Through eight novels and a collection of short fiction—A Smuggler’s Bible, Hind’s Kidnap, Ancient History, Lookout Cartridge, Plus, Women and Men, The Letter Left to Me, Actress in the House, and Night Soul and Other Stories—Joseph McElroy has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the most intelligent and innovative novelists working today. Cannonball, McElroy’s ninth novel, unequivocally demonstrates that he is still at the top of his game. Often lumped in with other “difficult” postmodern novelists, like Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis, McElroy might be more accurately characterized as a late modernist, an attentive and uncompromising cognitive realist dedicated to exploring the ways in which we perceive the world and our place in it. To this end, his novels trace mental maps—what, early in his career, he described as “neural neighborhoods.” Character and story, complicity and causality, emerge from this complex, always changing field.
With Cannonball, McElroy returns to familiar themes of family relations and criminal/political intrigue, this time in the setting of the Iraq War. As in most McElroy novels, the story begins in the middle, a space between, the still moment at the top of a dive’s arc, “a slowness so divided it might never finish in your mind.” The narrator, Zach, a “slow on the uptake” Army photographer, is dispatched to a basement pool beneath one of Saddam’s liberated palaces in Baghdad. Poolside, Zach photographs his friend Umo, whom he did not know was in Iraq, performing a cannonball dive seconds before an explosion destroys the pool. Amid the chaos, the government purportedly discovers ancient Scrolls revealing an “American Jesus” who preaches the virtues of capitalism and “how belief in competition might eclipse belief-based competition.” According to government sources, the explosion that Zach films is an insurgent attack designed to keep the Scrolls out of U.S. hands.
As Zach begins to believe that the U.S. government has fabricated the Scrolls and staged the insurgent attack as part of a conspiracy to establish the authenticity of the Scrolls, he attempts, through “foresight and memory,” to construct an account of these events and to understand how he is implicated in them: “Time twisting, braiding, stumbling, for me to see my way out. . .” Suspecting that he has been manipulated—as his photographs have been manipulated—by shadowy figures in the government, Zach begins “plotting an arc of motions that plotted me.”
The story spirals back in memory to Zach and Umo’s unlikely friendship. Zach, who quit diving after being injured in an accident, recruits Umo, a 300-pound homeless Asian immigrant, to the East Hill Swimming Club dive team his father coaches in San Diego. Zach’s father, an ambitious, well-connected Army Reservist, parlays Zach’s enlistment into a position with USA Swimming. This thread of the novel revolves around Zach, his father, and “the everyday wars of our life,” but after Zach graduates high school, he enlists in the Army and the scene shifts to Iraq.
Zach is uncertain about the job he enlisted to do—and the job in which he has unwittingly been enlisted, thinking “how fine a fool to be a spy and not know it.” Back in California, he understands the scrolls and the U.S. government’s Operation Scroll Down as “a weapon of critical instruction” in a war which “could be made to say anything, or nothing.” As Zach struggles to piece together disconnected bits of information about the bombing, he is called, as the Army photographer who witnessed the insurgent attack on the Scrolls, to give testimony before the government’s Hearings on Competition. At stake, “the Scrolls, or an attack on them, and on Why We Were Here.”
As Zach churns over “pieces of a story” and the voices that survive in him, he connects instant with instant, and a contingent meaning emerges from his developing consciousness. The novel’s language is precise, accurately evoking the ebb and flow of understanding, the unfolding of perception and memory. Like the intricate network of underground water wells beneath Saddam’s palace where the Scrolls were “discovered,” McElroy’s novel navigates the deep wells of the mind. From instant to instant, McElroy’s narrative fragments and shifts, probing consciousness’s synaptic circuits, “following the path we are making.” “Others think they have plans for you but you keep a memory of your future free. The dive, its execution some say an infinite series of instants each bringing you somewhere as if you were stopped.”
More than simply psychological realism or political critique, Cannonball is a significant artistic achievement—a brilliant novel of consciousness and conscience. Readers familiar with McElroy’s previous work will find much to admire in this novel; at the same time, Cannonball seems like an excellent book to introduce McElroy’s extraordinary fiction to readers who have yet to discover it.
Trey Strecker teaches English and sport studies at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He is the editor of NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture.
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