Women and Men
By Joseph McElroy, 1987
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
It’s funny how things work – the deeper into the twentieth century I stalk the behemoth, the more it changes. The first few entries in my series are, it’s safe to say, widely known books. Not everyone’s read Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, the Brothers Karamazov or Ulysses, but at minimum, most people are aware of the books and their reputations. Even if you’re not, you’ve at least heard white whales or tilting at windmills used as idioms. But then around the middle of the century, something happened, and now what we see are less cultural touchstones and more cult classics. Sure, books like Gravity’s Rainbow and the Sot-Weed Factor and Dhalgren – not to mention my future entries, which I won’t spoil for you – have influenced future authors and have earned their place at the table of academia, but they don’t have anywhere near the same public presence as that first set of books. Plenty of them don’t have public presence at all.
Still, here’s the thing: while the more modern books in my series aren’t as widely known as the earlier ones, they’re still widely known in the right circles. Gravity’s Rainbow is considered a cornerstone of twentieth century literary development, Dhalgren was a bestseller that sent shock waves all up and down the sci-fi community, and a Sot-Weed Factor miniseries has been caught in development hell for the last few years. Women and Men, however? Women and Men‘s been out of print for years. Even the Dalkey Archive, which reprinted it in the ’90s and which generally doesn’t let books fall out of print, pulled this one from circulation when its first print run ended. Which makes sense when you think about it – even for a business on a mission, you have to wonder what you stand to gain if you leave a twelve hundred page book no one’s buying in print for too long. I guess it was too expensive to keep up. Its author, Joseph McElroy, is revered among certain circles of the internet and referred to as “the lost postmodernist” elsewhere. I myself had to turn contortions to get my hands on this beast, eventually participating in a book swap because it sure beat shelling out the hundred-plus dollars required to find a copy.
So why review a book no one’s reading? For one, it’s on its way back into print. Dzanc Books has been kind enough to bring this and several other McElroy titles back to life in ebook form. So keep an eye on McElroy – with his internet following in full swing (search for this on Goodreads and you’ll find more glowing reviews than you ever saw in one spot for a book you might never have heard of), I wonder if he won’t slide his way into the peripheral of our literary consciousness yet. My other, more personal reason is that I loved this book to death, even though there were moments where I swore it hated me. There’s no way around it: Women and Men is a hard book. Part of this is for the same reason a lot of the other big postmodern books are hard: serious length, frequent digressions, enormous cast of characters, abstract prose, events that might not take place in a recognizable reality. On top of all that, McElroy sprinkles his own special McElroy difficulties – sentences that wind into multi-page paragraphs and jump from perspective to perspective with an alarming speed. He’s an utter natural at the movement, only shifting when it makes narrative sense to shift, but the whole thing can be hard to keep track of.
The difficult sentences reflect on the novel’s most noteworthy structural aspect, which in turn reflects on the novel’s most noteworthy philosophical aspect. Its plot ostensibly concerns the lives of feminist Grace Kimball, who runs sex-positive “body-self” workshops and reporter James Mayn, who reports on economic trends and finds himself wrapped up in an ancient cycle of reincarnation. These two live in the same apartment, know many of the same people, and have been affected by many of the same events but never manage to meet at any point in the novel, and much of their lives are played through – emphasis is placed on James’ mother’s suicide, he and his brother’s efforts to recover from it, and what comes out about the family after her death. Kimball’s workshops are also described in intensive detail, and we get a sense of who the participants are, what brings them there, and what they make of their singular leader. Naturally, quite a few of the participants are connected to Mayn, and quite a few of Mayn’s friends know Kimball.
However, McElroy’s real concern throughout this massive book is to chronicle what we might call the American age: his vision spans from the 19th century to a vaguely defined “future” that doesn’t seem too far removed from the book’s 1977 setting. While moving through this huge timeline, McElroy makes stops pretty much everywhere, lending the mythology around Arizona’s landmark Ship Rock and a conversation between two friends at a café the same levels of detail and significance. McElroy’s switches between the enormous social-historical view and the minute details of day-to-day life with astonishing ease, and he tends to do so at a speed that set my brain swimming.
So why put the reader through such an ordeal? It’s all part of McElroy’s broader program. Like many postmodern novels, Women and Men is less organized around a classic plot structure and more built around the development of a central idea. Here, the idea is the conflict between two different statements: that people are matter, and that people matter. McElroy admits that people are small on any sort of cosmic scale, little more than parts of a broader whole, and that their lives are short and the systems they are part of continue without them. Yet, argues McElroy, no one lives their life that way. While the mundane occurrences of daily life might not look like much on a cosmic scale, the cosmic scale of humanity is made up of several billion individuals living through mundane events, which confers an enormous amount of significance onto those events. Since anything as large as human society and human history is made up of small events, the small events have to be looked at with historical significance, since they are significant as part of McElroy’s broader view.
You might’ve picked up on a duality here: large-scale history vs. small-scale life. It’s not the only one McElroy invites us to consider. Doubling has been a key point of literature since Achilles first duked it out with Hector, but McElroy takes it to extremes unseen by even Dostoevsky, the widely acknowledged master of characters in opposition with each other. As befits the novel’s broad view, McElroy looks at his doubles on a large scale: not only women and men, but also communists and capitalists, colonizers and colonized, infinite and infinitesimal, natural and artificial, traditional and modern. Even the neutron bomb, which destroyed people but left property intact, is given a fascinating mirror-image in a terrific passage toward the end.
Yet he also takes a more personal look at it, as evidenced by the friendships of two mythic figures whose stories are traced among the others: an Anasazi medicine man and a hermit-inventor of New York. Further evidence is given through speculation about Mayn’s future children, a boy and a girl who serve as foils to each other during a chapter that offers a look at his marriage. And, lending the novel some high-intellectual paranoid-thriller points, communism and capitalism are portrayed through a vicious and eventually violent intrigue between a pro-Castro Cuban exile and an anti-Castro Cuban exile.
A word also has to be made about McElroy’s prose, which is not only incredible but also unique. His long multi-clausal sentences shouldn’t be anything new to a reader schooled in postmodernism, and it’s hard to imagine someone who isn’t schooled in postmodernism coming to Women & Men. McElroy sets himself apart not just through the perspective switches I discussed earlier, but through all matters of self-interruption. Punning interpolations, abrupt switches into and out of dialect, moments of intense self-reflexivity and even direct interrogation of the previous sentence via an unseen set of characters who may be supernatural occur throughout this book, creating an endless flow of dialog within dialog and allowing McElroy to nest whole hosts of ideas, contradictions and complications within his prose. It’s often overwhelming, but it’s too well-suited for the novel’s broader goals and too well-done for me to complain about at all.
That’s all just the outer shell of a work with layers I’m sure I don’t understand yet. Sex is had and deconstructed, whole lives play out with the detail and sympathy of biographies, an opera based on Hamlet is chased after and eventually performed, tapeworms and angels and interrogators and Mayn’s friends in the prison all drop by to have a few words. McElroy projects an entire universe into this novel, one like ours but with an almost supernatural feel to it. It’s a wonder that he pulled this monster off at all; that he did so in such a coherent and unified and gorgeous style makes it worth the tremendous effort it took me to read. So while I could say more, this is the eighth-longest novel in the English language, which means it has all sorts of secrets buried in it. Why not try to uncover a few?