Review

Numéro Cinq recently posted my review of Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElory.

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, these are 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.  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.

Read the rest here.