Night Soul

By Joseph McElroy

Dalkey Archive
January 2011

Reviewed by Joe Milazzo


A scenario typical of what unpredictable life throngs Joseph McElroy's cities, maybe, in my encompassing where this review could begin: with the act of actually, bodily—in saccades, at hours tipping into bedtime, seated, being lifted or driven from destination to destination, and so on—reading Night Soul billowing into event, fanfare turned overture furling into a darkness free of obscurity and, in opening a face yet forming, substituting for if not shrugging off the characterization that my reading's absorptions could be impersonating the nocturnal reaches through which nearly all of the collection's fictions branch and correct themselves. A scenario so within this book itself that I thought to myself midway through its pages that McElroy's stories work at dreaming's labors—"the dreamwork that gets us from this day to the next"—or, although not superficially dream-logical, the stories overlap with dreams in occupying lyric time, or an imminence of purely contingent cruciality we, restful or in scanning ourselves as readers, more reflexively assign to lyric poetry with its musing I's and its activities "of matters' course" and not narrative, not action making its always impressive prepositional forays, carving out the slopes and worrying forth the chasms of even perfectly resolved fiction. But, having now lived longer with the ending of the book than any of its other parts, I am more easily displaced from certainty by my own conclusions. And so I must now persevere back through this guiding insight, less to test it, to switch on every light and send a cascade of verification through its every last channel, than to experience all over again whether the notion that McElroy's prose is structurally (genetically?) poetic is scaffolded by connections that form a tissue or whether the message portended by that idea, having vanished back into the mass of the possible, now merely haunts Night Soul's outlines, rendering its conceits former, transforming what was legible into a kind of paranoia. And it is appropriate for knowledge ignorant of its own excess to have been masking the margins... McElroy, I tell myself in the act of reminding you who may be reading me, is a novelist, a plotter (though in nearly all these stories, literary plot is just a flirtation or a hallucination, a little too much knowing on the side upending the dim rooms in which it burgeons, forcing floors to catapult past ceilings, roofs, breaking out), and these short stories are like a secret, one the author has kept not from us but to himself. I want this distinction to be a mindful one. You have read the first step, and, if you choose to pursue this, you will perhaps resolve that this was what you were about to read anyway. And as I must, and as you might notice, these words cannot go back except through the recitation of McElroy's text in which all their interferences first found voice. We are well past imitation or the adoption, like protective coloring, of style here. We are still telling the reading about itself. Or, as one of McElroy's protagonists seizes on it: "Like why do you tell someone something? To hear how it comes out."

Please do not ask me what these stories are about. (They are about plenty.) No amount of synopsis will make you want to read them. Taxonimization hardly stirs either, although it is important—or perhaps only reassuring—to regard that these stories have been assembled from over 30 years of McElroy's writing life, although the collection's density is largely attributable to the author's recent work. This much I can say: ultimately, the stories taken together in Night Soul distinguish themselves most by abandoning any other intentions for the sake of mapping human relation and transaction out of chance, into unexpected encounters defining settings in which the intersections of very different people are unremarkable, rare, and necessary even when irreparable (adults will almost always betray or disappoint children, and a villain must remain a villain, even when that villian is a sort of friend). With "setting" I am trying a shorthand that will carry me from environment—urban or wild; desert, lake-town, a shadow planet; China, Syria, Canada, a remoteness where citizenship, like a radio signal, wavers and goes flat—through to ecology, a "place" by virtue of how all our interdependencies occasion it. Since Women and Men in particular, McElroy's fiction has felt acutely this straining for a global perspective that our better selves (in that giant novel, actual angels) would encourage us to make ours but is not for our natures to keep within their limits. Or: to achieve such awareness, something must happen at and to our innermost extremities. Something has to fail, usually invention. And when our ingenuity falters, we fall back on feeling, only to have feeling lapse and leave us catching ourselves. So let's take to building backwards, as either the author himself or one of his agents (a boy reading a letter? a father, now past, writing that same letter?) instructs me in some sketch of recall. In Night Soul, there is comfort for characters and readers alike in small, bounded truths, almost all of them realized through touch, with both seeing and hearing so attuned they remember that they too are rationalized expressions of a more instinctive faculty.

One hand before it has stopped advancing answers the other in reverse.

It makes the tree a building, me inside coated with a mold of intrigue, boy inertia, flesh, hearing historically again and again a car on the ground, my dad an hour ago departing (as if he'd taken something)—the need for a plan.

The logic popped his ears coming in for a landing, was it the acupuncture? Inside of right knee local-calling the heel or long-distancing the collarbone? Limbs mixing from inside surprised at what got said.

Like the poet whose lyrics model workshops, McElroy is salvaging from the oblivion of our own constant-ness (not constancy, in fact, far from it) those instants that, in their observed passing, grant us some reprieve, a reprieve in their generosity, their reception of our attention. Except there is a pang that signals this little rescue, an improbability to every possibility that is the edge of the vertigo of those truths expanding or venturing out into territory more absolute and selfless and staked out by those questions rhetoric would desperately cleave.

Is water itself pressing against the leak now, and is this another part of the bark canoe, this leak?

Yet do not some thoughts need to forget the work they sprang from? Like childbirth, like hatred toward a friend, even the materials from which a formula is framed.

What did you get out of being equal to it?

Going back to the book's end, you see we are told this early, as if to assure us that we will certainly forget it only to be called back by it as well as to it:

To go from thing to thing, unafraid—knowing the truth has a better chance sudden and unforeseen, than settled and...

From 20, 50, 100 pages distant, such stranded thought can hardly be made out where it lies, and so it shimmers, a reminder in the form of a refrain within that first story, "No Man's Land", but also a reminder repeating itself to make new boundaries, notches here and bulges there swapping places, further migrating throughout Night Soul and interposing itself as at least one answer to everything I've quoted above.

