"History is not what happened but what we think about it"

"History is not what happened but what we think about it"

2003-07-17
Actress in the House
Actress in the House
Overlook Press, 2003. $26.95

Further on McElroy and a novel that reflects the mind’s helter-skelter workings while (for the protagonist) creating many occasions for avoidance.

Joseph McElroy’s intriguing eighth novel, Actress in the House, begins with a staggering slap to an actress on stage. The book’s very first words come in response to that blow: “A shock…. The man in the eighth row [Bill Daley, the novel’s central consciousness]…hadn’t seen it coming…. He was stunned and amazed…” (7). From that point on, and with numerous digressions, Actress traces an arc of unusual violence - earthquakes, knifings, explosions, accidents, war, sexual abuse, serious blows - that sets up a steady, if muffled, drumbeat against which the novel’s uneasy love story plays out.

Daley, a New York lawyer and a widower in his forties, realizes that the slap he’d witnessed was far more than a theatrical gesture. After the play he seeks out the actress herself, a young Canadian named Becca Lang (who appears to be fine). Eventually the two wind up at Daley’s house, where they spend a week together, engaged in edgy talk and sex. Their intimacy culminates in revelations about Daley’s past, which Daley apparently has packed tightly away from himself. As Daley reveals to the reader, “The things he had seen and could not think about without seeing again. Could not see without thinking about; could not think” (334).

Among the many things Daley refuses to think about is his wife’s death, the first mention of which Daley flippantly tosses off to a stranger: His wife Della is “long gone” (77), Daley says. Della died thirteen years before the action of the novel, which takes place in l996, and the reader gets the idea, reinforced by accumulated throwaway lines from Daley, that the marriage was not a happy one. (“He lived with her,” Daley thinks. “Looking ahead to when things would change….)” (57). A dancer who retired to set up a women’s employment agency, Della was “like a bird” (340), which may be why actual birds feature so prominently in Daley’s world, as stand-ins for thoughts he refuses to think about his dead wife.

The last words from Della that Daley shares with the reader involve her remark to him that, “We’re not really close at all” (426). And aside from Della’s curious relationship with a slippery half-Dutch entrepreneur named Ruley, who shows up frequently and who was her diving coach (possibly more), that’s it for Della, a “manifoldly gifted and difficult” (359) woman, so difficult that Daley allows “her friends wouldn’t have imagined it” (356).

If Daley cannot acknowledge his ambivalent feelings about his wife’s death, he also fails to acknowledge, among other things, the five Vietnamese prisoners (including a woman Daley had befriended) who were shoved to their deaths from a helicopter Daley was piloting during the Viet Nam War. We learn about this incident not from Daley, but third-hand from Becca, whose much older American half-brother, a war resister, heard the story at the Winter Soldiers Investigation (sponsored by the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War) in Detroit in l971, and eventually passed on to his younger sister. (The connections in this novel form a vast and intricate network, a eflection of Daley’s over-heated, often prescient mind.)

Though he is repeatedly referred to by himself and others as an unshockable, a man “who saw everything coming (always had)” (242), Daley is definitely shocked by the blow that opens the novel, and he “hadn’t seen it coming” (7) either. A good shock may be just what the doctor ordered for this affectless man, whose reliability - at least about himself - is called into question by the novel’s first words. Daley has a busy, busy brain; he’s uncannily clairvoyant about others yet surprisingly lacking in insight about himself. He finds his own house “empty” (186), which it literally isn’t, but in both that imagined emptiness and its real disarray, the house mirrors Daley’s inner world. (Occasionally, Daley admits to himself that he is “sick at heart” (83) or “desolate” (84) or without “hope” (83), but these admissions are so off-the-cuff that the reader could easily miss them.)

Who is this man Daley, we ask ourselves? Billed as a risk-taker by many, he is “not afraid of anything…and viciously strong” (68), a “violent soul he recognized potentially” (246). In some respects, Daley’s a brainy Clint Eastwood character: Reflecting on his stabbing by two muggers as he is jogging early one morning, Daley thinks that one of them “should have died (which really would have made his [Daley’s] day)” (153). Daley’s all action with little self-reflection, distanced from his deeper life in a way that leaves him almost inured to everything but digressions, vicarious imaginings, trivia, and violent back-stories, many involving his disorderly, dare-devil brother Wolf whom Daley refers to as “your family firing pin detonating adventure and randomness” (229). Daley is smart about a lot but cannot or will not admit the way he avoids engagement - with memories of his wife and marriage, his guilt over the helicopter incident, his neighbor Isabel, his long-time friend and lover Helen, and more.

