Online Edition: Fall 2003

"Failure. Building. Embrace.":
An Interview with Joseph McElroy

by Trey Strecker


Joseph McElroy is the author of eight novels: A Smuggler's Bible, Hind's Kidnap, Ancient History, Lookout Cartridge, Plus, Women and Men, The Letter Left to Me, and Actress in the House. In contrast to the pessimism and cynicism of much postmodern art, McElroy's novels exhibit a serious passion to understand how others perceive the world. Each book begins with "the breakdown of knowing"--the endpoint for many postmodern novels--but a "Joseph McElroy novel" never ends there. His novels, often intricate networks of characters and events, masterfully engage the ability of human consciousness to structure its experience. "Writing is how I think," McElroy explains. "What I do every morning into the mid-afternoon. Failure. Building. Embrace."

McElroy's new novel Actress in the House negotiates the complex interaction of love and abuse, memory, and action. The novel opens when an attorney witnesses an actress at a warehouse theater violently slapped during a performance; as the actress is hit, she catches the lawyer's attention. From this initial event, McElroy explores the "joint venture" between actress and audience. From the intersection of these two lives, this "plunge into another person," McElroy crafts a prismatic narrative that delves into each characters' individual (perhaps linked) past. The Overlook Press, which publishes Actress, is also reissuing out-of-print McElroy classics like A Smuggler's Bible and Lookout Cartridge.

Trey Strecker: Your novels are remarkably spatial--the reader experiences first-hand connective networks, cognitive processes, neural neighborhoods, as you call them in the title of one of your early essays.

Joseph McElroy: I'm glad you say "first-hand." And spatial, I guess so: sounds good. If you mean displacing time sequence with a theme unfolding, that's common in novels. Displacing time with space, though--is it me? is it the city? is it congenital attention shifts turning into a rhythm that layers time?--several things at once, the all-at-once, so extension in space comes across more than time passage. What good it is, I have no idea. It seems accurate. A New York cop on horseback passing late at night along cobblestones between the two walkers in the first section of Actress in the House. The distance down to the street from the questionable helicopter with its rhythm at the opening of Lookout Cartridge--coupled presently with the plunge down the stopped escalator: Distances more than time.

TS: At the same time, many of your books develop a precise language, a vocabulary that the reader learns over the arc of the novel.

JM: The minister Archy Pelago (how does that name hold up late in A Smuggler's Bible?), a group of spread out islands, parts smuggled into spatial connections, perceptions, whatever (hate the word "whatever" unless it's called for out of this astonishing mixed language we have available to us here that I feel even more in New York)--mostly it's been mixed, even a little in Plus, which is a pretty severe vocabulary (why wouldn't it be, considering what it grows out of?).

TS: How would you describe your aesthetic?

JM: Space, you say. Field in me even back then in the '60s. An extent spread out. Is this decision-threatening for a character, a perceiver? But more, opening up the decision with this spread of possibility. Aiming. In the brief sentence, or the long, coastal sentence, neural, multiplying-thoughtful in that the questions don't quit (well, kids are told to quit asking questions, though they don't put up with that any more). Sentences physical, muscular--the body with its motives. It's what I am mixed up in and aim for in a sentence, which is sometimes a narrative in itself, changing course, does that make sense? To suggest what it is to be awkwardly alive, not done yet, and kinetic and ready--often an odd idiom that will turn away from the syntax, the sextant, and navigate on its own. It's about coming upon and finding-- Brodkey more than DeLillo, at random, Sebald and Celine rather than Balzac. For me embodied in the bumpy, potholed field of our mixed language, foolish, free, domestic, consumer, technical, amorous, bop, science, lyric, politically absurd, the lewd. The abstract: I've had my say about it in a piece called "Socrates on the Beach." Abstract in later Stevens, Emerson, sometimes Melville, even in my experience as some of Andrew Chiappe's diction lecturing on Shakespeare at Columbia could be intimate, sudden, endless, looking in more than one direction though not, as in my vocab unpredictably slangly, I would hope never to be out of sync with direct and vernacular image--for example, in Dante. I don't have an aesthetic that wouldn't sound . . .

TS: Where do your stories come from?

