McElroy's Metropolitan Constructions

McElroy's Metropolitan Constructions

Steffen Hantke
Actress in the House
Actress in the House
Overlook Press, 2003. $26.95

Shells, Tents, Slaps, Shocks: Steffen Hantke works slowly, from within, to get at McElroy’s nonlinear narrative.

1. Like tiny knots or gatherings

At the end of Joseph McElroy’s most recent novel Actress in the House stands a description of an abalone, its shell, and how it keeps itself anchored. Able to “withstand extraordinary force” (429), the shell is composed of “calcium deposited by seawater,” which the abalone then attaches to a rock “by its own uncanny homemade cement” (429). But in this novel, no domestic arrangement, however ingeniously devised, is permanent.

The protein matrix breaks. But gradually. 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 this were a string. How to create materials like this in the lab. One by one the individual bonds in the abalone protein will break, but very slowly: and because, not to mention that they can re-form eventually, they break before the entire molecule does, they are called sacrificial bonds. It takes huge amounts of energy to break them. The abalone shell is three thousand times more fracture-resistant than a crystal of this very calcium carbonate it’s made of. (430)

Like many sentences at the end of a long novel - any novel - this one will make more sense to a reader who has traveled the entire length of the narrative and who, thus, arrives prepared at this penultimate stop. To the reader who opens the novel randomly, the passage might resonate as a kind of hermetic poetry, not unlike that of the French symbolists. Its principle of composition is carefully constructed counterpoint: the contrasts between “tiny knots” and “huge amounts of energy,” between “breaking” (“but gradually”) and “re-forming,” and between natural processes at the level of mere physics, or, at most, the level of unthinking instinct, and ingenious manufacturing of intricate structures whose properties exceed the sum of their parts.

Read out of context, this image of the abalone shell and its “cement” could also model a process of construction that suggests self-reflexivity - as in the type of novel that draws its raw materials from the empirical world, in which it needs to find its proper place, and arranges them in patterns that derive their solidity from the smallest units of organization. These raw materials could be experience, information, or stories - perhaps even pieces of scientific knowledge, not least the bits about shell composition. These raw materials are then fashioned into an intricate, durable, artificial structure, not unlike a house, which readers can visit and explore and where they can find temporary shelter. Though fabricated, the structure functions as part of the natural world, in the sense that it can become raw material for yet another act of creative fabrication. In an unrelated passage of the novel, we are introduced to a utopian vision of building materials that are so responsive that no further authorial presence is required: “a metal alloy itself will know when too much stress is torquing down from upstream and without any intervention it will decide that a valve a hundred feet away should kick open” (269). In all such constructions out of raw materials, the distinction between natural and cultural spheres is transcended. The construction, page by page and sentence by sentence, of self-reflexive metaphors, which abound in the novel, turn this transcendental aim into a present, exploratory, discursive practice.

The question is why McElroy places the self-reflexive image at the very end of this complex and at times bewildering novel. Would it not make more sense at the beginning, as a kind of guidepost to show readers what awaits them: “tiny knots or gatherings stuck together that pull out or break here and there along the length, as if this were a string”? Do we not need such a model or map at the outset of our journey? The “as if” in “as if this were a string” is crucial, because Actress in the House, like almost all of McElroy’s fiction, is not, in fact, a string. Though character and setting are handled conventionally, there is no linear narrative. The “string” of conventional storytelling is tied into “tiny knots” that are then stuck together.” Events are spread out over time and space, which the narrative revisits time and again. Many of these events are unclear on their first telling; they can remain ambiguous even after they have been revisited. All of these events are, in some complicated sense of the word, “history”; they are empirical certainties, whose occurrence is undisputed but whose interpretation is ongoing. They are the rock to which the abalone cements its shell. But they are also stories, told by one character to another, each time inflected and ever so gently contorted depending on who is talking and who is listening. In each retelling, stories acquire depth, resonance, complexity, and significance. This cumulative, but open-ended structuring means that the final pages of the novel are not, in fact, the end of the story; they appear at an exposed, privileged point in the text - but this does not make them more significant than a similar construction that a reader might find by opening the book at random. In a manner of speaking, the novel can be read forward or backward, but then these terms are awkward considering that there may be a chronology of events, but there is no plot in the conventional sense. To readers who need the comfort of seeing events arranged sequentially - like a string - Actress in the House will cause severe discomfort, especially in the beginning when the novel is bringing its many pieces into position but patterns have not yet begun to emerge. Readers who are willing, however, to go along with a narrative that, impossibly, attempts to tell everything at the same time, will discover in the end that everything does indeed connect and, hence, each small narrative must be told this way. A whole world comes into existence at once, fully formed and of infinite variety. Witnessing this remarkable experience is worth a little wait, a little work.

