A Chaotic Science: An Interview with Joseph McElroy

George Salis: Now that your second novel, first published in 1969, is being reprinted by Dzanc, what kind of hindsight occurs when contemplating Hind’s Kidnap? How do you see this work fitting into your oeuvre? For instance, rather than focusing on the scientific, the software and hardware, critic Joseph Milazzo suggests that there is “an abiding concern with things organic; well, make that ‘natural.”’

Joseph McElroy: The oddest of my books—of that waiting and incongruous mid-to-late-1960s time. The most fable-like McElroy though cut through by close depictions of a city population shepherded in their strange variety, their living ground an unfolding constant. So now its solvent of uncertainty and longing, of romance narrative, techno-satire, the widening reach of  the actual kidnap paths and their opposite, yes, what I called dekidnaping (the need of) a need for…where was I,  George?—there: a place elsewhere (to adapt Richard Poirier’s phrase) that might now  a half century later seem haunting prelude to our later glut of supposed communication, internet-overrun digital miasma of controls, acceleration, surfaces fleeting, a terrible gravitational gain that would grip the society.

Against which it is natural to try to be alive; “pastoral” not only in the story’s artifice—fictive nature—tree-named figures and the like, a firm’s office complex, a city pier,  a golf course landscape, complication as forms of simplifying; but in orphan parallels that bend toward family and our poignant every day. It’s still a city pastoral—where incidentally technology is often still almost neutral, as our Norwegian-American farmer-craftsman often satirical economist Thorstein Veblen argued, and to be valued pro or con by the uses to which it is put. I think that is still in the book.

The Maya scrim coding for us emergency in the culture reveals what it wraps; a long mid-section in the consciousness of a woman enclosed on either side by a 5-fold  section its sequence then reversed; the structure somewhat like, I now see, an ancient figure of speech, chiasmus, with which Henry James secretly forms his brief, profound travel sketch I’ve just happened to discover, “Winchelsea, Rye,  and ‘Denis Duval’,” in order to build with it. A natural space, Hind’s Kidnap, understood even in quirks, mistakes (that become facts), germs of language—meanings not only possessive  of “of” I still feel impinged by—taking us back and forth in HK in American bonds between fable and document into families of attention. A child called Rain (a name of that time) I recall; I only a reader of HK now, which belongs not to me alone if at all as I glance at those reviews from ’69 and ’70 and  the picture in Newsweek of me and my small and beautiful daughter Hanna whom the caption writer called my son.

GS: You’ve been working on a novel set in ancient Greece. With a historical project like this, how important is research for you as opposed to relying on the imagination? And what spurred your interest in this particular time period?

JM: I’ll keep much of this to myself till the novel is ready this summer. But the terms of your fair questions fade, displaced by our common way of thinking, of coming upon things that seem to build and join, mysteriously over a lifetime. Until one day words begin to be there, the feeling, a kind of argument, an image of a road, a face, hands, a horse, a river, a cloudburst; a character who attracts and I guess through me creates other characters, half-grasped ideas that have consequences. And maybe sixty years of thinking and not thinking about it after the premise for the Greek thing first sort of came to me and probably longer ago than that, what you call the “research” just gathers unmethodically, attaching where it can, looking again—reading and, please, rereading books and places and my life with other people and myself, if not a butterfly (much less mounted in a savant’s file), a hummingbird outwitting a kestrel. A difficult, almost impenetrable humdrum crisis between two (or let’s better say three) people outlasting some would-be censor complaining of the “difficult” in fiction, art, probably life.

But 5th-century BC Greece was a particular time I believe I’ve been quite faithful to and here to a notion I’d never really made a book of—i.e., that strong historical fiction finds a small, significant gap or dark unknown potential that’s in fact surrounded by circumstances we actually do know about; and thus in this as yet unrecorded situation and partly out of those circumstances events emerge—in some sense invented. But I would not invent alternatives to what we already know. Which sets my Greek narrative apart from other books I could name, though gives it a relation to others that do curiously honor these limits. Some years ago invited by an editor I published a short impromptu essay, hardly more than a rumination, about three historical novels that (like a lot of my reading) is chosen yet then finds new attachments in a field of unexpected directions.So it came to me, came to mind, more or less unrelated, “Convinced by Fiction, Convinced by History: Three Novels.”

