perhaps the story that is not being told is the story. Or, the story is in the telling. Ultimately, the story is telling because it tells itself. “She was a secretly oiled hinge among men” (404). Doubtless many hinges between stories and storytellers, eyewitnesses and those who are not-hearing, the rightness of it, truth or history (how it’s told and by whom), perhaps at a deposition, what brings us up to speed when all is said and done - [is] the telling. The Zen surface of it: “You’re not being.” Something will circle back to fill out what appears to be empty and waiting for something not to happen but to be told: “Circling this prospect, was the prospect of Daley too, it all stood waiting, somehow empty, for a voice to come and turn the statues into people or good solid furniture, tables and chairs” (385). You’re not the one who is doing the telling, you don’t control the action as you didn’t in the actual experience either - who did you think you were and who do you think you are in the elapsing swing at the moment of the telling, the hinge of memory’s screen door, the retelling, the counting and recounting of details that make up the tale as if some prearranged arithmetic, actively smudging out some stray numbers with your fingers for lack of a better eraser like forgetting.
Note the apparent circularity of the syntax as McElroy marks what would remain unmarked, to speak an insistent whisper into the ear of those who would perhaps rather forget: “Unthinkable things, yet not if we remember to ask or just repeat what we know, or dream of knowing. Events not at all unspeakable if we’ll remember to speak if only to speak in order to remember them” (319). “You’re being told.” You’re the one who needs to listen to it from someone else. You’re the passive one now, the passive observer, and the patient listener. The story has served you well, but now you’re being served a summons intended simply for someone, for one quite possibly not you. It changes who you are, this shift in the experience, in the retelling of the experience. Now you’re being used as in the telling you thought to take control of a situation in which you had been used, so similar to Becca’s own story and her one-act play, a way of managing her material, of making something of it so that it’s not “senseless repetition” (361). How do you like me now? How you are like me now. “It’s a relief passing it on,” said Becca, “I’m the hinge.” How the writer (storyteller) is being read by one of his readers (listeners). Now, “you’re being told.” You’re being told, not your fortune. Now the writer is listening to one who has listened in to his narrative. “And was he the circles downward, inward? He couldn’t tell and wouldn’t but would take stock in the morning when Becca was leaving, for this was the point of her telling his story to him, wasn’t it?” (385). It’s still just a story, yes, but now you’re the one being (“You’re not being. You’re being told.”) weighed in the balance of reciprocal generosities and compensatory actions. “It did not occupy him as he went to sleep, only a thought that action, of which he had supplied little, is always compensatory, but he couldn’t work it out” (385).
Note it plainly, note it being toward what it is - a hinge - a kind of dovetail, tongue-and-groove. How we make what it is without meaning (intending) it to be. What we make of it not meaning but part of what it is to be and to exist, a breathing. A sense of gravity a certain notion of falling, of falling bodies, of suspension and suspension bridges, hovering over the earth, between things, a way of listening, a way to “uphold” one’s end of the story and not a weightlessness, trying to make it into something, to hold weight, feel its gravitational pull, the story - Lucretian atoms colliding and swerving as they fall. Disorder and chaos, what’s left behind after leaving pulls out (but “Leaving let you see” ), an empty suction to reconcile the opposing pressures, writing it down till it becomes thick in the pages of a notebook, a cumulus cloud, gathered knots of collision strung out and together in lines, hung to dry as duplicates airing out and aired out by experience. A sequence of helicopters - Osprey, Kiowa, Alouette.
She [Becca] was not prey so much as used for another’s experience and doesn’t even need to be told not to tell, it’s between us, or, now she’s with Daley, none of their business. It wasn’t so bad. She’s here to turn it into something. (197)
If prey could speak, what, pray tell, would they tell? To turn what happened to you into something you can tell; to change from passive prey into an act of prayer - neither preyed upon nor preying upon, but something in between, an osprey.