JM: My stories begin from thing or word and they think of the most interesting event you could make up.

TS: More than any other contemporary novelist (except perhaps Richard Powers), you engage the bond between the event and the observer. In Actress and in Lookout Cartridge, in the Apollo essay and your 9/11 piece, your attention returns to the density of this connection.

JM: Bond is a nice warm word here--chilling too in Cordelia, who was in fact warm in the attention she gave her father's question. Bond between event and observer. Book reviews I try to write once in a while describe the book the best I can; so the reader gets an idea of the book. Occasionally I come across pieces about my books that help to show me what I'm doing. One of these is an essay by Yves Abrioux, about emotion and perception as motion and the potential for it in my fiction paralleled somewhat in Deleuze's analysis of the action image in film, and in contrasts between the predictable or integral and the less predictable dynamics in, for example, an action occurring between two people. I come back to a sort of family of people, of potentials, living together more or less inclining to connect, trying to dive out into things, into business and love and the field of accelerating loss without ever losing touch with home, parents, children, marriage--those questions and the terribly specific personalities you grow up surrounded by. But with me that's absorbed into a kind of writing you don't sum up as the anecdote of a birth or a misunderstanding, or a hobby or a job drama, even an obsession with recording everything: it seems to me like plotting it all in a moving potential space, the unpredictable family which is the family of its possible expressions, yet more a field (which was always there from the beginning in A Smuggler's Bible, with its crude gaps "we" had to bridge with another interior voice or commute among, like a local archipelago). And the family dispersed and called into question in city and country, in Hind's Kidnap. And as I've said here and there in some non-fictional pieces, a field of developing surprise which is the mind and parts of the body nearly congruent finding an action that is breaking apart or jumping gaps. Of sudden understanding, of breaks in the sequence at large, from the beginning, in the bridge--sections of A Smuggler's Bible and in the names of the 3 parts of Hind's Kidnap. The 9/11 essay begins with neighborhood, shock, my family, others, and finds its action in thinking about use and rebuilding. It's one of the better things I've written.

TS: For me, there's an expansiveness about your writing--a desire, a close attention, the bridges, hinges, and the sense of betweenness and becoming. Could you say more about this potential space?

JM: Beginnings seem always to be about the breakdown of knowing. Childbirth--"after all she was not so sure what had happened. . . ." Becca getting slugged on stage as seen by Daley: "A shock, that's all it was, in the darkened house." At the beginning of Lookout Cartridge, this incapacity to grasp expands, doesn't it?

Check my remarks on Giedion in "For the Love of Books." There's my quandary that I try to turn into action. Artistic completion versus what an old friend of mine in an essay on Milton's "At a Solemn Music" called the evidence of the writer's "chips and shavings" lying on the workroom floor, something like that.

TS: More concretely, much of your fiction revolves around Brooklyn Heights. How important is place to your work?

JM: Place is the outside in motion multiplying which is imagined and therefore inspiring and potential, also the sum and product of accidents. Brooklyn Heights, an enclave supposedly safe--whatever is alive and keylike and extended and connective about a place called Brooklyn Heights for the reader reading is the first thing, and it has next to nothing to do with a neighborhood whose skeleton you might still visit. A biographer told me The Letter Left to Me was a superb book about Brooklyn Heights. I think he missed the point as much as someone who wanted to know whether the event that begins that book really happened to me. Cities have obviously provoked me to remember, just as they indeed are rememberings. They are maps outside and inside and things can happen there which must be beyond my perception of them.

TS: Could you describe your writing process?

JM: A mass of notes and lists revised and revised, while also sentences get written down and phrases as I listen for a voice not quite single that could last through a whole narrative.

TS: Would you discuss the idea of abuse in Actress?

JM: The short story fragment or idea from which the novel developed had another title with "abuse" in it. I always had to find the fertile imbalance, the growth stuff in the abuse: not to turn away from the reality of the abuse--Becca's family, Daley's also--but to emphasize rebuilding of the life rather than victims and perpetrators. The misuse of people, the counterpoint of brothers, hers and his, the subtle poise of guilt against attention and need. I was risking political incorrectness.

