Authors: Joseph McElroy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017


August 21, 1930

Brooklyn, New York


The novels of Joseph Prince McElroy are at the forefront of innovative American writing; he has been described as “an important writer working with extraordinary energy and imagination right at the very boundaries of contemporary fiction.” His life has been centered on academe, first as an undergraduate at Williams College, where he earned a BA in 1951; subsequently as a graduate student at Columbia University, where he received an MA in 1952 and a PhD in 1961; and then as a professor. He has taught at the University of New Hampshire, Queen’s College, Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern University, Washington University (St. Louis), Temple University, and Columbia University. He served in the US Coast Guard from 1952 to 1954. McElroy has won an impressive number of academic grants, fellowships, and awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1973, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1976, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.

To describe his life as academic, East Coast, urban, and “experimental” serves to provide a description of his novels. McElroy’s works have consistently, almost without exception, been compared to those of Thomas Pynchon, with Pynchon’s writings somehow always being read more favorably. His work is methodically difficult and demanding of readers. This difficulty is, in part, a result of the writer’s polydisciplinary domain, which includes literature, science, history, anthropology, economics, and sociology. McElroy’s first novel develops the metaphor indicated by its title A Smuggler’s Bible, which is a hollowed-out Bible used for carrying contraband. The main character, David Brooke, attempts to smuggle himself out of his own identity and into the identities of eight other characters; he then must smuggle himself back into his original identity (but is this now his true identity?). The character asks himself: “Do you see how people try to smuggle themselves out of life?” Brooke must lose himself in order to find himself.

The metaphor of McElroy’s second novel, Hind’s Kidnap, echoes that of the first. The crime is kidnapping rather than smuggling, but both pieces are held together by a matter of missing, whether stolen or hidden, identity. The story is about the unsolved kidnapping of a young man several years before the present action of the novel. It is something of a pointless pursuit, since the boy’s parents are dead and the youth will now be grown. The pursuit takes on new intricacy when the main character, assuming the persona of a detective, is kidnapped out of his own life—by himself, no less—because of his obsession with the earlier, actual kidnapping. To find peace, he must “de-kidnap” his life and learn “to treat people as ends not means.” Ancient History examines the ultimate and final, self-determined, escape from life (identity): suicide. In this most extreme of identity cases, the narrator is apparently a friend of the deceased; the ambiguity of the reality/identity problem arises from the possibility that the friend may not be dead. The narrator sits at the typewriter where the suicide letter should have been written and proceeds to write out a consciousness, ostensibly for his acquaintance but actually for himself. Thus, in this novel the metaphor of life is, ironically, a nonexistent suicide note, now taking on an artificial form, purpose, and identity.

Lookout Cartridge, more than any of McElroy’s novels, is often cited as his best. Again, crime and metaphor exist concurrently as matters holding together the narrative. A documentary film made by the narrator is destroyed for some unknown reason that cannot be guessed, but the destruction is intentional. The film becomes reality; its retrieval, which is quite as impossible as its reconstruction, takes on the importance of finding a modern-day grail. Thus the narrator of the book is obsessed with finding a reality and a meaning in life that once existed but are no more. Again, there are no clear-cut answers, but somehow the basis for life can be derived from the overwhelming density of information. In Plus, a human brain kept alive by protein, sunlight, and scientific technology is sent into orbit in a space capsule. The brain develops into an emerging consciousness of its own and becomes a metaphor for human as individual and life as collective entity.

Women and Men is different from McElroy’s other novels; for example, it is not held together by an all-encompassing crime of significance. Women and Men is, more than anything else, about a man and a woman (James Mayn, a journalist, and Grace Kimball, a feminist) who are representative of modern men and women. These two main characters live in the same apartment complex but never meet each other, although they have a number of friends in common. As the almost 1200-page novel unfolds, it becomes a vast encyclopedia of connections and convergences, representing the dense interdependence of all living things. One critic calls Women and Men “the single book—fiction or non-fiction—that best manifests what human beings can know and be and imagine now and, just as importantly, in the future.” The Letter Left to Me is the story of a letter left from a dead father to his fifteen-year-old son. The identity represented by the letter disperses as the family distributes it to friends and acquaintances. Like the brain of Plus and the film of Lookout Cartridge, the letter, found only to be given away, takes on a meaning and force of its own.

