Although Joseph McElroy’s most well-known books are Women and Men (1987) and Lookout Cartridge (1974), his first three books, A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), Hind’s Kidnap: A Pastoral on Familiar Airs (1969), Ancient History: A Paraphase (1971), are each phenomenal masterpieces that merit more attention than they receive. Ancient History and Hind’s Kidnap have both long been out-of-print, an anomaly that Dzanc Books has undertaken to redress with this new edition of Ancient History, followed by more editions of McElroy’s work.
Ancient History’s most unusual and distinctive feature may be its fusion of scientific discourse and the textures of American life. Concepts from geometry, vector-field theory, and anthropology animate a narrative exploration of friendship between the narrator and his childhood friends Al and Bob, spread over diverse locales and several decades. Dozens of neologisms solidify the register of these conversations, making for a powerfully strange reading experience. Anthroponoia, Americanolysis, ex-spatial-vectoral power, anthrotoponymy, Vectoral Dystrophy . . . if it weren’t for McElroy’s bravura, this book would be a failure.
Its half-mad narrator, Cyrus (“Cy”), is a social anthropologist. Just hours before Cy commences to narrate, Dom plunged to his death from his apartment window-ledge, and from within Dom’s apartment he pens the manuscript that we are reading, addressing it to his freshly deceased idol. An uncanny change or transition in time and space has occurred: Dom has died, and time has stopped, ceded itself over to a non-time, or time outside of time (the subtitle’s paraphase). An activist-celebrity, or in McElroy’s parlance a “hero ideologue,” Dom was the author of books on interruption and suicide. Cy’s been following his well-publicized exploits for months, maybe years, trailing him to speaking engagements around the country, moving into his upper-middle class apartment, even intercepting the mail his family sends him. Not unlike Norman Mailer, Dom personifies the civic and urban tensions of the late 1960s: he’s a larger-than-life, monstrously ambitious intellectual (not without anti-intellectual tendencies) “out to change the consciousness of America.” He campaigns for political office and makes it onto the cover of Time magazine. During a live TV interview he vomits and calls the “eggy pool” “magma” before proceeding to answer the interviewer’s question, “straight and mild.”
If Cy’s manuscript were only an address from Cy to the volcanic Dom, it would be easier to digest and certainly would have been less complicated. Instead, Ancient History is, in addition to the Dom-Cy narrative, a gargantuan, almanac-like chronicle of Cy’s separate friendships with two lifelong buddies, Al Hamilton and Bob Fulton. The two men’s family backgrounds and life trajectories are imagined by Cy as being so radically opposed that they would be unable to speak to one another if they met. Al, a country boy from a lower-middle class background, is driven toward the pursuit of knowledge, teaching himself Latin, Greek, and German during his time in the Coast Guard, and eventually becoming a professor of history. Bob for his part attends Poly Prep School in Brooklyn with Cy, where he’s elected class president. He goes on to become a Republican stockbroker and the owner of a tiny island in Maine.
Why is Cy telling Al’s and Bob’s stories—the “ancient history” of their formative years spent together in the 1930s and ’40s, and their time as young men in the ’50s and slightly older men in the ’60s—to Dom? The answer’s not immediately apparent but it’s probable that Cy conceals in his chronicles a message for Dom about something his belief system failed to take into account. It might be a message about friendship, or it might be about the effect of class on character in America. The difference between Al and Bob, after all, boils down to an initial disparity in privilege and a subsequent result on ambition and character. Al says at one point, for instance, that he’d “give his right arm to go to Harvard”—the type of privilege Bob takes for granted.
Whatever the message is, Ancient History and Cy’s manuscript (for they’re one and the same) confront the impossible: Cy seeks in his project to embrace a totality that’s larger and greater than the limits of others’ minds. This high ambition stands parallel to that of Michel Butor’s Degrees (1960; cited by McElroy as a precursor and model for his early work1), as well as McElroy’s first novel, A Smuggler’s Bible (1966), whose central protagonist, David Brooke, has “perfect recall.” Similarly gifted, Cy has in his brain an unusually developed “Vectoral Muscle” that enables rare feats of attention, perception, and intuition. On the page, this amounts to what Tony Tanner aptly termed a sense of “egalitarian respect for the most apparently modest detail.”2 A name on an apartment directory-board that’s “mint white grooved in velvety black,” for instance, or, an egg sandwich seen with “the gold-gray damp of the grease coming into the Pepperidge Farm white.” Like these minute touches, McElroy’s prose can, at its best, almost conjure synesthesia.
Conceptually, the novel is oriented around the ideas of phase space and field theory. More than metaphors, theseunderpin Ancient History’s organization in a most fundamental way: chronology has been collapsed into a grid-like field of abstracted coordinates, meaning that Cy interpolates multiple dramas as if they were all occurring simultaneously. Al and Bob, the polar opposites who Cy imagined as to be kept apart “anthronoiacly” at all costs, seem to have met for a drink in a Manhattan hotel at about the exact moment Dom ended his life—a mysterious latent logic of a short-circuit undergirding the book’s structure. All of this would feel heavy-handed, but Cy’s diabolical meta-commentary around the concepts of field, node, vector, and phase space gives the whole book a ludic, Nabokovian lightness: “It’s been some years since I presumed either by parabolic passage or creative congruence to lose myself in other lives.” Parabolas, ellipses, arcs, equidistances, foci, directrix—all are in abundance here, brought into animation by Cy’s consummate wit.
Joseph McElroy is a writer who can write in the realist mode, yet enlarge its scope to include foreign and distant realms. Hammurapi, Assurbanipal, Lucretius, Eudoxia, Chrysostom, Epaminondas—they’ve all been smuggled into this tale of mid-century American life, like so many other marvels with which it’s packed. Its large cast of beautifully, uncannily named minor characters like Caesar Bemis, Vance Greatorex, Joey Neurohr, Acckie Backus, Deirdre Reardon may bring readers to the verge of confusion. This book is dense, even self-consciously so, and unusually honest about its maniacal stakes and its tendency to go “too fast, even for an ideal audience like you.” Its lofty heightscome swooping down at you “like some vector irrelevantly intruding from another problem,” and, if you’re impatient, confound the hell out of you. I do not even think Ancient History is meant to be entirely understood. The most befitting attitude one could assume toward it probably resembles Bob’s feeling for his island waters when he tells Cy, “Fuck ‘em all: I know there’s a beautiful bullshit mystery in these waters. . . . I don’t think I want to get hold of that mystery, but it’s here.”
Jacob Siefring’s writing has appeared at the Montreal Review of Books, HTMLGiant, and his own blog, bibliomanic.com. An Ohio native, he lives in Ottawa.
1 McElroy, Joseph. “Neural Neighborhoods and Other Concrete Abstracts.” Triquarterly 34, 1975-09-01.
2 Tanner, Tony. “Towards an ultimate topography: the work of Joseph McElroy.” Scenes of Nature, Signs of Men. Cambridge, 1987. P. 224.
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