Like the observations and questions rising like landmarks across this collection, we readers are not broken or ruined or so much as we are built partial. Like the characters in Night Soul, we readers are prose rhythms half-submerged or emerging from a vocal impulse. This is language that understands how thought is itself a unique and muffled uttering, the origin of speech but also an imitation of speech itself. Thought thinking itself, what McElroy writes of as "those inside conversations mouthless and runaway." Yet, as a poet would argue, there is apostrophe here, and the listening on which talk depends itself becomes an assembly of comprehension, so that conversation is always more than itself, and never one-sided. All involuted strokes and crabbed whorls, a hand that's long served as a naming's shell-like habitation, McElroy's sentences construct circumstances where the voice recognizes it physical limits, too, its periodicity, its segmentation. McElroy's writing is heavy with interstices. Each pause is a potential truncation, but each subsequent utterance is a departure toward some direction whose heedings flash too quickly and in a pattern too complex to have been followed. And intimated by these widening intervals is a challenge McElroy's characters sometimes meet, sometimes thwart, sometimes realize only once insight's insomnia takes over, realizations arriving in the middle of the day and night like the irregular pageant that troubles Hawthorne's wandering Robin in "My Kinsman, Major Molineux"—are these realizations neighbors, or revelers, gentlemen, fiends? Not phrased as a question, but after all there is in Night Soul a challenge that is still a wondering: "They open to each other without at all getting mixed up together."

But I can hear myself, caught in my own determination, wanting to be swayed by that Creeley-esque imperative to "...go from thing to thing..." For Night Soul is concerned, and at the proper scale, with the small. Canoes, boomerangs, bicycles, cribs, strands of silk, even quotes—musical as well as verbal—"tossed off," and the mere involuntariness of respiring. McElroy is, in his fiction, palpating these apparent ordinaries with doctorly pointedness, soft when it has to be, but still pressing at some industry. Probity? It feels obtuse to characterize McElroy as overtly particular. Is he earthy? There's a streak of pragmatism in him, in his immediacy. Night Soul is full of stories in which all happening is indeterminate, yet the sense of occurring within them drives the old air out of your lungs, fills their pumping with a substance so clean it feels cold and bluely visible. Meaning these stories stop you, they snare you not on familiarity or by being hard to figure out but by presenting how we are creatures who, for whatever reason (and the reasons need not be absurd; they can be delightful) make even and really especially those things on which no life depends but which fill up our lives, as both nutrient and clutter, difficult to comprehend.

Thought thinking itself in a variety, non-stop, of talk... Are these stories only language and syntax and, as McElroy has written in a recent essay, "the odd life"* of words succeeding one another? Why should it be a matter of any mattering at all? Why should we care about literature that is overtly careful with respect to its own materials and makings... again, to quote from McElroy the essayist, the conflation of a path made and a path followed?* Why should the phrases impress me so? Even move me? (I'm not asking myself; what I cannot decide is interrogating me.) Because McElroy reminds us that we are not fixed, cannot be, except in and through language, its capacities to describe and explain and recount. For other writers with whom McElroy has long been treated as an associate, language is the first alienation, or this concept expresses itself in a negative theology of lies, the impoverishing impossibility of direct experience, usurping surrogates. McElroy's fiction is not naive, nor is it deaf to the deficiencies and frustrations engendered by language. But his is a fiction that understands how language is an instrument, and thus how it exists within the parallel (twin?) realms of use (in the sense of "not just") and discovery ("but also"). Thinking or speaking, fashioning words into thoughts that are no simple simile of a second nature... a character who recalls that "I found the words to every thought I never had, but I wanted the person to speak them": even this doubled-up if not gratuitous wish a further opportunity to appertain and to coincide, and to and with language, this phenomenon that is of us but not us, and importantly not unlike other people moving through the world we nominate for ourselves. The first stranger we encounter is that person who is addressed out of their semblance to the "I" we see as ourselves in a surrounding sense, that narrated "you" (McElroy again) like "an aura we would trace around a good story, this one different from any other."* Don't fear that that stranger teaches us so much. The stories in Night Soul aren't what they mean, I suppose, and are poems not in their resonances or their rendering of time so much as because the longer these stories are held by the mind, the more they change what they don't reveal, for revelation is only a trajectory out of the story, one that closes in on itself and does not admit re-entry. To borrow from one of McElroy's characters: can we be equal to what our own saying and thinking and listening and doing propose for us? And if we could be capable of both casting and standing within those shadows that are our ideas, that now, as we stand, are merely joined to us? Would this darkness feel like another night or a new illumination? It occurs to me that light has both a broad and a thin end.

The man has seen the future and should find tomorrow night that his child has left him with elements no longer of much use and has gone on, although the man leaning down nakedly into the crib and lifting the child out now remembers when he dropped everything what it was he dropped. It was mountains far from here yet just out the window, a campfire, a dog, and two men talking. And he thought that if in his sleep he had put words to it he would see again who those men were.

These stories' own individual shapes, each story being so emergent—and despite vision drilling us to repeat that emerging is more native to time than to space—are, in their transpiring dimensions, all they are to sense; I mean, as it turns out, that the enfoldings and disclosures of McElroy's short stories give in the manner of giving back. They yield a body to house our own vaulting perceptions, indeed, but their real profusion is how they reciprocate when returning alone would be sufficient. Perhaps you, as a reader coming after this one, himself just a peripatetic re-reading and writing, figure it all out by weighing whether you trust the invitation Night Soul offers. Don't depart; roam. And in being restless, in being anticipated, stay.


*All quotes from "Joseph McElroy Asks: What Can Happen?", an essay published by The Story Prize (11/09/2011)