2. How to create materials like this in the lab

Wanting to transcend the juxtaposition of natural and cultural worlds, the metaphor of the abalone is nonetheless tilted toward the natural. To counteract this tilting, McElroy introduces the metaphor of a tent, which recurs repeatedly throughout Actress in the House. Made out of “Middle Eastern material,” this tent is, strictly speaking, the “roof of the Jedda airport” (349). Conceived on a scale that “would once have been assumed to be an American project” (166), this structure “provides shade for 105 acres of desert to shelter hundreds of thousands of pilgrims deplaning at the Haj terminal” (169). Like the shell of the abalone, the Jedda roof is a structure designed to shelter and protect. What tilts this architectural marvel toward a self-reflexive metaphor are “four and a half million square feet of fabric drawn taut as drumskin to the endless curving across hundreds of masts and cables” (349). Looking up at the structure, we might notice “hundreds of workers tightening it, trial-and-error pre-stressing this incredible -” at which point Bill Daley, the novel’s protagonist, jumps in to fill the ellipsis: “Tent” (349). Like the abalone’s precariously solid anchor, the structure in Jedda conjures up the idea of destruction by way of its solidity: “Imagine coated fiberglass strands impervious to stress and weather and relays of concussion” (169).

In this description, we again recognize the novel itself: a vast and complex structure, anchored by a large number of interconnected fixed points, and maintained, animated, or inhabited by a large number of characters who perform exploratory, tentative movements along the surface “curvature.” These characters are not be confused with the actual users or inhabitants of the structure, the “pilgrims deplaning at the Haj terminal.” While the workers are the characters, the pilgrims are the readers, travelers in pursuit of some larger truth, temporarily seeking shelter inside this particular structure before moving on to the next, or perhaps final destination.

Grand and self-descriptive as this metaphor may seem at first, the structure, despite its size, is ultimately something very simple. We might be awed by its complexity, but we are also to understand that it is, like the tent it resembles, nothing more than a high-tech manifestation of an essential human archetype. One might think here of the work of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who has explored houses (and seashells) for their mythic and archetypical significance within poetic discourse in his book The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994). Bachelard calls this exploration “topoanalysis,” by which he means “the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives,” and which he considers an “auxiliary of psychoanalysis” (8). Actress in the House could be considered a poetic execution of Bachelard’s project because it revolves around the two poles of Bachelard’s thinking - being “cast into the world,” and with it into the mechanisms of history, and being “laid in the cradle of the house” and thus living the parts of our lives that are personal, intimate, or secret (The Poetics of Space 7).

Just as the tent is archetypically conflated with the house of the novel’s title, the Jedda airport terminal is also, McElroy reminds us a “giant skin” (349), an image that links tent and house with the human body and thus falls right in with Bachelard’s topoanalytic insistence on “the maternal features of the house” (The Poetics of Space 7). Contingent with this refocusing on the single human body, is a broadening of the metaphor toward the entire city of New York, a metropolis, a mother city, and the main setting of the novel. New York is itself a “haunted house” (233) absorbing the characters into deep intimacy: “…even the street tar smell approaching the piers asked of him nothing more than to be part of it with its Gotham history” (79). In one passage, we find out that there are “unseen and unknown windows in the Manhattan metamorphic base rock” (386), the “window” reference linking the city to a single house. This house, then, in turn is linked to individual bodies, which are anchored in place, often by houses like Daley’s, or unanchored and cast adrift, like Becca, who is about to be evicted from her New York apartment.