He hardly knew what he’d told her all jumbled together. Helicopter passed overhead picking up, depositing, almost miraculously maneuverable but not quite. Imagine the projected Osprey lifting like a copter only to flip its two experimental wing engines forward and pass on at speed like a plane. To lift straight up. To hover. To flip the motors and take off in midair. Was this what they had been talking about? (272- 3)
… for who caresses her in the checkout line? Who tempts her to eat by bringing her a jam sandwich in from the kitchen by plane, that pauses over her - really a helicopter, really this new one that’s a plane and a helicopter, Daley saw the fish hawk its named for migrating once high above Ohio of all places, its black wrist, its crook’d wing - till the jam sandwich (chopper in the area!) suddenly descends straight for her plate - who is this osprey in the house? (190)
Actress as osprey in the house? Osprey, from Latin ossifraga, bird of prey. And yet, if it’s all about the telling then the action is what passes through a series of mouths - mouths that both eat and speak. The first definition of Latin os is bone; the second is mouth or orifice. Let os-prey: that we might come to understand and come to an understanding; that we might leave our readerly apprehensions behind and move from prehension [Latin prehendere to grasp, to seize] toward comprehension, that we might enter the place where the raptor turns into rapture.
Reading McElroy’s Actress in the House feels like being five days stuck inside a light swing struck by the sight of a swan I once saw that had been sawn down and whittled into shape. I forget what it was made of if not made up. I don’t care about swans because I was one, made one, and saw one come up as some letters on a page glide past on a duplicated lake. Which is in my mind now and which is not. The prose too swift to linger on any but the slightest of semi-colons, dashed against the rocks, precipitous and aloud as rushing headlong out of a helicopter, a Hotspur out of the Pleistocene, Kleist at a shove killed knowing as a cause. Art’s physics, hypocrite lecteur, or hypograms, hypnotic escapades, icy night’s quiet not quite midsummer’s dream beacons lit upon some neck and a mightily thinning mind. The prose ache more a darting differs when it’s dealt down the pipe rather than ridged and cornering, the unsuspecting horseman turns. The house returns. The words themselves are circling us and because they are circles they must circle back to catch their own tales.
Daley heard it coming and he was not surprised except at the very words he had heard coming, they must be circulating because he had thought these words himself, the very ones. (268)
You’ve become too like that so that like that you too have become - but what? You’ve imitated what is not there in the air for you to know. Who is this “we”? Like readers writing and writers reading. Who are you that I am this? What are you looking forward to, what are you looking back on, remembering to think about something else? Who are you to be that way when something’s happening here, now that the other places are empty you might be able to use the night out there.
Daley would regret what little he had told Lotta in a weak moment, but it wasn’t a weak moment. Tonight and tomorrow he would regret it, he would be thinking, What did I tell her?
Why did you need someone to tell your stuff to? Or to tell you your stuff? Why do we tell the people we tell? (271)
Silent musicals. Bodies immobile. Who are you when you’re stripped of all those other interconnected “me’s” dotting the globe like floaters in your eye? Have you been through this and are you through now? Now that you are through with it, finished, it comes back to use you because it’s not through with you yet.
A teacher she had wanted to please in high school who used to say in Homer you enter a foreign country and tell them your family history, genealogy, all that, but you look first for the right person to tell. (311)
The hinge is a turning point, a way of writing at the edge of legibility between an eligible bachelor and an illegible bastard. A hinny: a hybrid between a stallion and a female donkey. An osprey, both a fish hawk and a helicopter. An Osprey itself is a hybrid, both a plane and a helicopter and available for multiple uses. How will it be used? How will you use it? To make use of something, make something of what’s already there as an architect uses materials: “an architect took action and made something that joined what had already been made but that did not itself have knowledge of…” (394). To join as with a hinge, to hint and hinder as a hinge can open doors to “knowledge of” or close them upon forgetting. Traveling up the neck and knowing that it ends there, just there before the mind, or on the threshold, a “jolt,” a snap, a slap between friends, a synapse between previously unconnected axon cells. These sentences aim for what is lit against a background of litigants. Can you hear me know? Are you listening? Being told. Are you the right reader for this tale?
