Immersed in Mystery
Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul and Other Stories
Reviewed by Jason DeYoung
Night Soul and Other Stories comprises twelve short stories, each dynamic, powerful, and original. But be forewarned, these stories are not coin-operated narratives that payoff with an oh-so-satisfying clear resolution. No, these stories are more like sophisticated, homemade devices, buzzing and wooly with wires, transmitting a multiplicity of signals—patterns of meaning that confuse as they compound. Often harried by warped syntax, convoluted time, and the chaos of the narrator’s (or character’s) mind at work, they’re not typical well-made short stories. McElroy will not tolerate the prejudice that fiction needs to bow to Clarity. He is the type of writer who will ask, Why can’t a story be an expanding fractal-like mediation on the mysteries of a single event or question? And then asks, why stop there? In short, McElroy’s fiction is difficult.
Joseph McElroy is a long-standing member of the Society of Fat Books (a phrase used by William Vollman). His masterpiece is Women and Men, a novel that clocks in at over a thousand pages, and he is often compared to William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and, more recently, David Foster Wallace. Night Soul is McElroy’s first collection, and the stories date from early in his career up to the present, allowing a thirty-year perspective on his writing. Though the chronology of when these stories were written isn’t made clear in Night Soul (aptly McElroy-ian), you can see how he has stayed focused and interested in certain concepts, or how he replays a technique to different effect. Throughout the collection there are stories that dovetail thematically and share variations on plot and image.
Most of the central characters are lonely men, at a point of transition. Their lives are often times inverted from those around them, and this eccentricity informs (deforms?) their personalities—“[D]id it matter who he was, going to work when others are going home?” McElroy’s character asks in “Silk, or the Woman with the Bike.” In the same story, the main character says, “I’m in materials,” which is another commonality these characters share—their deep interest in things. They obsess with wood, plastics, bicycles, canoes, and the everyday detritus of living. A character in “Silk” maintains a list of things found on the floors of subway cars. These men, however, present tidily enough to the outside. They enjoy working, which helps ground them in a world they find incomprehensible.
Over and over characters grasp for meaning, but invariably it slips away. In the story “Character,” for instance, the narrator retells a boyhood summer during which he holes up in a toolshed, where he carves a whaleboat. At the beginning, the narrator warns us that this “isn’t a story maybe” and “part of something else.” And he’s right. The real story is that his father, a famous anti-war activist, might have to serve jail time, and the boy’s mother is cheating on the father with one the family’s neighbors. Instead of following this action, we follow the boy’s frictional encounters—as they relate to his carving—with the reality outside the toolshed. When alone he is certain the carving is a whaleboat, over which he works and worries the wood, rhapsodizing descriptions of it. When a dull-witted neighbor interrupts the boy’s whittling, it becomes a “hunk of wood…wasn’t a boat any more.” When he talks to his father about it, the boy doesn’t know what the carving is or will be, but he recognizes its power: “In my palms I was making more than a boat. I think now, What could be more than a boat or more than me? I felt what I was making must be more than a boat. Or must turn into more. I was stuck, and responsible, and doomed, but excellent, no more than I deserved.” When the neighbor’s daughter visits, it transforms into a “pretty amazing little hull.” Finally, when the mother’s lover looks at it, he say there is “hard and soft maple, both of them hardwood….[the model boat] was the soft variety.” The boy’s meaning, or its potential meaning, is dispelled by the lover calling the boat what it is. And this outcome reminds me of a Gilbert Sorrentino story in which the narrator decries we’re surrounded by optical illusions (“Pastilles,” The Moon in Its Flight).
The characters’ search for meaning is generally sought in parallel to their desire for human connection. And language, they believe, is the key to connection. We see this in the title story. A father begins to note of his infant’s babbling. Every eh, uh, gree, ih becomes important to him. He yearns to communicate with the child. It becomes almost a duty. McElroy writes: “He is going to know his son’s language. It is a son’s language. You can do that much.” In another story, “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne,” the narrator desires to communicate with a boomerang thrower in the famous Pairs garden. He wants to ask the thrower how he got started, but he doesn’t “possess” the French to “accost” the thrower. Instead of learning French in any kind of reasonable way, he dreams (invents) a second thrower, one he can practice his French on. He invents a fiction to confront his reality—a kind of test-drive for how to handle real-life. And in the dream, he finds the “French with which to accost the person” he’s made up just as someone knocks at his door and wakes him. The stilted conversation the narrator eventually has with the actual thrower is rather dull and inconclusive.
And “inconclusive” might be the most accurate words to describe these stories. They are troubling and unsettling in their inconclusiveness, which is the overall take away from this book; if Night Soul is united by anything, it’s by its message that life is uncertainty. In an interview (available on YouTube) McElroy defines difficult as “corrugated and complex, perhaps a more adequate image of the life we’re living.” Elsewhere he writes: “Writing is thinking. Getting somewhere. Even into ignorance.” (“Socrates on the Beach: Thought and Thing“—this is a must read for writers, by the way.) And he portrays this particular vision throughout Night Soul. In “The Unknown Kid” a daughter asks her father repeatedly why he bothered to have her. She receives only a mildly satisfying answer. The father, meanwhile, is puzzled by his daughter’s homework: “math where you didn’t really get right or wrong answers.” In “No Man’s Land,” one of the more political stories in the collection, the puttering lead character constantly wonders, “what is my job.” Uncertainty takes hold in the punctuation of “Mister X.” Many sentences tie up with a baffling “(?).”—“Plavix against heart attack and stroke (?).” And a few of these stories read like the monologue of a person in distress, re-explaining or over-explaining an event, but they can’t quite find the will to shut up about it, mainly because they keep discovering that the more they talk, the more words they use, the more their meaning doesn’t exist when it comes in contact with reality. As one character says: “All this really happened, and I am trying to get it right.”
This is not to say that the book isn’t playful or darkly humorous. In “Mister X,” a punctured bike tire sends the main character to an acupuncturist. “Annals of Plagiary” tells the transactional nature of language as a hydrologist’s (inaccurate) flourish of metaphor in a report written early in his career becomes the inspiration for a mixed media artist’s riverside “installation” of garbage. And in “Particles of Difference,” McElory sets up a conflict between Vic and Flyet, who “buzzes” be let in Vic’s apartment, but he’s “not somebody you let inside your house.” I don’t know if it’s a stretch to conjecture whether McElroy was inspired by the Victor flytraps but I love thinking that he was.
McElroy’s writing is big. The prose in Night Soul is stuffed to the point of exploding with insights and minutiae that showcase both a meticulous eye and an encyclopedic mind. These stories contain multitudes. Dipping into this collection is like putting one’s ear up to a radio that’s slipping its station. You hear nitwit rock, nattering wonks, scratchy Mussorgsky and then something in between; you sense something odd and beguiling in the mix of static, words, and music. Of course, it’s gone before you can make heads-or-tails out of it. I know it sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m not. I really enjoyed these stories for their challenge and for all their strangeness, which inspires. They have what Viktor Shklovsky says art should have—texts that makes the familiar strange, which allows the reader to experience the world afresh. “The shock of the new.” And though I often felt like Homer watching Twin Peaks while I reading Night Soul, I’m okay, happy even, to put my ear up to the radio speaker and immerse myself in the mystery of what I’m hearing.
Jason DeYoung lives in Washington, DC. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Fiddleback, Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Harpur Palate, and Numéro Cinq, among others.
James McElroy author photo by Peter Chin.