Oct 072011
 

Joseph McElroy (Photo by Peter Chin)

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Stanley Elkin describes Joseph McElroy’s fiction as “the mazy coil of an educated, complex vision,”* and “The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne” exemplifies what Elkin’s talking about.  At one level, this story is busy with phantom characters and the narrator’s cycling behavior and chaotic psychology.  And at another, it’s rich with allusions to literature and lore, taking on the slight flavor of a nineteenth century Gothic horror, which is not in McElroy’s other stories, but makes for an apt addition here because of the setting.  For me, the knot of confusion over invention at the heart of this story is as playful as it is unsettling—“I made him up out of what I knew, and I assumed he was too authentic to have time to make me up.”

—Jason DeYoung (who reviews McElroy new story collection here)

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The Man With The Bagful Of Boomerangs In The Bois de Boulogne

By Joseph McElroy

(from his collection Night Soul and Other Stories)

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He was not to be confused with my new friends or my old. He was there before I found him and he did not care about being discovered. I knew him by a thing he did. He threw boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne. If he heard any of my questions, he kept them to himself. Perhaps we were there to be alone, I in Paris, he in the Bois that sometimes excludes the Paris it is part of.

But what makes you think Paris will still be there when you arrive? inquires a timeless brass plate embedded in the lunch table and engraved with an accented French name. Well, I’m in Paris, after all; that was obvious even before I sat down with my friend who invited me to meet him here, though the immortal name I put my finger on, that frankly I don’t quite place, might have been instead that of the burly American who’s also, I’m told, here somewhere staring in brass off a table—far-flung American name once commonly coupled with Paris itself. So now, like a memorial bench in a park, a table bears his name, that fighter who once clued us all in that you make it up out of what you know, or words to that effect. His pen (or sharpened pencil) had more clout even than his knuckles.

What is the name of that famous burly writer who lunched at this consequently famous restaurant? Out there past the brass plaques and dark wood surfaces and the warm glass and the conversation, the city doesn’t happen to answer. Not a student descending from a bus; not a woman hurrying by with two shopping bags like buckets; not a man in the street I’ve seen in many quarters carrying under his arm a very long loaf of bread and once or twice wearing a motorbike helmet. He is probably not the man my French friends patiently hear me describe, who is my man in the Bois whose very face suggests the projectiles he carries in a bag, a cloth bag I didn’t have to make up, to contain those projectiles in the settled November light of late afternoon in the Bois when I begin my run.

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Oct 072011
 

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Immersed in Mystery

Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul and Other Stories

Reviewed by Jason DeYoung

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Night Soul and Other Stories
By Joseph McElroy
296 pages, Dalkey Archive Press, $14.95
ISBN-10 1564786021
ISBN-13 9781564786029

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.

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Jason DeYoung lives in Washington, DC.  His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The FiddlebackLos Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Harpur Palate, and Numéro Cinq, among others.

James McElroy author photo by Peter Chin.

Oct 062011
 

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At the core of Miranda July (writer) and Miguel Arteta’s (director) short film “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?” is the title question. It is repeatedly asked by a man standing on a street corner (John C. Reilly) to strangers who pass by, but we never find out why he’s asking the question or what he intends to do with the information he collects. All we know about him is that he has a burning question, three orange trees, and a wife trying to get rid of oranges. None of this matters. The question’s profundity disarms and obscures all else.

That burning question supersedes the simplicity of the film, supersedes the film itself in the way the it poses the question to the audience, too. The youtubification of this film led to a spate of vloggers asking themselves and others the same question in a sort of viral existential awakening, or, at times, mass despair. Certainly, though, the question hails us if we dare to let it. Are you the favorite person of anybody? It’s difficult not to get caught in the musical chairs of the query. And won’t most of us end up on the floor?

