Finding Our Time in Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men

“We remember what’s been going on. Already remember what’s been here with us so long we had the time to see but now seem to have been waiting to remember. For who are we not to? Yet give ourselves permission also to forget.”

In the Spring of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, I was introduced to Joseph McElroy’s massive novel Women and Men. I was drawn to the book because of the mystery surrounding it. It is relatively unknown, even among literary enthusiasts. It’s often described as impenetrable, a dizzying evolution of the dense avant-garde fiction I’d developed a fondness for. Finding a copy at a bookshop is nigh impossible and buying one online is painfully expensive.

But I was also drawn to it at the time because of its focus on many of the things that, in our pandemic isolation, I was longing for: human interaction, relationships, the sprawling New York cityscape, something bigger than my immediate surroundings. I was, admittedly, forming a conception of the book based on what I was looking for at that time.

When I finally found a copy of the novel for a decent price and read it last year, I found that Women and Men was even more relevant to our time than I gathered, almost as if it were published in 2027 rather than 1987. McElroy’s attempt to reconcile the complexities of mid-20th century America resulted in a novel that predicted what American life would become just a few decades after its publication.

The book’s free-flowing structure, the way its content appears and vanishes and reappears, its outright elimination of chronology, the ambiguity of its “plot,” the inability to distinguish what is real from what is dreamt or imagined or told or foretold. These characteristics give the impression that McElroy (experiencing time much like the novel’s protagonist, Jim Mayn) had written the book from the future, as a warning of what it will be like to live in our maddening, fast-moving, technological world in which nothing seems permanent or stable.

I don’t aim to present myself as an authority on the novel, and there are already summaries of Women and Men out there, including a detailed review on this very site by George Salis. However, in preparation for the book once again returning to print this month via Dzanc Books, I want to illustrate a few ways the novel’s relevancy has grown since its publication. My hope is that, with a few themes to look out for, new readers will have an easier time making sense of such a colossal work.

I also believe the growing circle of study surrounding such a future-oriented novel can benefit from an attempt to tie it to the present—especially since the best collection of scholarship on Women and Men, the McElroy-centric issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, is now over three decades old.

Synthesis and Comparison

Wrestling with the stark sociocultural changes of mid-century America, McElroy spends a great deal of time synthesizing various aspects of American life in an effort to evaluate and compare them. But McElroy’s preoccupations while writing the book in the 70s and 80s are still ours today. Deep explorations of gender and sexuality, for example, undergird the entire novel. The principal metaphor of the book is Jim Mayn’s eerie “vision” of the future, in which men and women are literally joined into one and placed in a self-sustaining lunar colony. This vision sets up the book’s key dichotomy: a paranoid, rageful depiction of the male psyche, represented by Mayn, is contrasted with an emergent female psyche represented by Grace Kimball, a sex workshop guru with a conception of transcendence achieved by overcoming abuse, patriarchy, rigid family values, and other sociocultural shackles.

As an example, note this passage from Grace’s first major chapter, in which we meet her in her Body Room, a space mirrored floor-to-ceiling on all sides: “Because this chamber of walls mirroring candle-dusk could see. Because places could. And it would be a score of joy, scoring yourself, so she could step aside from her own body and let the recycled nudes coming out of her voice if not s’much from her workshop have the running of the world…” Now contrast this with a key segment from the phenomenal chapter “Ship Rock,” which follows Mayn’s pilgrimage to the remnants of a volcanic neck in New Mexico: “From any distance it is all by itself. But he is not thirty-five miles away now. But what is he?[…]. Ship Rock: he doesn’t know what he feels—he feels that much and more. And then he knows that if now nothing stands between him and it, nothing ever did[…]. Look, he’s not a landscape man, he didn’t plan to be here. Yet having stopped, he feels how long he’s been going. And so he looks and looks, and for several minutes he doesn’t look into other spaces of this New Mexico morning. As if he’s made a discovery.” The female psyche thrives and transcends. The male psyche is unsure of itself, searching for something.

The combination and inevitable clash—that is, the synthesis—of these two archetypal psyches with both themselves and each other govern many of the book’s relationships. Jim’s friendship with a younger man named Larry is an illustration of how that male psyche comes to be. Grace’s relationship with her business partner Maureen does the same, but on the female side. On the other hand, Jim’s relationship with his grandmother, a once-wild soul who traveled the American West in the late 19th century, illustrates the heartfelt, poignant conflict between the two archetypes. 

McElroy also seems to synthesize the many parts of the modern world that are not-so-obviously, but importantly, connected. Economics and politics are connected with psychology; climate concerns and ecology are tied to the science of modern weaponry; American history and Native American myth are tied to environmentalism and activism.

McElroy comments on macro-level subjects through the micro-level lives of the characters. My favorite example of this is the chapter “Larry,” in which a university lesson on laissez-faire economics is melded with the psychological effects of a divorce and the carnal desire for a woman. Another that comes to mind is a dream segment focused on a People-Oriented Bomb, a nuclear weapon that destroys only non-living things. In this section, McElroy outlines the cognitive effects of the bomb’s unintended destruction of dead brain matter, humanity’s attempt to capitalize, and the government’s fickle response—a comment on both human nature and the institutions that influence our lives.