After a hiatus of fourteen years, McElroy published the novel Actress in the House in 2003. Like Women and Men, the novel deals with the intertwined lives of New Yorkers, although in this case his protagonists do meet. The novel begins with an actress being viciously slapped by an actor during a performance. At that moment, her eyes meet those of a man in the audience. Through coincidence and deliberate action, the lives of the two become involved over the ensuing months.

McElroy next turned to an effort to collect and publish shorter works that he had composed. In 2011, he published Night Soul and Other Stories, which consists of twelve short stories. Two years later, he took on the Iraq War in his ninth novel, Cannonball. The book, which transitions between California and Iraq, focuses on the story of a military photographer who discovers mysterious scrolls in Iraq that he begins to suspect may be connected to the US government.

Because it requires serious and patient attention, McElroy’s work will continue to enjoy prestige and success among readers who seek the strange and the difficult as sources of fulfillment. For those readers, McElroy’s writing opens new, rewarding pathways into fascinating neural neighborhoods.

Author Works Long Fiction: A Smuggler’s Bible, 1966 Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs, 1969 Ancient History: A Paraphrase, 1971 Lookout Cartridge, 1974 Plus, 1977 Women and Men, 1987 The Letter Left to Me, 1988 Actress in the House, 2003 Cannonball, 2013 Short Fiction: Night Soul and Other Stories, 2011 Bibliography Burn, Stephen. "Topological Fiction." The New York Times, 28 Jan. 2011, Accessed 26 May 2017. Provides a review of McElroy's short-story collection Night Soul and Other Stories, discussing it as a more approachable format for reading his work. Campbell, Gregor. “Processing Lookout Cartridge.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring, 1990): 112–118. Explores Lookout Cartridge’s closed fictional system, modeled on physics and cybernetics, and mentions McElroy’s use of film technology. Notes his love of abstraction and the complexity of the plot. Campbell praises the novel as a “triumph of information-processing design and technology,” and claims that it can be viewed as a 1960s novel concerned with historical change. Hantke, Steffen. Conspiracy and Paranoia in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy. New York: Lang, 1994. Offers an in-depth analysis and comparative view of the postmodern themes of two leading American novelists. Hantke, Steffen. “‘God Save Us from Bourgeois Adventure: The Figure of the Terrorist in Contemporary American Conspiracy Fiction.” Studies in the Novel 28, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 219–243. Lookout Cartridge is one of several novels analyzed. LeClair, Tom. “Opening Up Joseph McElroy’s The Letter Left to Me.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring, 1990): 258–267. Contains McElroy’s statement on his use of the word “attention” in The Letter Left to Me. LeClair gives critical commentary on this novel, noting that McElroy’s use of language has “opened up sensibility for anyone to read. Everyone who cares about mastery in American letters should.” Also discusses Women and Men and its peeling away of layers and obstacles. LeClair, Tom, and Larry McCaffrey. Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1983. A thoughtful interview with McElroy by LeClair that provides much valuable information and insight into McElroy’s work and vision as a writer. Includes a brief introduction by LeClair which is helpful in summing up the main themes in McElroy’s writing. McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992. McHale provides passages from the works of several postmodern authors, including McElroy, to illustrate the evolutionary aspect of the literary movement from modernism to postmodernism. Mathews, Harry. “We for One: An Introduction to Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction 10 (Spring, 1990): 199–226. Examines the novel’s interchange between men and women and vice versa, noting its use of language and double entendres. Mathews makes liberal use of extracts from the novel and diagrams to illustrate his commentary. A complex piece of criticism that probes the function of the narrative in McElroy’s work. The Review of Contemporary Fiction 10 (Spring, 1990). A special issue devoted to McElroy. Important critical essays include Gregor Campbell’s “Processing Lookout Cartridge,” Tom LeClair’s “Opening Up Joseph McElroy’s The Letter Left to Me,” and Harry Mathews’s “We for One: An Introduction to Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men.” With an introduction by Stanley Elkin, a bibliographical essay, a piece by McElroy entitled “Midcourse Corrections,” and an interview with McElroy conducted by John Graham. A valuable resource for scholars and readers alike.

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