Architecturally speaking, the Jedda airport terminal is also a “big top” (349), a phrase that spins the image of the tent toward theatrical performance, especially the acrobatic, dance-like act of the circus performer. This links the image simultaneously with the theater, the place temporally inhabited by the Canadian actress Becca Lang, who is one of the novel’s two main characters, and it connects it to the Dance Company of Della, late wife of lawyer Bill Daley. For him, the Jedda airport is also reminiscent of a giant umbrella (“ ‘Same idea,’” one of the characters quips [350]). This portable shelter also reminds Daley of a mugging during which he defended himself against his attackers with a tattered umbrella.

3. A little abuse went a long way. (So did a lot.)

This attempted mugging is another one of the “tiny knots” or “gatherings” in the novel, but it is a knot that gathers images of disintegration, assault, damage, and violent break-ups. The single incident of the slap in the opening passage gathers around itself stories of shocks and slaps, bumps and beatings, explosions and earthquakes. There is a temblor rumbling underneath the city of New York, an event referred to once as a “negligible Northeast Corridor disturbance” (55), elsewhere as “a dragon having a minor nightmare at six in the morning underfoot” (165). Daley’s brother Wolf has “absorbed shock waves nearly lethal from a ship that blew up in a Japanese harbor [Osaka] while he was engaged in underwater repair analysis” (46). A scuffle between Wolf and an Australian construction worker ends with the man being backhanded (68). And there is even a moment when, still asleep, Daley “threw out his arm to feel her [i.e. Becca] there and he smote her and she objected but didn’t much wake” (282).

The relationship between Daley and Becca, long before they end up sleeping next to each other, starts with a “jolt” before it starts with a slap. It is the jolt of recognition after Becca fires the lawyer who was initially to represent her (29), and it is the “hidden cost or jolt coming” to Daley, when she calls him to enlist his services (35-6). Like underground rumblings that announce the shock to come, these events occur before the reader encounters the one event that, of all shocks and concussions, stands at the beginning - on the novel’s very first page. It is an image that complements the shell of the abalone and its solid foundation, the giant tent at Jedda and the protection from the elements it provides. “Shock, that’s all it was, in the darkened house” (7). This is a brief moment onstage, when Becca is slapped a little too hard, beyond what’s required by the play. The slap will reverberate throughout the novel; it is what brings Daley and Becca together. Radiating out from each of these two are ever-widening circles of characters: Daley’s late wife Helen and her fellow dancers, Becca’s half-brother Bruce, Daley’s brother Wolf and his family, Becca’s colleagues in the theater, and so forth.

Apart from supplying the initial energy needed for these characters to arrange and rearrange themselves in steadily self-renewing configurations; apart from revealing hidden or unsuspected configurations that had already existed, the slap - the initiating shock - also provides dynamic counterpoint to the closing, static image of the abalone’s shell. The slap highlights kinesis at the beginning, while stasis seems to stand at the end. Yet to put the contrast like this is to misleadingly suggest suggests closure of a type that only applies to linear narratives, a coming-to-rest that follows the period in which narrative energy has depleted itself. However, as with the dissolving of the distinction between nature and culture, each one of these two images - the abalone shell, and the slap on stage - carries in itself the shadow of its complement. The abalone, try as it might to come to rest, will break its “individual bonds,” one by one. The breakup, though slow, may end up taking “huge amounts of energy,” perhaps more energy, in sum, than the punctuated slap in the novel’s opening. Daley realizes that, as “Becca’s other life insinuate[s] itself toward him […] these people and enterprises all linked like street noises or evidence” (180), the two of them will eventually separate again. The slap, in other words, carries energy that brings them together and then separates them again.

Conversely, the opening kinetic image of the slap carries the shadow of stasis: we are, after all, “in the darkened house.” Contained and sheltered like the animal in a shell of its own making, the woman on stage and “the man in the eighth row” are static, frozen in this brief moment of violence. Stasis and kinesis are contained within each other, as McElroy’s narrator, momentarily sharing Daley’s subjectivity, reminds us: “At one blow it all goes to pieces. A blow like that. It says it all. But what? It all comes together” (7).

