I can open the novel on any page and shudder at the horrors:
Why scapegoat? Because history through scapegoat turns Cruel to Fair, Revenge to Reciprocity, shifts windows to present a parallel sacrifice: so Jim Mayn’s father Mel (upon Sarah’s suicide) is your widowed scapegoat for his ignorance of life’s sweet mystery – when from his office where he’s known for saying, “Let’s look at the history,” he came home, though homeward not quite to (and latish) Jim’s penetrating mother – ever late to her who seemed not to leave the house much (when did she? and when did lower Main Street see her? when did Jim’s grandmother up the street see her, her daughter? do we not know?) – and coming home, Mel is tired and yet threatening to bend someone’s ear (though never tweak), even hers, he wants to tell all at the end of the day: about reviewing Wilkie’s One World (oh it was his lovely hair and Saint Bernard eyes – Sarah chilled her husband’s fervor – that made you think Wilkie the Democrat’s Republican) but Sarah’s not political – never mind the newspapers in the family since long before even her mother Margaret’s continental adventures of the early nineties; or Mel wants to tell about Should we subscribe to the new wire service (1941-41-ish) – or Mel’s telling (at the end of the day) all about Pennsylvania cousin running for mayor “over there,” for God’s sake, son of if-you-recall uncle who ran from restaurant to restaurant with the dynamite-tossing anarchists during the vacation in Paris 1894):
… while she too is scapegoat . Sarah (if angelwise we many descend on her who one day around the end of the wars put her foot down – but on the sea, we head added as if in poetry as if we didn’t know as if some additive from unknown within us) – and escaped at least that life; though wasn’t he the one who wasn’t there? (he left to go downtown! Jim’a father, the husband Mel Mayn, if not Grace’s Lou).
Yet some of him she kept. Some Lou. So did she throw away the wrong part? (asked our resident angel rabbi with honed wit resuscitating old MacDune’s athletic twist that the Matter angels are part made of is not really corporeal! – which is why angels can in great numbers occupy one place – whereas a human person)…
no Jew Lou, the name that Lou is short for’s, yes, Ripley) – her man, her one-time man with R.R. on the combo-lock (tho no more in it than in all the dumb stuff they employ telepathy to send) attaché (maybe nuclear emergency) case who goes such a long time without breathing that maybe we expected him to evolve, easing us of our jittery distance which ‘mung angel is code for what went on between them, and on and on – just plain inertia- no crying-out-loud, no fistiquiff, ‘twas mystery why (pir-quoit) they stayed nor split. (pp. 161-162)
I detested reading Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; and I could have left it at that if The Untranslated hadn’t asked me for a review. Less and Less I see the point of writing about novels I don’t like; the brevity of life imposes upon one a need for priorities. These days I deal with negativity in my private affairs so much that I try not to bring it into the safe haven that I have turned my blog into. Writing about McElroy’s novel doesn’t make sense to me unless I use this opportunity to write about novelists I do like.
First of all I faced the prospects of reading McElroy’s legendary 1987 novel with enthusiasm; I had heard about his infamous difficulty, but I filed it away as a variation of the nonsense that makes quite enjoyable novelists like William H. Gass, Thomas Pynchon and even Vladimir Nabokov – how he of all people earned that reputation astonishes me – sound intimidating, unrewarding, and unpleasant; so I bought Women and Men with relish, anticipating the pleasures McElroy would give me, like other American novelists who emerged during the ‘60s have. Well, regarding the pleasure part, the English language invented the word jowfair for what happened next.