But to dwell on the question this way is perhaps to identify too strongly with Miranda July’s character. Mike White’s character doesn’t seem compelled or bothered. He has no delusions of grandeur, but does have a girlfriend and is bringing her an orange or two – he leaves almost elated.  So what of the oranges? On a certain level, the film seems too simple to contain metaphor. But then there are oranges. Are they consolation? Are they payment for pain inflicted, or are they the very point of existence? Much depends on a bag of oranges.

What intrigues me here more though is the intimate story around the story.  How Miranda July had just finished shooting Me and You and Everyone We Know and had nothing to do until the editor came back with a rough cut – a peculiar waiting. So she wrote these sketches. Showed them to Arteta who she was dating at the time. Arteta rushed them to shoot and cast July, Mike White (the writer of Chuck & Buck, which Arteta directed) and Chuy Chavez (July’s DP on Me and You and Everyone We Know).

Arteta, in an interview in Wholphin confesses what the script meant to him:  “When I read it, it hit me hard for the first time: I wasn’t going to be [July’s] favorite person for too much longer. I was having doubts about us and the script felt like a warning . . .  I said ‘Let’s shoot this, right away’ – knowing that working together was something I would always cherish”

In her Wholphin interview, July confesses she was excited to just act. It was something she committed herself to so strongly that when she walked away from John C. Reilly, exiting her scene with him, and no one called cut, she just kept on walking. “I walked practically to the next neighborhood before anyone noticed I was gone.”  These are the interstitial stories I believe imbue films.

After the death of French filmmaker Jacques Demy and the decaying of the prints of his early film Umbrellas of Cherbourg, his filmmaker wife Agnes Varda oversaw the re-colorization of the film. The result is lurid, gaudy, and gorgeous. Walls aren’t just walls, they leap out in shades of eggplant and lime. Varda was ostensibly realizing Demy’s original vision for the film’s color, but there’s something else that imbues the film. Call me overly romantic but I read each color, each frame, as part of a love letter to her deceased husband.

What imbues “Are You the Favorite Person of Anybody?” for me is the tension between July’s never ending take where she walks off the set and away. . . and Arteta’s manic intent to make the film and collaborate while they still had time. A letting go and a holding on. This bittersweetness stains the film for me.

Romanticism aside, this is simply a film I wish I’d made. With one location and only four actors this is one of the simplest short films I’ve seen. Made for  $150 (for apparently coffee, bagels, tape and a transfer to HD), the simple style and simple content let the film’s principle dramatic question do the work.

The film appears in Issue #1 of Wholphin, the McSweeney‘s DVD magazine, available here:

http://store.mcsweeneys.net/index.cfm/fuseaction/catalog.list/object_id/4F541504-D8B3-44BE-9DAC-32B0B4554215/Wholphin.cfm

In their own words:

“Wholphin is a quarterly DVD magazine featuring short films, documentaries, animation, and instructional videos that have not, for whatever reason, found wide release. Recent issues of Wholphin have included films by Spike Jonze, David O. Russell, Miranda July, Miguel Arteta, Errol Morris, and Steven Soderbergh, and performances from John C. Reilly, Selma Blair, Patton Oswalt, Andy Richter, a monkey-faced eel, and many others.”

—RWGray

Oct 052011
 

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Mucking Up the Landscape: Poetic Tendencies in Prose

by Mary Stein

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There’s a certain trend I’ve noticed among some essays and craft books on writing fiction: It hints at the idea of a beleaguered prose writer, imprisoned at her desk—a person who narrates rather than directly experiences life for the sake of fiction, a person held hostage by the endless pursuit of the right-hand margin. It’s an idea of the prose writer as sacrificial lamb for the god that is verisimilitude. Prose and its process can be intoned with a sense of drudgery—particularly in comparison to poetry. In “Rhyming Action,” Charles Baxter jokes, “Prose writers have to spend hours and hours in chairs, facing paper, adding one brick to another brick, piling on the great heap of endless observations, going through the addled inventory of all the items they’ve laboriously paid attention to, and it makes them surly—all this dawn-until-dusk sitting for the sake of substantial books that you could prop open a door with … Fiction writers get resentful, watching poets calling it quits at 9:30am.”