Conceptualizing this difficult embracing of opposites in a concrete image, McElroy ends the story for his protagonists, Bill Daley and Becca Lang, at a moment when their separation is imminent - “At one blow it all goes to pieces” - but still indefinitely postponed: “It all comes together.” An image of static kinesis, or kinetic stasis. Becca walks in on Daley as he is doing small repairs to his house, standing on a ladder in a pose that reminds her of a diver’s about to leap off the end of a board: “the whole body stretching, exposed […] this inertially forward back dive in toward the board on the way down clearing the end of the board just” (425). All polar opposites seem suspended in this pose. It moves forward, yet doubles back toward its point of origin. It is dynamic, yet inert. It is aesthetic, yet assumed spontaneously, unthinkingly, without premeditation - much like the abalone as it produces its shell and the cement to anchor it.

As effortless as this pose might seem, there are real dangers involved - “cracked neck, scraped face, chest and thigh abrasions.” These dangers hark back to the breaking of the submolecular bonds in the shell of the abalone: damage may occur in ways that leave the whole structure intact. But they also remind us of the body’s fragility in ways that are more obvious and immediate. Daley himself is mugged, his arm sliced open during a morning run through his neighborhood. Daley’s late wife Della dies of cystic fibrosis, her body disintegrating through a disease that is uncannily reminiscent of the description of the Jedda airport with its “coated fiberglass strands impervious to stress and weather and relays of concussion.” Prompted by Becca, Daley remembers an incident from the Vietnam War, during which prisoners in transit to a place of interrogation are thrown out of the helicopter in mid-air. Most significantly perhaps, the novel’s last page features a conversation between Daley and Becca in which both muse about the earthquake underneath New York. “They say a 7 quake is a two-thousand-year event. Two thousand years from when?” (432). The prospect, in the event, is grim: “Bricks in the streets. Whole facades down […] Even a steel-framed high rise, which would be the most stable - think of what’s going on at ground level, gas mains, fires….” One cannot help wondering if this passage, written by an author who lives a few blocks up from the former location of the World Trade Center, does not refer, however obliquely, to shocks and “abrasions” that are less personal and more collective. (McElroy writes on 9/11 in ebr end construction.) Shocks that are both symbolic and frighteningly literal at the same time. That the novel resorts to such ominous scenes of violence is necessary because the slap in the beginning is so highly stylized as to be almost immaterial. Only the fact that the inherent force of the blow seems “over the line” draws attention to it at all (8). This “line” that physical violence crosses, and the more symbolic forms of violence on the other side, preoccupies the novel. This preoccupation is another self-reflexive move on McElroy’s part because it concerns the question of what impact, what shock, the novel itself can have. Can a purely metaphoric act such as writing or reading a novel cross this line and generate a material impact in the world?

Before her death of cystic fibrosis, Della Daley gets involved with a dance project in which the bodies of the performers collide deliberately and dangerously with the material barriers around them. Though nobody gets hurt, the performance simulates trauma by approximating trauma, modeling the fragility of the human body in an indifferently material world. Dissolving the boundary between the dancer and the dance, McElroy calls it an “unusual show of gravity but with walls to slam themselves against, this wild, disciplined rough-work straight-faced group” (359). Gravity itself, the novel suggests, is a source of injury, but art may seize it, mold it into “great paths, curves, inertial, intersecting” (418), and hand it back to us as a conscious experience, stripped of some of its ominous force.