TS: Do you have any feelings about being labeled as an "experimental" writer or as a writer of experimental fiction?

JM: "Experimental" in most publishing houses is a dismissive term. Therefore maybe counterproductive for the real enthusiasts and supporters to use. As with "difficult" so with "experimental," the burden should be on the user to identify what the word means exactly. Putting images together in a fresh or arresting way? (Check out the genuine American surrealism of Dow Mossman in the latter sections of The Stones of Summer.) Mixing up time sequence? Using free association?--but if so, association of what with what? Is The Waves "experimental"? You bet it is. Seeing what can be done with the real experience of perceiving. I, come to think of it, wrote a novel called Plus which is ABOUT an experiment. Controlled experiment which . . . well it gets out of control, becoming another experiment I suppose.

TS: Navigating these "fields of impinging informations" (Lookout Cartridge 465), the reader and the narrative consciousness are often pulled in multiple directions. In a recent essay on Jackson Pollack and Ray Johnson, William S. Wilson cites a line from Women and Men--"Nature, spied back through one of its own eyes"--to describe this link between the observer and the event. What interests you about these fields of dependent energies that emerge? How we perceive an event is a dynamic participatory process, isn't it?

JM: Though the sense of three or four things happening at once can be rendered in or by the reader's mind, simultaneous perceptions can be given in prose on the page only in a sequence (sometimes called linear), sentence upon sentence. Linear sequence on the page is what I the writer am stuck with but it is joined by the mind of the reader turning it into simultaneity. This doesn't mean the New Age "picnic" Harold Bloom describes, "to which the authors bring the words (or some of them anyway) and the readers bring the meanings" (The American Religion 184). It's like the observer bargaining with what he observes, or the thinker being part of what he thinks, thus a limit--the acknowledgment of which is "Nature spied back through one of its own eyes." In the trap or limit is our largeness. Am I interested only in how things happen? No, it is the constant, falling exchange between what we ought to do and what we can see happening almost out of control.

Family relations like the body hold the unseen vectors and abstractly measurable weathers that are as real as a father's regret expressed unsuccessfully to a son or the intimations of a sixth sense that a man in Actress in the House won't acknowledge in himself but readers will see. The structures of vagary. Freedoms we almost have. Why one brother, Daley, went to an imperial war. What the other brother, Wolf, absurdly gifted as a survivor, meant when he called Daley much more of a risk-taker than he himself: there is the whole story.

TS: What are you working on?

JM: A novel that comes from an earlier published book--certainly a risk. And a long thing called Voir Dire in progress since 1991. Also a text in collaboration with a composer. And an essay on water.

TS: What are you reading now? Are there any authors with whom you feel your work is connected?

JM: Reading people who think, or are trying to. Mostly non-fiction. U.S. history. And science and philosophy in constant snatches. At the moment (9/29), Svevo's novel Zeno's Conscience, the Weaver translation at last bringing me into a narrative uncanny in its swerves of intent, awful, banal, deep. I'm writing something about it because what I've read over the years in essays and introductions misses so much of Svevo's way, his peculiar suspenseful and surprising sequence, the infra structure, the actual writing. I read maps, worldwide earthquake bulletins, I read what I want to find out about. Government lies. Structural materials. All this can be used against me. I read newspapers. I read reviews which are sometimes about the reviewer pretty much. I write a few reviews a year and almost endlessly reread drafts of them to make sure they describe the book. I'm told it's a waste of time, but it all helps me learn to write.

Somewhere in me there's the employer whom I ask what is my job who answers, A little bit of everything.

Writers I feel my work is connected with? Melville, the Sir Thomas Browne Melville, the people at risk in their understandings. The Sir Thomas Browne Melville and the sometimes loaded-in information about the Pequod's work are often more interesting than the supposed adventure action of the Pequod's voyage; not Browne's melancholy comfort, however: Melville's doubt and dread and terrible readiness are the true text and are his thought. Proust: the people, the thought: not so much the involuntary memory idea at the end of "Overture" which is often spoken of and regularly misunderstood. Rather, the splendid, frank thinking meshed with the people.

Read more about Joseph McElroy at www.josephmcelroy.com.

Fall 2003 Table of Contents