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Dreamwork That Gets Us From One Day To The Next

By Colin Herd.


Night Soul and Other Stories, Joseph McElroy, Dalkey Archive 2011

Night Soul and Other Stories is the first published collection of short fiction by the novelist Joseph McElroy, perhaps best known for his anything-but-short 1192 page novel Women and Men (1987). Having published the first of his nine novels (A Smuggler’s Bible) in 1966, McElroy is probably the least well-known of the group of postmodern fiction writers with whom he is usually lumped, William Gaddis, Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, perhaps because it’s a grouping he fits in only awkwardly. More appropriate comparisons (if only because their works share a difficult-to-classify variety and experimentation) would seem to be Harry Mathews, David Markson and Gilbert Sorrentino.

The twelve stories in Night Soul span a thirty-year period, with the earliest, ‘An Unknown Kid’, having first been printed in 1981. That story begins:

“Then why did you bother to have me?” my daughter asks, and I think of funny answers, which she deserves. Her question isn’t a question. Her words aren’t to be taken seriously. But they stick, they linger and malinger, in the dreamwork that gets us from one day to the next.

“The dreamwork that gets us from one day to the next” is as good a description as any of McElroy’s rhythmic, meditative and sometimes opaque prose, always with its basis in day-to-day encounters and thought processes. In ‘An Unknown Kid’, a father watches as his daughter tears passed him, having had a furious argument with her best friend, triggering a narrative in which he considers his own relation to his wife, and the relationships of their friends. We are exposed to snapshots of family-life (in fact, usually one parent engaging the daughter at any one time): washing up (“plates so little smudged they could have been wiped-dry instead of dry-wiped”), arguing and watching T.V. But the narrative quickly drifts back and forth from professional preoccupation to parental dislocation and uncertainty, mimicking a lack of focus and locus in the characters’ lives. In the background of the story is mathematical topology (the study of spatial properties of shapes maintained under strain and stretch without breaking), which the daughter is studying at school. The metaphor being that family life is a continuous dynamic of stretching and straining relations and emotions without them cracking or breaking.

McElroy works this dynamic of stretch into his sentences, pushing their grammar and comprehensibility to its limits in long, paragraph-length sentences, clause after clause, without tearing the reader’s willingness to follow him. It’s a technique that most of these stories employ, the fastening of his prose onto a rhythm that has its basis in the story’s content. In ‘The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois de Boulogne’, which takes place in a Parisian park, the rhythm is that of jogging and observing while traffic, runners and dogs go past.

Yet, veering down hedged paths, past thickets where dogs appear, and piney spaces with signs that say WALK, to surprise a parked car where no car can drive, and across the large, turned-over earth of bridle paths, and around an unexpected chilly pond they call a sea, a lake, that has hidden away for this year its water lilies, I could sometimes lose myself with the deliberateness of the pilgrim runner whose destination is unknown and known precisely as his sanctuary is the act of running itself.

The narrator’s breathless thought processes, in the rhythm of the passerby, picking up pace and dipping in accordance it almost seems with the buzz of activities around him, latch onto a man throwing boomerangs. The narrator wants to engage him in conversation, but feels his French will let him down, “remembering, at least in my own language, I would know better what I wanted to say once I began to say it.” His narrative skews off into his own childhood memories (he used to throw boomerangs as a childhood) and dreams, but returns back to the story’s present, as the narrator manages a brief conversation with the boomerang man himself. He asks if he always hits his target, if he’s ‘toujours exact’, a question which the boomerang man is reluctant to answer, suggesting the workings of boomerang throwing are more mysterious, more subject to randomness than the narrator’s question suggests. The logic of boomerang throwing and the logic of stream-of-consciousness writing (“I would know better what I wanted to say once I began to say it”) converge in the story, a bold chuck outwards, trusting at least a couple of the boomerangs will make their way back, but prepared that they might get lost too (“I had lost one of his boomerangs in the dusk once, though the man himself seemed not to have lost it, though I never saw it land and I heard a sound in the trees above my head”).

Reading McElroy involves a kind of giving oneself over to the unexpected turns and sometimes awkward to follow thought processes that his stories take through dreams, daydreams and memories, sparked by everyday encounters. The great pleasure in his work comes not from teasing out a key to the stories’ logic, but from tuning into their internal workings, getting a sense for their recurrent themes and structural metaphors, and allowing oneself, albeit briefly, elusively and illusively, to approximate the inhabitation of a live and sensitive consciousness as it negotiates the world around it.


Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. He is co-editor of Anything Anymore Anywhere. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal. His chapbook, Like, is published by Knives Forks and Spoons Press and his poetry collection, too ok, by BlazeVOX.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 31st, 2011.