Night Soul and Other Stories
by Joseph McElroy
Publisher: Dalkey Archive
“I write sentences,” Joseph McElroy stated recently at Powell’s Books in Portland during a reading from his first collection of short works, Night Soul and Other Stories. And the 80 year-old New York writer, with nine novels – and a tenth on the way – means it, sincerely (look no further than “time pounds the pavement and dissolves into a field of chances” for proof of his commitment to elegant sentiment). So it comes as no surprise that a scribe of usually encyclopedic scope would adapt this devotion to a shorter, more potent form; thus, Night Soul, 12 stories culled from 30 years of McElroy’s career.
Within the collection, a tension exists between spheres of the political and familiar, several being “family” pieces – stories of mothers, uncles, cousins, sons and daughters – while others are of a more partisan or at least worldly nature. These two elements mix with one another and alternate within and between the stories and sound entirely relevant; no subject matter is dated and the collection is scattered only in the way expected of a short story collection, itself a form of Golem.
Night Soul’s 12 entries all evidence McElroy’s breadth as a writer, previously exemplified in longer form. Each story is uniquely crafted and situated, set apart as a sort of self-completed universe with its own language and rhythms. As in Thomas Pynchon’s work (and here I believe, unlike others, the similarities between the writers end), the technical sneaks its way in: urban planning, jazz piano and theoretical physics make cameos, treated with gravity and grace and woven expertly into the fugue. Almost all the stories are united by the presence of night and each exudes some curiosity, whether it’s about a nascent infant grammar, the doings of a lakeside town, the hidden fate of a vanished nation, a plagiaristic artist and the life of a young Arab-American boy. Water has its place there, too, as do fathers, sequestered, remote and newly-acquired territories and the philosophic hums of the hobbyist at his craft.
The lengthier stories, concrete and mostly standard not in content but rather in form, “shadows of novels” as McElroy maintained, cover broad narrative ground, whirling and revolving around pivot points and breathtaking sentences circulating “contagiously” through them, but still driven toward some finite end, as with “the dreamwork that gets us from this day to the next.” The shorter movements are overflowing more with prose than with linear narratives, many eschewing direct plot in favor of a soup of descriptors and delicious phrases. In both varieties, stylishly-worded trains of thought are pursued in tandem until they cascade like braided metal wire in a chain-link fence, without immediate center but structurally cohesive. Many sound like tone poems. Misleading language abounds, vague ruses narrowly avoid literary dead-ends but still charge headlong until, exhausted, the time to turn away comes: the father gives up on pressing his son for details of safety precautions in his hang-gliding club; a post-nuclear world urges restraint for researchers bent on discovering how the last nuclear-armed state orchestrated a self-contained act of WMD hara-kiri (“it one night became in seconds this awful map of itself cut into the earth”).
By beginning his work somewhat or mostly in an unplanned fashion (or, as in the case of “Campaign Trail,” with just the title in his head) and then “letting it go” as McElroy says Paul Valéry did, the author grants his work a remarkable organic quality that belongs to each lifelike limb of Night Soul. As in life, many simply end, in a natural sort of way: ten pages, ten thousand pages of experience, sensation and emotion informally curtained, “reaching one end of its time line like an unusual music,” bringing the question, “what though is it we have survived?” Each a puzzle in itself to belabor: “is the river its water or the banks that shape it?”
A few of the entries don’t strike hard enough or don’t skirt deftly enough around the heart of the work as a whole. Some are more forgettable than others and occasionally a sentence verging on death-defying simply fizzles, snuffed out by the complexity resulting from its many clauses. But McElroy’s ambition, erudite depth and steady, coiled-spring prose find purchase the vast majority of the time, most apparent in stories like “Particle of Difference,” “Annals of Plagiary” and “The Last Disarmament But One.” Given its overwhelming virtues, discrediting it for its audacity would be hardly fair; as McElroy himself writes in Night Soul, “the man knew his limits and more than that, maybe didn’t.” A true windfall for every reader.
by Joe Clinkenbeard