Imagine spending over a thousand pages with two ordinary quidam explaterating in stream-of-consciousness, to the rhythm of endless, chronologically-fragmented schizothemia, about their uninteresting, uneventful lives, routines and aspirations, in clumsy, rough prose that offends your aesthesis, not so much with the sheer impenetrability of its logorrhoea, as with its absolute ugliness. One’s a journalist, the other gives female masturbation workshops, but don’t let this fool you; sometimes I think McElroy had in mind a parody of ‘70s feminism, but what in another writer’s hands would have provided countless laughs, in his it merely seems contrived. I asked you to imagine their company for one thousand pages, but in fact I gave up just before I reached three hundred, the whole brevity of life impositions business…
Like many of his coevals, Elroy rarely cultivated the essay form; I find this regrettable because they tend to provide good insight into their minds and methods. However in 1974 he did write Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts. At least I can say that title and content mirror their author’s perfectly. John Barth’s essays have the humour and narrative thrust of his novels, they impel me forward; Gass writes essays as delicate as his fiction, poring the same attention into their sentences, inducing me to pause to savor a metaphor or alliteration. McElroy, in turn, wrote his essay with the same choppiness, opacity and disorder that makes his novel nearly impenetrable and hostile. Still some bits shone with grim, cautionary meaning: “Reading Gravity’s Rainbow at last in the Spring of ’74, I felt again and again that it could have been stronger if Pynchon had found a way to crystallize some quantities of chronicle and ambiguous humor into forces of contemplative form that would do more justice to all that he sees and knows.” Oh, dear, he belongs to that type, doesn’t? He prefers contemplation to humour. This rang alarms in my head. “It may be that Pynchon is too humanly appalled, too much a would-be narrative entertainer, and too temperamentally much the apocalyptician to make a purer and fuller use of his technology and science.” Wait, did he just complain that Pynchon adheres too much to narrative? Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, notorious for its formlessness? McElroy thinks it has too much form? Perhaps somebody could rise the level of chaos and shapelessness a bit; perhaps he was the man for the job. As I read this essay, after having endured a few pages of his unbearable tome, in hope of finding an explanation, I thought to myself, “This is what you write when you think Pynchon is too structured, too narrative, too tight; you write something like Women and Men.”
At this point I should applaud McElroy for crossing new limits, expanding the boundaries of the novel, innovating the form; I know I should relish at “new syntax,” like experimentalism paladin Ben Marcus does when he’s not writing conventional novels like The Flame Alphabet. I wanted to applaud this novel; it’s long and complex, and took a decade to write, it makes huge demands, and people I admire praise it. It seemed just like the type of novel I was reading. But now, honestly?
You see, somewhere around November 2013 my reading habits changed. As you all know, I have written a novel; I began writing it in September 2013, and by October I had a first draft finished, an enormous pile of dung that left me despising myself for having produced a substandard novel with which to pollute the world, exactly what I had promised myself I would not do.
Despondent, I examined myself to understand what had gone wrong, besides lack of literary gifts. Being November, José Saramago’s birthday, I had finished re-reading The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, so I started thinking about everything that novel could do that mine couldn’t. It made me think of the omnipresent narrator’s voice, the metafictional asides, the nonchalance with storytelling, the pervasive humour. It made me think of another novel I had recently read, Gonzallo Torrente Ballester’s Fragmentosde Apocalipsis. This novel has one of the most wondrous events in any book I’ve ever read: at one point the narrator, who’s also the author living inside the novel and commenting on it while he builds its narrative, decides to take his girlfriend on a trip to an island where a docile singing dragon lives. Since he’s the author he can do whatever he wants, so he just imagines themselves flying and up they go, arriving quickly on the island, where he instantly conjures the singing dragon because he can. As I thought about these two novels in tandem, I asked myself, “Why can’t my novel have singing dragons whenever I want? Where did I go wrong with it?” I’m sure I’m not the first person in the history of novel writing to ask that question. My novel, at the time, obeyed a simple structure: a protagonist narrated a series of events, with a few temporal jumping back and forth, about his life from childhood to his present situation. I came to hate the oppression of this format on my imagination; I couldn’t abandon this protagonist’s experiences, I had to tell everything from his perspective, and to make matters worse I hadn’t made him a particularly interesting character. The novel, in its primitive form, was bland, insipid and devoid of redeeming merits.
Now the breakthrough that made my novel writing a great joy throughout the year of 2014 was my realizing that I needed to shift from a first person to third person narrator, to make myself free to roam, digress, jauk, dwale and astrogate through my novel in whatever directed I wanted; follow a different path whenever my instincts told me that there was some fossicking to do in the vicinities; forget the protagonist for a while, do something else, come back later, he’ll still be there.