I believe my Greek novel may be of interest as a narrative about healing and medicine, an adventure we might now call feminist about a young woman of palpable originality—a surprising, untidy chapter even in the history of philosophy. Greek, even. And, yes, somehow an American novel. Beyond battles and Lives or the undoubted economic also chaotic causes of events and patterns and wise wit like History as irony in motion (and an eccentric, dazzling phil prof at Williams in 1950 who argued that history teaches nothing), is R.G. Collingwood not after all right that history is the history of Thought?

McElroy with boxes of water research

GS: Your epic nonfiction work on water has taken about a decade to write but is expected to be coming out soon. After all of your dedicated research, if you were to sum up the epiphany of your project in a single synthesized sentence, what would that be?

JM: And give you a chance to avoid reading its 600 intricate pages? —to say nothing of equipping yourself with my premise to do what with? To think with, perhaps; which is also the point of the book (and of water)—water needing a form to contain it yet within its chemistry and its perception already containing forms for us to work with. Three short pieces have been published of the Water Book (no longer in their original form), as unrelated to one another as can be; also an excerpt in New England Review about a constructed wetland in the lower Bronx River designed and engineered by the environmental artist Lillian Ball. If your word “epic” also refers to a nation’s illustrious history (as in epic poem—e.g., Iliad, Aeneid, Lusiads, even Paradise Lost, and, in fragmentary scope but quality and desire, a water-suicide Hart Crane’s The Bridge; or along other meditated meridians, Moby-Dick, more than and other than a novel, I think—look at Chapter 87, the nursing whales Ishmael looks down over the side to see—as great as any writing in our literature), my Water Book (not its actual title) builds its way through everyday science sometimes speculative, into a reciprocal ethic and aesthetic of water (been saying that for 10 years), to a politics necessarily transnational—if not quite as strictly unifying as the World Federalist vision of nations and populations with which, through my college teacher Frederick Schuman, I involved myself briefly in the late 1940s and very early 1950s that aspired to correct the unreliable options of the UN’s “collective security” premise. I can’t give you the epiphany you kindly request; but I can repeat, in translation, a Japanese senryu (something like a haiku), into which you might even put yourself:

                  If it could be wrapped
                  Water would make a fine
                  Present from Kyoto.

What else have we learned from the Japanese?

McElroy circa 1965

GS: You’ve also been finishing a novel that you started as a young man in 1948, when you were 18 years old. In the scope of this novel, and as a writer, what differences and similarities can you notice between your developing self of the past and your current experienced, nonagenarian self?

JM: The story there, nearly complete, proves to be something like one strand of my Greek novel: given the job you find yourself in, the work that you’ve more or less chosen, been hired, assigned, brought in, determined (finessed?), to do, what nonetheless is your real work? The years, so many almost too many, have converged upon me to force a new relation of Time for this almost finished narrative. Pascal: the last thing you decide is what to put first. He meant not only in a piece of writing.

GS: This is a guest question from Zachary Tanner: Do you still only write with stolen pens and sheets of paper?

JM: I’m younger than that now but with borrowed Time sometimes; (though who is Zachary Tanner, and why? the elder interviewee has a right to ask), with pens “taken” last week from a COVID-test clinic; but for years now (like my dentist) 4-color ballpoints paid-for 3 at a time from Staples and my pharmacy. And a fine old fountain pen, a gift, for special moments of confidence and recollection; and somewhere here an insufficiently sharpened pencil that’s all my hand can find reaching out blindly. Clean copy makes me uneasy. A mess of hand-scrawled interlinear seems more reassuring. [What victories are won in revision.]

GS: This is a guest question from Ben Shore: Cannonball depicts a healthy and ostensibly normalized romantic relationship between a brother and sister. Were you seeking an erasure of this taboo or simply exploring this often unexplored side of human sexuality?