You must find the right people to tell your things to. (301)
Who knows what all this means? That’s not a question but it is a sentence. Something to hang your hat on. Putting two things together to get something new, something else, a sum, some others, some you’s to sing through me and use me as I use them. I - You - Them. Who is this “we”? Can it be constructed out of two you’s, out of “to use” in the infinitive, out of you and me, “but that did not itself have knowledge of you, for if it did you would be a god” (403).
Lest we imagine that this “telling” has been abstracted to a merely conceptual level, we should note that McElroy always returns readers to the minute particulars of the everyday (Daley?). For instance, even in a short trip across town a story is exchanged between Daley and a cab driver: “ ‘So what do I think?’ she said, looking in the mirror. ‘She was expecting, but that wasn’t what she had to tell you’ ” (278). The fact that Daley has told the driver about a woman he had gone home with and found out that she was pregnant adds another dimension to the word “expecting,” rooting the sense of anticipation inherent in any storytelling in the coming to term, the birth of an event. But just as “that wasn’t what she had to tell you,” there’s more to be gathered from this exchange than meets the eye; or it’s precisely what meets the eye that needs to be revealed. The cab driver makes this comment while looking in the mirror. We hear what she thinks by looking at her eyes framed in the rearview mirror. Her eyes tell us what she thinks but what we hear is not what she has to tell us. We always look at ourselves in the mirror, so that the visual dimension seems to lead toward narcissism. But the aural dimension is more about absorption, and even self-absorption implies that one has absorbed something from outside oneself, from one’s surroundings. A four-year old girl pointed to a picture she’d drawn of herself under which she’d written “me.” I asked her how that picture could be her (“me”) when it was, I said as I pointed at her, “you.” In the balance of McElroy’s narrative the eyes (I’s) always shift their focus to the you’s.
“It’s you,” exclaimed this nameless voice, this person unknown to Daley - did she have the wrong number? Who did she think she was? (20)
It’s you: these are the first words that Becca uses to address Daley directly. Although he had seen her acting in the play the previous night and thus had already heard her voice, he hasn’t yet spoken with her. So their first contact is from mouth to ear via the telephone. Perhaps it’s not about you, but it’s you, nonetheless. And this is not just some simple phrase (in fact it’s a complete sentence), but it will take on all the characteristics of a secret, italicized chain letter, carried on by all those names that come to fill out the contours of this capacious pronoun.
It’s you, it’s always you. It’s you after all, she had said coming tonight from her brother. (284)
Perhaps one needs to be preternaturally attentive in order to hear the significance secreted through these abstract shifters like “you.” Someone like the drummer Sid Knox, who acts as a surrogate for the novelist himself, and who has the ability not only to hear but to listen in order to become aware by discovering the latent circuits of awareness, how we put the things we pick up on together.
You never knew what the drummer Sid Knox might say. […] Knox a drummer whose hearing (as is sometimes true of the dying or predying) grew more acute as the rest of him broke down… while by the day, by the hour, he heard better and better from apparently simultaneously different directions, all the time, and not just music… but people, individuals talking… Sid recognized her, Daley could have sworn, though his It’s you was maybe flirting around with her. (286)
Bent and thin and shaking his head, Sid Knox turned abruptly and Daley realized the It’s you he’d greeted Becca with was what Sid had heard coming out of the phone from her to Daley Monday and why Sid had gotten up to go then, as if his disappearing out the back door onto the pier now, just as Daley had a dumb question to ask, were for some similar reason probably no more than mortal. (287)
Here is an exemplary case of what it’s like to be in the head of the novelist as we trace the trajectories inside this sentence. That is, we can follow the action by attending to the shifting subjects in this sentence: (1) Sid Knox turned abruptly and (2) Daley realized (3) the It’s you he’d [Sid] greeted Becca with was (4) what Sid had heard (5) coming out of the phone (6) from her [Becca] to Daley (7) Monday and (8) why Sid had gotten up to go then, (9) as if his disappearing out the back door onto the pier now, (10) just as Daley had a dumb question to ask, were for some similar reason probably no more than mortal. It’s clear that between these pronominal exchanges we’ve also shifted time zones from “Monday” to “now,” so that this interconnected web extends its influence across temporal divides though remaining as tenuous as the vanishing breath of the conversation itself.
