Read-in-Progress: Joseph McElroy, Women and Men

To paraphrase Throwing Muses: Why do I like thousand-page novels? ‘Cause I do.

My essay on loving long books turned out to be garbage. “Really? Why?” But I’m currently reading one particular long book: Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, which at 1,192 pages earns its place on this list of the world’s longest novels. I’m only forty-five pages into it, but I’m already seeing signs that it’s going to be a painful slog.

Some of them are right in the blurbs.

In Women and Men, Joseph McElroy is attempting nothing less than asking us to redefine the novel. in ways which Joyce in Ulysses and then in Finnegans Wake forced us to do. –Frederick R. Karl, Review of Contemporary Fiction

Anyone who seriously studies contemporary American fiction reads, at some point, McElroy. –Neil Schmitz, Buffalo News

Thousand-page novels are my version of premium cable dramas. They’re thoughtful, ongoing, peopled by an ensemble cast, and they can spend a satisfying amount of time roaming the world they build. Events have consequences that can come immediately, or hundreds of pages down the road. Sometimes they’re opaque and challenging, like a gloriously long math problem you have all week to solve. They’re better than The Sims.

Unfortunately, authors sometimes treat writing a thousand pages as its own achievement (possibly because some readers view the product that way). And it’s possible to fill a thousand pages of novel in ways other than adding story. You can throw in the towel on your plot and start lecturing your readers. You can decline to edit yourself while you write and then die, so no one else can edit you. You can just not care.

Or you can pose as an innovator. Innovators insist on upending each of fiction’s conventions – cool in theory, but in practice an acute frustration. Each line of dialogue becomes an occasion for an authorial soliloquy on the genealogy of quotation marks. A character can be introduced with a description lasting ten pages, most of them about the French Revolution and the search for a cure to AIDS. An explanation of a complex event can be a simple but interminable tally of pedantic figures.

When critics compare a book to Ulysses, it invariably means that book gets over on ambition rather than logic, consistency, content, characterization, language, plot, or entertainment. It’s a sign that the book is on the road to El Dorado, but not of whether it gets there. People are welcome to “study” fiction – but if a book is for people who study fiction, the probability that it’s a self-indulgent disaster approaches 1.

Women and Men is a book for people who study fiction.

What secret? That he didn’t believe his mother had left? That he held his father responsible? No. Rather, that, falling far into the horizon, he had slipped into – that is, without benefit of much known science (he being an ordinary person) or any wish to hold a long view – or any view – of history, its thriftless drift, its missile balances, strip mining, and multinational corporate selves but also linked sphere of weather stations called the Earth, all which he helped record, journeyman that he was – slipped, yes, into future (the word is out), and from there he looked back like a shadow thrown upon us by a part of ourselves, but Mayn looked back so to the life that past was present and his secret kept – we mean he was in future as he casually joked once with not his son but his daughter, he was in future imagining our present as his past and so we may have felt truer having been imagined by him to the life since he is one of us. (32)

That’s a lot of words to say that Jim Mayn got old and nostalgic.

Elements of this paragraph work well. The clang association of “thriftless drift” is a bit of a risk, but it works in describing the immensity of “history.” “Slipped, yes, into future” is a nice revelation after the stuttering of the dashes, the “yes” affirming resignedly that Mayn, like McElroy, must go forward. But then there’s “multinational corporate selves,” which is sub-Dead Kennedys progressive-stereotype sloganeering, even if McElroy wasn’t using it to make a political point. And that last bit – “he was in future imagining our present as his past…” – is the most meaningless garbage I’ve read since Anthony Swofford wrote: ”There are many trains, but that one was mine. Without my train I am nothing, without me my train is nothing.” And I remember those lines for eight years.

McElroy isn’t a hack – elsewhere he describes waves that “rolled and eyelashed upon a beach,” creating an instantly memorable verbing. Reader reviews of Women and Men make its later episodes sound intriguing (although some of those reviews…dial it back, dudes). But while I love the challenge of thousand-page novels, I hate their self-indulgence. I’m glad I read The Recognitions. I don’t own it anymore.

Wish me luck.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Reads of the Now: John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent; Joseph McElroy, Take Two | Bitter Literature
  2. Pingback: Six Books, Seven Days: A Study in Speed-Reading | Bitter Literature

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