Loyal as a book
WOMEN AND MEN
Joseph McElroy is not well known among general readers. His Wikipedia entry calls him “a difficult writer”. There are many difficult writers but the entry is an understatement.
His fiction is often impenetrable, by which I mean that you can’t get very far very quickly, and it’s difficult to comprehend and remember. His one book, Plus, took four efforts before I finished it. It was worth reading. A friend, who also read it, said that reading it was the equivalent of raising a retarded child. Extremely difficult. Demanding patience and fortitude.
As for his other novels, I had first bought Lookout Cartridge and got nowhere fast. It became my whipping post for unreadable novels. Then I found an inexpensive hardback copy of the 1192-page Women and Men. I read twenty, maybe thirty pages. Like Infinite Jest, the idea of devoting so much time to one book dampened my interest.
Always hopeful, I found on Amazon Ancient History and A Smuggler’s Bible. They seemed approachable and of reasonable length (less than 400 pages). It didn’t matter. I couldn’t read them.
For a while I have toyed with the idea of the connection between a writer’s style and our reception to his or her writing. While it is difficult to pin down a style in so many words, we can approach it in a general way.
1. Schopenhauer wrote the aphorism: “Style is the physiognomy of the mind. It is a more reliable key to character than the physiognomy of the body.” Transfer the mind to an author’s writing, then consider the content of the writing as ‘the body’.
2. What is physiognomy? Judging a person’s character via the facial features.
3. A writer’s work gives us the features of a mind. Just as we may not like a person’s features (extreme example for me: Ted Cruz), a writer’s style may put us off.
4. My example of a writer I have less enthusiasm for than other writers whose entire work (save the obvious one) I’ve read is James Joyce. I didn’t get anywhere with Finnegan’s Wake, but style is the least of my problems with it. I have read and moderately enjoyed Dubliners, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. But rarely have I studied Joyce closely. And I have been encouraged by professors and friends who are Joyce scholars to take a closer look. There’s a payoff. I resisted.
5. I have greater enthusiasm for one of Joyce’s proteges: Samuel Beckett. I have read all of Beckett’s books four times over. Even the most demanding, How It Is and The Unnamable still interest me. And these are books with virtually no breaks. How It Is is one sentence! A book similar to this, Conducting Bodies by Claude Simon, is one of my favorites. Thus, the outright difficulty reading the text does not constitute the ultimate reason for pushing away an author’s work.
6. Jean-Paul Sartre writes in his short autobiography, The Words, that we only read what agrees with our viewpoint. Think about it. It would take a great effort to read works that contradicted our view of the world. Equally difficult would be to navigate a writer whose style alienates us.
7. I can’t watch the films of Paul Mazurski. A sampling: Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice; Alex in Wonderland; Blume in Love; Harry and Tonto; and Down and Out in Beverly Hills. A decent sampling. A few of these movies are well regarded. I couldn’t get very far into them. I didn’t think they were awful or lacked artistry, although Blume in Love was hard to digest.
8. The same could be true for actors. I have heard people declaim the deficiencies of Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Dreyfus, etc. I cannot watch Tom Cruise or Barbra Streisand, and I try to avoid Meryl Streep and Robin Williams. I can’t give you a solid reason. They bug me.
Thus, my failed efforts to take on the oeuvre of Joseph McElroy I don’t blame on McElroy. It wasn’t meant to be. And I am pretty sure I won’t buy any more of his books. However, he has a short work, Night Soul and other stories. Can I be tempted to take a look? Give him one last try? Forget all the other books of his I couldn’t read?
I tried. And failed again.