Now of course I don’t agree with the literal assessment of this statement—I know poets who work at least until 10:00, maybe 10:30 in the morning. (Poets must forgive me, I have to believe this farce exists, otherwise I’ll never have anything to aspire to.) But there’s something about the spirit behind the statement, the implicit (or, I suppose, explicit) idea of drudgery inherent to the prose-writing process leading to an implicit drudgery of prose itself—an idea that the reader is led through a corridor of scenes, narratives, backstory, interior and summary to get somewhere. In an interview with Lydia Davis, Sara Manguso asks, “How do you know a story’s a story?” Davis says, “I would say a story has to have a bit of narrative, if only ‘she says,’ and then enough of a creation of a different time and place to transport the reader. But, of course, it is not a narrative poem. It is flatter, rhythmically different from a poem, and less elliptical.” This is interesting coming from Lydia Davis considering her prose often slants toward all these poetic tendencies—elliptical movement, a poetic attention to rhythm, and a use of language that certainly doesn’t flatline by any means. In fact, many of Davis’s stories exemplify how poetic attention to syntax creates resonant effects in prose.

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Eileen Myles is one example of a poet crossover. Her self proclaimed “poet’s novel,” Inferno, explores the confluence of poetry and prose. In her critical essay on novel writing, “Long and Social,” Myles says, “Poets should write novels en masse and reinvent the form and really muck up the landscape.” Although I don’t intend to discuss murky genre distinctions, if genres paralyze or constrict your writing process, I’d say forget about them or invent your own—at least while you’re writing.

I want to consider how these same poetic elements might help the reader engage with the text: regardless of genre, the manipulation of or play with syntax can demand a reader to become conscious of his or her interaction with the work. I want to examine how some fiction writers use syntax to amplify image patterns and create rhythm in order to motivate narrative movement—to muck up the landscape of prose.

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Oct 042011
 

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Curious and maze-like story behind this delightful essay about an atypical Mennonite childhood in southern Ontario: Rick Martin lives in Kitchener, Ontario (it used to be Berlin, Ontario, but was renamed after a famous English general—Lord Kitchener—during the First World War). He lives next door to dg’s old friends Dwight and Kathy Storring. Long ago in the Triassic or, maybe, the Cretaceous, Kathy was a reporter at the Peterborough Examiner while Dwight took photos and dg was the sports editor (yes, yes, we all have a secret, sordid past). Kathy showed Numéro Cinq to Rick and Rick got inspired by the NC Childhood series to write his own story. Kathy showed Rick’s essay to dg, and here we are. (Accept this is a peek into the byzantine editorial apparatus behind NC—if you want to get published here, it helps to move next door to the Storrings.)

Rick Martin  is a technical documentation and training consultant. He has taught technical and business writing at the University of Waterloo and York University. He has had dozens of technical manuals published and has written numerous essays and poems for his own pleasure and the enjoyment of family and friends.

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Childhood: An Essay in Writing Myself

By Rick Martin.

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“What is a true story? Is there any such thing?”  Margaret Laurence, The Diviners

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Two years old

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I was a shy child and bewildered by almost everything around me.

My mother and father were born into horse-and-buggy Mennonite families in Waterloo County, Ontario. My father’s family were regular Old Orders, who eventually moved to the more modern Conference (or “red-brick”) Mennonite church so that my grandfather could have a truck to haul his produce to the Kitchener market. My mother’s family belonged to the more extreme Dave Martin Mennonite sect (founded by her grandfather), and when my grandparents were born again and joined the small Plymouth Brethren congregation in Hawkesville, they were completely shunned by their family and friends.

My father was a long-distance truck driver, so he was often absent. My parents’ first child died in his crib when he was four months old, so there was always a ghost in our lives. When I was 18 months old, my little sister was born several months premature and lived in an incubator at the hospital in Kitchener for months. With no means of transportation to the city and no one else to look after my older brother and me, my mother was stuck at our rented farmhouse near St Clements, unable to care for her fragile new baby.
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