Information Overload

There’s a reason Garth Risk Hallberg, in Publisher’s Weekly, nominated McElroy’s novel as one of the ten most difficult books. The most well-known characteristic of the book is its size (1,293 pages if you’re reading the Dzanc paperback edition) and its structure: long, dense “Breather” chapters narrated by a collective of angels; major, slightly-less-dense chapters focused on Mayn, Grace and those close to them; and short supporting chapters that follow tangentially related characters (who often go unnamed). Those interested in a novel like this are likely accustomed to long books with large casts and obscene amounts of information. Yet, two things separate Women and Men from other mega-novels like Gaddis’ The Recognitions, Gass’ The Tunnel, Wallace’s Infinite Jest, or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

First is the prose style of the “Breather” sections, which is McElroy’s attempt to simulate, via prose, the experience of a collective of angels—meant to represent us, all who have been born, who have died, or who are waiting to be born. These sections make up a large chunk of the book and do away with any notion of chronology or focus, which comes very close to giving you all of the novel at once.

Second is the inclusion of character-conceived theories that seek to explain the world within the novel: Mayn/Larry’s theory of Simultaneous Reincarnation (mentioned above), the prisoner George Foley’s theory of the Colloidal Unconscious (the invisible, underlying connection between every human being), Larry’s personal concept of time and/or predetermination referred to as the “curve,” and others. Each of these theories factors into the novel’s unfolding, meaning that, in a way, the characters themselves (rather than the author’s portrayal of them) contribute to the reader’s interpretation and understanding of the novel. Note the way Foley’s conception of the Colloidal Unconscious can be used to explain the invisible connections between all of the novel’s characters (and more broadly the connection between all of us as readers, as humans): “Yet some of us who share interface reach other in a mind compounded chemically but far truer than the sums of its particles—call it Colloidal Unconscious for lack of more up-to-date name; and some whose interfaces lie a billion millimeters off do reach each other and know they are amid particles suspended and dispersed…”

So what results is an unrelenting flurry of information, often grounded in some obtuse theory or belief, unbound by time or place or anything resembling traditional organization, given at a rate that makes remembering it all impossible, and yet recurring at seemingly random intervals. In other words, McElroy described, decades in advance, the inescapable, interconnected virtual frenzy in which we live now, an era in which information appears and disappears in an instant. How many emails or texts have you read that you now have no remembrance of? How many social media posts have you come across and, upon looking for them later, found yourself unable to find them again? How many important, well-argued articles vanish forever? Doesn’t it seem as though the vast majority of what we experience day-to-day is impermanent? 

In Reality

Another jarring thing about the novel is its total upending of reality. Its inclusion of myth, folklore, dream sequences, dubious family histories, realist storytelling, uninformed and mistaken dialogue, predictions, fugue-like segments in which Jim Mayn becomes unstuck in time, flashbacks, telepathy, and even a few epistolary sections means that it is incredibly difficult to distinguish between what is really happening and what is not.

Ultimately, I found myself finishing the novel with more questions than answers. Is Mayn’s ancestor really involved with the origins of the anti-fascist opera Hamletin? Is Mayn’s nemesis Spence playing both sides of an international conflict? Did Mayn’s grandmother really have a relationship with a Navajo Prince? Is Grace Kimball a reincarnated Native American? Does reincarnation even exist in the reality of the novel?

When I read experimental fiction, it is easy for me to get lost in the prose itself and eschew the plot almost entirely. But I still need some concept of objective ‘reality’ within a book, with which to develop my understanding of it. Women and Men, however, is a lesson in how to read with no grounding at all, with the rug and floor and foundation pulled out from under you. Everything might be real, and yet everything might also be myth. What is reported by one character is interpreted by another in an entirely different way. What you believe is an unarguable fact at the beginning of the novel might be called into question multiple times for the next 400 pages. Toward the end of the novel, Mayn’s daughter Flick expresses frustration about the uncertain nature of the novel’s myths and stories in a way that almost seems to channel the reader’s own confusion:

And Daddy, I couldn’t decide if he was crazy or not, I mean maybe he’s dangerous but he’s sort of up-front, obnoxious but I mean why didn’t he ask you about that printer Morgan who was mixed up with a relative of ours? I mean, what do I care about all those people, but there seemed to be Chilean fathers mixed up with Masonic lodges past and present and two daughters we’re supposed to be involved with, but I don’t believe it, any more than I believe that a German submarine had anything to do with me that surfaced one late afternoon off the Jersey shore and helped a person escape to South America who had a banned opera in her head and was either daughter or great-niece to a strong woman…

The novel’s ability to make the reader constantly question what is real, to me, screams our time. I think of how many modern tragedies are exacerbated, how many major events marred and confused, by the sheer number of media outlets, both reputable and disreputable, with their varying biases and their hunger for clicks and views over truth, all reporting at the same time. I reflect, too, on the difficulty in finding universally accepted information, and the mental games we’re forced to play if we wish to form our own positions amidst this torrent of information.

In Closing

I realize that I have portrayed the novel as daunting and impenetrable as many other reviews have. Yet, for all its ambiguity and complexity, and even with the huge demands it makes of the reader, Women and Men is a very human book. Amidst the chaos are some of the most heartfelt and cathartic scenes I’ve read in modern literature. The fact that you can easily find our time in its pages is a breath of fresh air (pun unintended), especially for those of us who spend a substantial amount of our reading time stuck in the past. Women and Men is a literary experience that cannot be put into any words but its own. It will infuriate you, it will cause you to question what you know, it will push your mind beyond its capabilities, but when it’s over, and it leaves you back in our world, you’ll realize that all your life you’ve been a part of something—something big, something overarching, something you can’t quite explain, but something that is real.

Joe Guarneri is a higher education professional and writer in the New York/Connecticut area. His writing has appeared in Times Higher Education, Journal of Basic and Applied Social PsychologyCollege Student Journal, and Journal of College Orientation and Transition, among other outlets. He spends his free time reading the greatest works of modern and classic literature, with a particular interest in 20th-century American avant-garde fiction. 

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