JM: I suppose the latter, which makes use, though, of quite other, inchoate energies of my wish that I had had a sister. But the sibling intimacy, examples of which I have observed with suspense and compassion, reaches away from the novel’s somewhat typical, and bleak and vivid American family in San Diego and into the strangeness of the Iraq War and the healing and experiment and even math and physics that (absorbed into the body by the diver in advance) connect springboard diving with all the plotted desires in the book.

Harry Mathews and Joseph McElroy (photo by Sylvia Plachy)

GS: In a Washington Post review of your novel Women and Men, you were described by Tom LeClair as our “first planetary realist.” Do you embrace this label? What does it mean to you in relation to your work? If you reject or shy away from the label, how would you characterize the essence of your oeuvre?

JM: It makes me sound like stout Cortez discovering the Pacific, where Keats forgot it was Balboa. I wouldn’t know about “first.” I accept LeClair’s generous phrase as acknowledging some kind of scope holding, in a field of events and aspirations, stories and informations, NASA’s hard-edge reach and the intimacies and distances that define and can’t define relations between women and men. Harry Mathews called me a great storyteller and a great non-storyteller. Tensions here, too—between apparent incongruities. Always the poetry of John Donne, inescapable, the poems of the 1590s but also the rest, and the prose, and the great last poem, “Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness,” if we’re talking about scope. Differently “mixed,” of my generation, one of the greatest, Donald Barthelme.

GS: A slap, a letter, a birth, etc.—some kind of chaos theory seems to inform your work. How accurate is the notion that a butterfly’s wing flap can cause a hurricane across the world, for instance?

JM: Accurate in the linear equations Lorenz distilled and for his purposes acknowledging the nonlinear strands. But I try to keep the science honestly clear of my intuitions of precarious disorder for fiction. A thrilling and messy reciprocity between the “two” nonetheless (if they even are two) takes me back as far as I can remember. The science itself chaotic in my erratic curiosities back to the 1960s (but, as a stunned, busy child in the 1930s and early 1940s so wholeheartedly aware of New York harbor and lower Manhattan seen from Brooklyn Heights—measurable process yet immeasurable complexity and beauty, maybe my own sensitive (and hopeful) dependence on initial conditions—anxious doubts about the orderly propositions I could sometimes bother to frame out of my elders’ mental habits that pretended to shape their views), and in stories I wrote some early juxtaposing of people and machines, I recall. Yes, in the field of so many directions that Lorenz’s early 1970s hurricane work may lead—which I didn’t know about then any more than the 1960s differential equations coming upon disorder in convection currents and waterwheels—which returns for me now in water turbulence and the “Butterfly Defect” threats in small misunderstood sources in the globalization chain…and the astonishing asymmetry of the hydrogen bond (itself now under amendment) and why water thank God freezes only on the surface of the river—the Science (you tell me) might loosely confirm disorders I already risked accepting—was that it? You could call my first novel (written 1962-4) just some short stories I tried to gamble into tighter connection by means of an adroit historical metaphor. But for me the book is a coherence risking disorders in a field of multiple sequences. A Smuggler’s Bible parts of a life like pieces or fragments (perish the word way overused by now), in the sense that there were spaces between the narratives; a compromise at the time, those pieces overflowing and like memories in part adrift in part creating their branchings of relation, fine structures to be found in disorderly streams. I’m now just a reader of the book, older and even younger, forgiving the young-feeling author and respecting him.

GS: What are some novels you think deserve more readers?