Instead, Daley’s magpie mind nervously flits from here to there, through time and space, around the globe, from past to future. If the reader has difficulty fixing this character, it’s largely because Daley has difficulty fixing himself. It’s no accident - McElroy does nothing accidentally - that Daley is dubbed a fool by himself and others almost twenty different times in the novel. He is a fool, if a decent and attractive one, a person lacking both judgment and emotional sense about his own troubled life.

McElroy is a brilliant, often lyrical writer who captures as no other writer ever has the way consciousness works, its bird-like wheeling and drifting, its haphazard, wayward bent. We swim (as many of his characters in Actress actually do - in pools, across rivers, in oceans) through his complex prose. Yet serious readers who shy away from McElroy do so at their own loss; you don’t need to be a detective to read McElroy, but you do need to remain curious, a trait I have always found his novels themselves forcefully generate. While McElroy may never qualify as beach reading, all his works draw the patient reader into worlds that can be breathtaking in their reach.

If there is a problem with Actress, dense prose is not it, but rather that McElroy has so slyly hidden his agenda for the novel that it may be (and appears to have been for numerous reviewers) simply too opaque. But it’s there all the same and involves Daley’s potential second chance, his re-start (with help from Becca). But if Becca can “save” Daley, it may only be because she herself is as tough as he is, raised in a bizarrely abusive home and yet a skilled actress as well as a shrewd student of history, including - weirdly - Daley’s own. She is wide open, and she has Daley’s number; and we get the strong sense that she may be calling it for some time. (One thing McElroy is never without is optimism.) The violence that brought the two together at the novel’s beginning may be the only language Daley can seriously attend to. And from that violent opening, Becca becomes the “hinge” (379) that may open the door to a new life for Daley, the jolt that will bring him back to his feelings.

In Actress, McElroy seems to be writing a kind of urban Western, where the tough hero Daley must face down his nemesis - in this case, his own past - and where that very American duality between the masculine pull toward violence and action encounters the feminine tug toward the domestic order, possibly the only thing that can humanize “heroes” like Daley. The heavy emphasis on the house in Actress is intentional: The house shares equal billing with the actress herself in the novel’s title and suggests that Becca and the house (or what it stands for), may offer a turning point for the bottled up Daley. As if we might have missed the point about the importance of hearth and home, on the last page of the novel, as Becca and Daley are driving to his country house, Becca flirtatiously notes that Daley’s “contribution” (431) includes, “a house…. Two houses” (432). The power of the domestic will not be denied in this novel.

Furthermore, while Becca and Daley can be difficult, often remote characters, Daley’s neglected house (Daley’s own interior?) - full of creaks and groans and ghosts, and as badly in need of repair as Daley himself - proves to be one of the novel’s most vivid characters. It’s within the shabby house that Becca performs her one-woman show for Daley (an audience of one; he’s a good spectator) obliquely revealing the details of her painful past. It’s also within that house that Daley, attempting to cling to the present, hunkers down. What the house finally offers is emotional weight, the kind that Daley avoids and that we don’t entirely trust when it comes from Becca. (She’s an actress, after all.) It’s strange but significant in a novel so full of people, especially interesting women, that a house is what speaks to us most poignantly - and certainly most whimsically. (As for these women in Actress, why do all but two have names that end in “a”: Della, Becca, Donna, Lotta, Gemma, Roma, Clara? I don’t know but I’m sure there’s a reason.)

Actress in the House raises many such questions, more than it answers, but the result is to render the novel provocative and haunting. McElroy stubbornly - often beautifully - takes literary risks as he pinpoints the remarkably helter-skelter ways our minds work, the dips and turns that divert us from the larger questions. In that, McElroy’s masterful body of work is full of life and tremendous momentum, not to mention historically important in both its literary ambitions and success. And speaking of history, as Daley says to Becca at the end of the book, “History is not what happened but what we think about it” (431). In this bracing novel, Daley’s and Becca’s histories give us much to think about, remnants that invade our days and rattle around in our dreams.