I didn’t add a singing dragon to it, but the actual Universe shows up as a character, busy trying to answer a question the desperate protagonist asks him; and angry Muses intervene too, and God promenades through an art gallery taking notes for the next time he wants to have a go at a better Creation; and I describe the collapse of the Sistine Chapel as if it were a paternalistic wild life documentary; and the deranged protagonist has dialogues with his sigmatism-sounding cerebellum (get it?); I even have talking animals, because at this point all the rules of good taste have been broken anyway. Torrente Ballester can keep his singing dragon! Not many pages go without my reminding the reader that there’s almost no adherence to verisimilitude here. More than an omniscient narrator, Torrente Ballester showed me that I should instead strive to produce an omnipotent narrator, who can do whatever he wants whenever he feels like it, without any regard for reality.
As I continued my self-examination I asked myself why I wanted to write, but before that I had to ask myself why I like to read. And as I slowly got rid of the predictable and false reasons – because it makes us feel human (as opposed to what?), because it teaches us about others (shouldn’t we learn that from dealing with others? Aren’t books actually stealing time away from others?), because they’re mirrors to reality (don’t we have newspapers for that?) – I realized I enjoy books because I like strange stories with strange characters doing strange things; I like humour and suspense; I like surprises; I like novels with arcana and useless but delightful factoids (mine’s full of them); I like novels that celebrate imagination in itself. During the first months I had written the novel others expected me to write, the default novel, what Steven Moore in The Novel: an alternative history as “straightforward, lightly romanticized stories of recognizable people out of everyday life, usually narrated in chronological sequence and in language no different from that of the better newspapers and journals.” Beginning with my second draft I swore to myself I wouldn’t write this!
Regarding this matter I received considerable inspiration from American novelists. Although Torrente Ballester and Saramago took care of my impasse with content, I had trouble with form. Then around mid-2014 I read Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat, then Gass’ Middle C, and a quartet of António Lobo Antunes novels, and I let their beauty, delicateness, musicality, ample vocabularies, unpredictable metaphors and similes seduce me. Before I knew it I was rewriting my novel – it went through 5 or 6 drafts – incorporating their lessons. By the end of Summer 2014, I had a good idea of how I wanted my novel to be: funny, surprising, unpredictable, gripping, totally unrealistic, highly attentive to language and vocabulary, hopefully not indifferent to human interest, and I daresay even erudite; this last part comes from making the mistake of reading The Recognitions; after that I learned that a novelist can never be too erudite.
Whether I achieved my goals is irrelevant. What matters is that at some point my tastes and interests greatly changed. Writing a novel has changed me. I don’t think it has made me a better person; in fact it has made me more selfish, easily irascible, nitpicky, solitary, and even bitter. But when I write I don’t worry about that. I just about gave up a life, I spent more money than I should have on reference materials, stopped going to the movies. I learned to take pleasure in many things I don’t recommend: spending an hour trying to craft an alliterative sentence or weaving an inner rhyme; transferring marginalia from reference books to Word documents; browsing the dictionary for the right word I don’t mean Flaubert’s bon mot, which concerned creating a sense of elegance; I mean the exact, correct word for that thing you think there isn’t a word for. Did you know that the tips of shoelaces are called aglets? That to cloffin means to sit idly by a fire? That the inability to recall a precise word is called lethologica? The problem with becoming obsessed with words in one language is that I became obsessed with them in another. Too much Theroux ruins a person’s sanity; maybe that’s why he’s out of print. I’ve lost count of the hours I plundered dictionaries, catalogued words, made excel sheets organized by theme; I basically created my individual, open-ended thesaurus which I augment every day. I also have lists for rhymes and alliteration, which led to new discovered; I’ve discovered, for instance, that the best consonant to make alliterations with in Portuguese is the latter t; you have greater chances of finding a word wherein the stress falls in a t-sounding syllable than any other. I’m not crazy, by the way. I’ve also discovered that assonance is really hard in Portuguese, although a-sounds are more common; e sounds are alright, I-, o- and u-sounds are very rare, although not impossible to use if I browse entire dictionaries looking for words. That also means walking around with notebooks and writing down am unusual word every time it comes to me, paying attention to the sounds in them. It also means sometimes getting up in the middle of the night to write down a word that I know will greatly improve the book if it replaces another word in the sentence. And so many more degrading, embarrassing things have afflicted me that I don’t recommend writing novels to anyone.