JM: What readers are we talking about? Who’ve never heard of Emma or The Wings of the Dove or Tender Is The Night? I would recommend the excruciating novel about Dostoevsky’s gambling, Summer in Baden-Baden, by Leonid Tsypkin, a physician lab researcher whose very small fiction output wasn’t published in his lifetime. Pudd’nhead Wilson? Mark Twain’s uncomfortable tale about “Race.”Not a novel, Ford Madox Ford’s Women and Men (a handful of slender portraits, points of departure, no more) puts me in mind of a well-known (but really how well-known?) book of his (4 linked novels) Parade’s End that I suggest be really read—or reread—for the extraordinary understanding compressed effortlessly and elliptically in its surprising sentences, the many things at the same time that pass between people, especially the astonishing true-love story and the deceptively everyday portrait of the genius (I take him to be) Christopher Tietjens—his economics? his public policy work? his maths? More, with overwhelming psychic intimacy, his intuitions and humane understandings and gathering pessimism. To answer your question, so many books I’ve read deserve more attention—from me. Reading again and again Guy Davenport’s essays, reminded by him to think again.

GS: If not extinction, do you think the novel as an artform is approaching something of a singularity? This in relation to the trajectory of novels like Gravity’s Rainbow, J R, Women and Men, Underworld, or even Joshua Cohen’s Witz. Or perhaps this singularity began and ended with Finnegans Wake?

JM: In a word (for these variously long books), No. Though you don’t give me a principle for this “trajectory” —ambition to do what? A subject grasped in some significant, sometimes even philosophical scope? I wrote a piece for Conjunctions about JR. From time to time there will always be narratives like this of Gaddis, and readers who want the mystery of what can be contained in a book.

The Wake, while luminously, nourishingly difficult though hardly some “singular” gravitational collapse, stays true to the motions and discoveries of our stories, the distances between language’s own internal distances and the physical life we citizens of ourselves live through. I read it erratically in a graduate class at Columbia, then more closely and truly with my betters, Queens College colleague Eddie Epstein (his select graduate course) and Sheldon Brivic at Temple.

“Singularity” you say?…with its promise of black-hole death or less literally some solitary suicide (though in its original science a premise evoking precision, great forces, and thoughtful metaphor). Happens to occur to me the technical term “singularity,” literally in the thought of a fictional character yet somehow a more than metaphorical event horizon, seems shipped almost arbitrarily into the disturbing suicide near the end of Robert Stone’s global sailing-race novel, Outerbridge Reach (amongbooks I’ve caught up with almost at random during late-night Pandemic reading). In astrophysics, “singularity” an unavoidable “collapse that passes a certain point of no return” (Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality), and here, at sea, terribly stark, absolute empty death more awful than parallel to the elliptical rhetorics that elsewhere Stone, so mortally desolating and strong a writer though at pivotal moments vulnerable to crippled, will sometimes employ to end his narratives or to suggest drug or alcohol trips (called incorrectly by critics “surrealistic”), sometimes in Stone it can be Just Writing that swerves away from what could happen between the people—at the end of Dog Soldiers, for example, or A Hall of Mirrors. And, like the avoidance of responsibility for children, a theme in Stone, seen as That’s Real Life or as inevitable, somewhat like the alcoholic’s rue coupled with bravado experience (sic) of risk leaves a residue like a mere weakening of imagination in a writer of such gifts.

Also, “singularity” all that difficult science an experimental texture absorbed in or making to clarify or inspire even for an amateur or science dilettante like me who might also be a thinker in fiction finding with Coleridge’s “shaping spirit” of imagination and Wittgenstein’s “need of questioning” forms that afford some challenging refuge and passage to truth of character and plot, where a colossal, somewhat coldly exhaustive large- and narrow-scope JR may be kin to any serious novel.

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Author photo by Boone McElroy

Joseph McElroy is the author of nine novels, including A Smuggler’s Bible (Harcourt), Hind’s Kidnap (Harper & Row), Ancient History: A Paraphase (Knopf), Lookout Cartridge (Knopf), Plus (Knopf), Women and Men (Knopf), The Letter Left to Me (Knopf), Actress in the House (Overlook), and Cannonball (Dzanc, 2013). He received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and fellowships from the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and D.H. Lawrence Foundations, twice from Ingram Merrill and twice from the National Endowment for the Arts. Among other universities, he has taught at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, University of New Hampshire, Temple, NYU, the University of Paris, and the City University of New York. McElroy was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930. He was educated at Williams College and Columbia University. His website is here.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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