4. It was somewhat decentralized, how it all networked

While the elegantly curved surfaces of Actress in the House move the reader forward and backward along thematic lines, McElroy’s experiment with narrative structure nevertheless induces a sense of interpretive paranoia. Not for a moment does structure itself step into the background. Eventually, statements scattered throughout the text that would seem straightforward in another novel acquire uncanny depth. These added layers of significance are always and everywhere self-reflexive. “It was somehow decentralized, how it all networked,” is one such sentence, describing Becca as someone who, like an ideal reader, is capable of learning “it all without meaning to” (126). In reference to Lincoln’s body coming ashore in New York, Daley muses, “At the center […], I can’t imagine what that was like” (135), a thought all the more puzzling for a character who, as the protagonist, should in fact be at the center. In another passage, Becca declares that “a walk had no aim but wasn’t aimless’ ” (254). Becca’s one-woman play she is planning for the time after her run at the theater is described as being “no tale really, only experience” (208). And in a passage of such dazzling linguistic play that it is worthwhile quoting at length, jazz musicians are described as separately “jettisoning a succession of milling around bop-like flights and halfway volcanic omnidirectional grinding that in self-defense against the no-man’s-land of tonal centers (what the Free Guys called them) you could feel oddly closer to the person you were with barraged, instructed, not hardly borne along because what kind of vehicle [sic] was this?” (285)

The novel’s poetic language strives for abstraction, returning to images of decentralized networks, aimless yet purposeful movement in multiple directions, an overarching sense of human and informational intimacy, and a weighing against each other of feeling “barraged” and being “instructed.” The type of self-referentiality performed in the jazz passage does not open a parallel space to the novel’s discourse, an alternate frame of reference. Devoid of irony -though not without humor - these metaphors do not undermine textual integrity; they do not draw attention to the author’s artifice. Their occurrence constitutes a search for order where the search is itself a part of the order.

Critics who read passages like this one as hermetic or exclusionary might take them as symptoms of the author’s self-awareness - specifically, the author’s awarness of his own difficulty. Drawing the readers’ attention to the compositional and philosophical principles behind the writing, McElroy might appear to be launching a pre-emptive strike against nagging critics. That such ambivalence exists even among readers appreciative of McElroy’s creative risk-taking becomes fairly obvious in the Village Voice review of Actress (May 20, 2003). Calling McElroy “the polymorphously difficult American novelist who, after a 15-year absence, has just released his eighth book,” reviewer Andrew Essex admits that he “was excited to plow into new McElroy,” but then adds: “Having finally finished, I can’t say I enjoyed myself. Then again, who said reading is supposed to be easy? Or maybe that’s just my problem.” Essex calls Actress in the House “a novel of such astonishing complexity that it is almost unreadable, and I mean that as a compliment.” He goes on, “In Actress, nothing is illuminated, and McElroy’s purpose seems to delight in never so much as winking in the direction of ease.”

Unlike such critics assuming the pose of the common reader, academic critics have often described such narrative movements and informational “curvatures” in language approximate to the novel’s own language. Tom LeClair, for example, in his study The Art of Excess, mobilizes the discourse of systems theory in grappling with McElroy’s Women and Men, a chapter of which is titled “Reformulation,” after McElroy’s own term, “formulation.” (“For McElroy, formulation essentially means `theoretical explanation’ of experience and abstraction […], two modes of creating encompassing and systemic wholes,” The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction, Urbana/Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989: page 132). Admittedly, I myself have taken my cue from McElroy in starting to read Actress in the House from the last page to the first (“omnidirectional […] in self-defense against the no-man’s-land of tonal center”). Terms such as “narrative movements” and “informational `curvatures’ ” have started sneaking into my own sentences. I take this assimilation of the novel’s diction, which is inseparable from the book’s larger compositional structure, as a sign that McElroy does actually succeed in integrating the level of metafictional discourse, in the form of the self-reflexive metaphors and reflections scattered throughout the text, into the level of discourse that constitutes the novel’s plot. It is not so much that McElroy’s writing performs the readers’ act of critical interpretation for them; that it pre-empts them, outdoes them, or overpowers them. Instead, McElroy’s language suggests a poetic reconstruction of the world that is at first strange and unsettling, yet becomes increasingly convincing and thus epistemologically compelling - compelling enough to begin shaping one’s own thought on other questions. Formulation is not separate from McElroy’s plot but is identical with it. Surprisingly, McElroy’s embrace of theoretical explanation and its language does not make the writing at all dry, academic, or even pedantically didactic; readers will find it rather lively, vivid, rich in detail and incident. McElroy’s accomplishment lies in the marriage of the conceptual and the concrete - but then we knew that from the self-reflexive metaphors that announced his aesthetics as early as on the last, and as persistently as on the first page of Actress in the House.