Last fall in The New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen published an essay called “Mr. Difficult,” which was ostensibly about two William Gaddis reissues but more broadly concerned with “the problem of hard-to-read books.” He cited Gaddis and 12 other writers as perpetuators of this problem: Pynchon, DeLillo, Heller, Coover, Gass, Burroughs, Barth, Barthelme, Hannah, Hawkes, McElroy, and Elkin—all (except one) widely renowned for their muscular ability to put readers to work.
Franzen was confessing his ambivalence toward that most perjured of literary schools, postmodernism, epitomized by Gaddis’s 956-page magnum opus of impenetrability, The Recognitions. Writing, in other words, that is chilly, unfriendly, and deliberately obtuse, and that tacitly disdains any conventional notion of realism—writing that rarely fires up the cash register, unless it’s on campus.
Of the 13 on Franzen’s list, only a few have had bestsellers; the real currency these writers share is reputation. But among Franzen’s hard-to-read 13, one name fails to generate the same brand equity: Joseph McElroy, the polymorphously difficult American novelist who, after a 15-year absence, has just released his eighth book, Actress in the House, a novel of such astonishing complexity that it is almost unreadable—and I mean that as a compliment.
Why McElroy, who was born in Brooklyn in 1930 and published his first novel, the labyrinthine, neo-experimental A Smuggler’s Bible, in 1966 (concerning eight interweaving manuscripts on one transatlantic voyage, re-released to accompany Actress), never achieved iconic stature among the postmodern literati is certainly a question worth asking, but it may simply be that he is too damn hard. If Gaddis is Mr. Difficult, then McElroy is Mr. Uncompromising. Gaddis’s difficulty lies primarily in the preponderance of Hungarian quotations and theological references—he’s smarter than you, and you both know it. Nevertheless, it’s possible, after properly applying yourself, to “get” it. McElroy’s difficulty, in contrast, lies in his unrelenting commitment to what might be best described as synaptic verisimilitude, a sort of neural-based fiction that seeks to re-create the jagged contours of “real life” via Möbius-strip sentences elastic enough to accommodate vertiginous digressions and multiple points of view but that, in reality, whatever that means, bears little resemblance to realism as traditionally depicted. It’s McElroy’s world, and you may merely visit.
In 1987, McElroy perfected the devices he’d been juggling over the past three decades with Women and Men, a 1,192-page undertaking that looms alongside Gravity’s Rainbow as one of the more important hard-to-read post-war American novels. He followed up with the smaller The Letter Left to Me (1988), which loosely concerns (McElroy books don’t exactly bend to the conventional demand for “plot”) a note from a father to a son found after the former’s death. Then he seemed to stop writing—if you operate under the assumption that writers are supposed to churn out books every few years. At that point, his legend should have overtaken his absence—only it didn’t, though he’d done enough for a Franzen name check.
Fifteen years later, given the direction things tend to be heading, one might suspect a relaxing of standards, a nod to the easier read. But in Actress McElroy seems to have become even harder to parse. To the extent that the book is “about” anything, it concerns abuse in its myriad forms, with a violent onstage slap as a deus ex machina. But on abuse, as he has been on everything from artificial intelligence to the divide between the sexes, McElroy remains uncompromising:
The father, now: he would give her a special kiss, one to remember, try his tongue along her mouth at secret bedtime, understood between them, wordless, jocose, expected—until she must have outgrown it. Who knows? Until, years later, married, she learned of it, it woke up inside her a hum of moving things that shook her a little like a ride and had a taste of smoke and doughnut until she went to the mirror and admired her tongue and Daley noted that here you lost track of that special molester and would not soon forget the tongue tapering in the mirror, the taste at the corners, the throb in the tummy that goes free: but the thing was, her father had described “it” it seemed in detail to a new friend of his, his end of the kiss; and it got back to her. How?
And so forth. About the only consolation made to the reader, after the dense opening, is a series of short paragraphs that serve as a pacing device. Indeed, paragraph breaks are among your only crutches. Occasionally, a passage appears of such brilliance that you soldier on in hope of another inspired apparition. But how many readers are blessed with the unfettered concentration required to complete such a book? Even, say, The Ambassadors, after some heavy sledding, packs a comprehensible epiphany. In Actress, nothing is illuminated, and McElroy’s purpose seems to delight in never so much as winking in the direction of ease. Given what Donald Barthelme called the theft of the reader from the writer, surely this is a dangerous business. Familiar with the previous work, and thirsty after that 15-year drought, I was excited to plow into new McElroy. Having finally finished, I can’t say I enjoyed myself. Then again, who said reading is supposed to be easy? Or maybe that’s just my problem.