Was it a question he was being asked so the tone of voice curved back inside him? She’d been doing this since that first Monday-afternoon It’s-you phone call (some small danger from the get- go half question You have someone with you?) (370)
Now it’s time to return to the beginning of Chapter Nine from the final section of the novel (First Love) in order to contextualize, and retell the story of the “telling” sentence that I excerpted at the outset of this essay.
She was possessed of some hearsay it came to him, for Daley had had the foreglimpse, an impersonal voice awake then half asleep again but not now. (370)
Note the shifting temporalities of then and now, and how this “impersonal voice” recalls the “nameless voice” (20) that was Becca’s over the phone to Daley during that first call before he knew it was her, but already knew who she was.
The woman had a name all right, his sheet anchor her life in the balance and he would wonder listening to the bizarre authority of this telling sprung on him how Becca could have known of her. The woman named Than. A thing repeating itself through this person with him for it could only have been reported to her. A report of a report. Yet that she had gotten around to it finally, through sleep even. It was no secret, it was public; but he had no call to hear such history from her, his in part. From this unknown person, and why would she tell him? (370)
The woman has a name, is not “nameless” (Vietnam), he held her life in the balance even as she was his “sheet anchor.” He listens to “this telling sprung on him” (“a chill of overtaking”), wondering how Becca could have known of her. There are two separate events being spliced together through the telling; two separate she’s (Becca and Than) and two he’s, though really the same he (Daley) at two different times. “A report of a report.” Hers is not an eyewitness account, but based on hearsay. And even if a story is always already a re telling, “he has no call to hear such history from her, his in part.” Daley lived through an experience that Becca is in turn recounting to him through the strange telephonic passing on of information that had been previously passed on to her through her brother. But Daley is aware that history is his only in part (“his in part”), perhaps like a part an actress plays on stage (Becca’s in part), passing through separate stages on the way toward making sense of how it has been passed on, imparted. We will never get at the real story, but we can investigate how it’s told and to whom it is addressed. “[W]hy would she tell him” his story? It’s at moments like this that one feels the tragic dimensions of this novel: the Greek sense of doom; the impersonal, nameless unknown is telling us our fate and yet we don’t have oracles to interpret the meaning for us, only our everyday interlocutors, recirculating stories through our own auricles, listening to auricular confessions - something told privately and understood or recognized by the sense of hearing.
Telling so that over him came a chill of overtaking on its way elsewhere no doubt. (370)
The reason the senses come back to haunt you is not simply because they are repeated and seem to come back to hunt you. Presumably fixed in the relation of prey to preyer, the roles of reader and writer reverse their ratios. McElroy’s sentences come back to haunt you and come back to hunt you precisely because the experience of reading them forces you to hunt for their senses and build your own haunts inside them.
Perhaps you hope I will quote my self below, thus describing my experience of reading as well: “I’m aware of a bit of give and wander and the need for a `return’ to a central focus. It’s almost as if I wrote this on the inside curl of the wave, that tubular hollow that surfers speak about.” Even if it hasn’t seemed to be the case, this essay has been all about you. You are the hinge. It’s up to you to make something of it. Tell yourself a story. Get inside your own sentence. Make it happen.
You took away from experience what was worth taking, the hinge swings and you are on your way, even if you are the hinge. (324)
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