But novel writing has the further disadvantage of turning me intolerant to other novels. I turn to the great novelists I like to keep me inspired and challenged; they’re navigational stars orienting me safely to my destination. Writing has shown me the importance of concentration instead of dispersal; rather than constantly looking for new novelists, I return to the ones I know will give me that necessary jolt; I need novels that constantly tell me, “You need to be this good, you have to do better, you can’t be satisfied with the shit you’ve written,” I’ve become quite choosy.
What do I like in a novel? I like imagination: The Third Policeman, The Master and Margarita, Nights at the Circus, The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr. I like the intrusion of the fantastic in everyday reality: Jorge Luis Borges, Garcia Márquez. I don’t mind difficulty and hermeticism so long as the narrative rewards me with humour and entertainment: I'll gladly endure Lobo Antunes’ tortuous prose just to enjoy his lyrical acidity; I don’t mind fishing in 18th century dictionaries to understand paragraphs of Aquilino Ribeiro. Now this is where McElroy comes in; I don’t like his novel because it has nothing to offer me in return for my hard work; if I unravel the humorless, cumbersome stream of consciousness of his two protagonists, I’ll end up with… what? The life stories of two ordinary people whose existences are indistinguishable from those I see around me? What does that add to my life? I don't want literature to reflect; I want it to add, give me what real life can't give me. Reading this novel is like having direct access to a Facebook wall inside someone's head; why would I want to get inside the heads of ordinary people? I may as well go roll around a junkyard for fun.
I was reading a book on Eça de Queiroz and came across this great sentence about The Relic, my favourite novel by him; it turns out his first biographer, João Gaspar Simões, was quite irate about this charming and hilarious novel; JGS saw it as a betrayal of the author’s Realist creed, a rejection of his sharp social analysis, which was just a copy of what everyone else was writing in Europe at the time. Alas, he couldn’t appreciate a really original novel. “A picaresque anecdote, without cultural responsibility nor psychological verisimilitude,” he summed it up dismissively. I love this sentence because it perfectly describes my own novel. More and more I feel tired of psychological verisimilitude. I walk in the streets, look at people, and don’t find them very plausible or realistic; I find my characters more substantial and captivating than most people I know. Another negative effect writing has had on me: it has heightened my misanthropy. But Women and Men expects me to be dazzled just because McElroy created these hyper-realistic consciousnesses, and he uses stream of consciousness to so we can have a more direct, non-language-mediated access to consciousness, because apparently that's a desirable goal, and I should applaud and admire because we all know novels are supposed to create realistic consciousnesses. I’m supposed to cheer at a novelist who’s locked himself in a prison that doesn’t allow him to flex his imagination in whatever direction he wants just for the hell of it. Uh, nope, I’m not going to play that game. I prefer pedantic Tomcat Murr writing his autobiography; I want Behemoth causing mischief in Moscow; I long for singing dragons.
I don’t have anything to review Women and Men about; basically my problem with it is that it’s not the type of novel I want to read. I accept that, I see the foolishness of criticizing a novel for not being what I want it to be. These days I prefer to praise, that’s why I surround myself with great novels I know will have my praise. And nowadays I’m in no mood to praise a novel that is so imaginatively restricted – that favors the miniature instead of that mural; that follows Marc Rothko instead of Giovanni Paolo Panini – that it precludes a novelist from adding a singing dragon; for me that is a faulty novel that should go back to the draft stage. That’s how I think about novels these days; I don’t know if it’s a rational way of thinking about novels, but I feel quite happy this way. More than I ever did reading Joseph McElroy.