Complete Joseph McElroy, in hardcover, with pictures

Complete McElroy

One of my favorite writers is the sorely under-read, brilliant, monstrously talented Joseph McElroy. Author of eight novels (and a book of short stories, forthcoming from Dalkey Archive), there’s probably never been a time in his career when all of his books have been in print once. Two of his books have never been issued in paperback, languishing unread on behind-the-register bookcases with triple-digit price tags on them. (I was once in a bookstore which had eleven copies of Hind’s Kidnap, priced to move at $110 each.)

He’s the least known of the authors in the Pynchon/Gaddis/Gass/Coover sphere–fairly difficult writers who are known for their lengthy books–but he’s the most difficult of all of them all. Some people recommend the slim The Letter Left to Me (1989) as a good entry point, but I say start at the beginning with A Smuggler’s Bible (1966) and then see where that takes you . . .

Few American writers, outside of maybe Evan Dara or William T. Vollmann, write with more singleminded intensity than McElroy. You can tell a McElroy work from one sentence, disembodied from the rest of the text, like this one I’m picking at random from Women and Men (though some of the really awesome sentences go on like this for five or six pages):

And years later Jim found what he wanted to connect the habit to–the movements or motions you felt overall, in an apartment house, that were less from people doing things than from what was left of them after they went out to work or away on business or vacation, athough it might be the elevator or the edifice responding to the wake of a truck passing in the street.

(“Spare” is not a word to describe his writing, luckily.)

He’s written “thrillers” (Lookout Cartridge (1974), Hind’s Kidnap (1969)), “sci-fi” (the phenomenally difficult Plus (1977), about a disembodied brain/computer orbiting the Earth), little “dramas” (Ancient History (1971), The Letter Left to Me (1989), and his most recent novel, the stunning Actress in the House (2003)), to big, brutal, backbreaking “postmodern” bricks (the 1192-page Women and Men (1987), a towering masterpiece). The genres noted above are in quotes because though McElroy’s books get pigeonholed with those labels for lack of any other way to describe them, they’re nothing close to what you usually expect from those descriptors.

I’ve finally picked up the final hardcover I needed to complete my collection, the first edition of A Smuggler’s Bible, and thought I would share a few pictures, because many of these are not common books.

Hind’s Kidnap and Ancient History: A Paraphase have never been reprinted after their initial hardcover runs. Carroll & Graf did reprints of a number of McElroys in the 80’s, but they’re out of print now. Overlook reprinted a few of these, but the only McElroy title that Amazon’s listing as still in print is the incredible Actress in the House. (The fact that only one of his books is in print is a fucking shame.) But if you are the type of reader who likes to be challenged and who doesn’t mind meandering and slow-moving narratives, who likes to be completely consumed by the beauty of the language and the brilliance of the writing, it’s worth spending time tracking down everything you can.

My copy of The Letter Left to Me is the review copy sent to “Woody Hochswender” at Harper’s Bazaar. This copy of Hind’s Kidnap is inscribed by McElroy to “John Higgins” (I don’t think it’s the same guy who colored Watchmen, though). Also in the picture is the issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction dedicated to McElroy’s work.

The galleys for Women and Men were so massive that Knopf issued them in two volumes. I’ve heard that there are second hardcover printings, though I’ve never seen one; finding a copy, first or second printing, without a remainder mark, is tough. And it wasn’t issued in paperback until Dalkey got the rights. Also: I love these comments regarding Women and Men from various booksellers on abe.com:

*”There was just a short first print run of what is reputed to be the most remaindered major work of contemporary fiction (only this copy is NOT remaindered but is close to being in Gift condition). 1192pp. Will require increase in S/H due to its sizeable bulk; probably weighs 4 to 6 lbs!”

*”Because of the massive bulk of this novel, copies tend to be found quite worn, despite its recent vintage; this is a handsome exception.”

He’s also published a book of essays, titled Exponential, in Italy, and he’s been working on a new novel, Cannonball, for a long time now. Whether you’re reading mint first editions or beat-up paperbacks, or something in between, if you’ve never read McElroy, you’re in for a real treat–he’s a monumentally important writer.

Complete McElroy


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  1. Scott, great to read this appreciation of McElroy.

    A friend who once worked for Dalkey sent me _Women and Men_, and it was my first experience with McElroy. To say it was challenging is an understatement. It took a year, on and off, to finish it. I read _Actress in the House_ when it came out, and reviewed it, and realized how much I had come to appreciate not just the way McElroy has his characters think along whatever lines they wish in those long, long sentences, but how humane he is.

    I think his humanity, and his conception of connectivity, sets him apart from some other writers who write intricate post-modern novels. His work is a treat, yes, and I’m looking forward to his upcoming works.

    Thanks for your post.


    Posted by Jeff | July 15, 2010, 11:53 am
  2. [...] new issue looks rad and has some Giants in it: 4. New issue of The Collagist is live. 5. @ The Quarterly Conversation, a tribute to Joseph McElroy. Tags: China Mieville, collagist, joseph mcelroy, LIT, steve [...]

    Posted by HTMLGIANT / Miéville, Erickson, LIT, Collagist, McElroy | July 15, 2010, 3:07 pm
  3. Hey Scott,

    Nice piece. My hardcover of Women & Men claims to be a second printing: at the bottom of the copyright page, it says “Published April 7, 1987 / Second Printing, May 1987″.

    Might be worth noting that Small Anchor Press – http://www.smallanchorpress.com/ – is about to publish Preparations for Search, a small piece that I think was part of Women & Men – not sure about that. They’re taking orders, not sure when they said they were shipping.

    Somebody needs to put out Exponential in English . . .


    Posted by Dan Visel | July 15, 2010, 4:50 pm
  4. The problem with WOMEN AND MEN is that no critic has simply done an outline of the book in the way that Steve Moore did THE RECOGNITIONS, JR and INFINITE JEST… I have made a number of attempts at it but gave up out of my own dumbness… the RCF issue devoted to McElroy did a huge dis-service as it makes all the novels nearly unreadable as the critics seem to think they share all of their philosophical background and then get to whichever novel they are writing about… Moore provided the necessary HELPFUL commentary that lead readers into the books be worked on… something academics are too proud to do

    Posted by Thomas McGonigle | July 15, 2010, 5:49 pm
  5. Thanks Dan–

    “Preparations for Search” is a section of _Women and Men_ which got cut. There are a number of these sections, I believe, that have been published in various places over the years. I read “Preparations for Search” a few years ago as a xerox . . . anyway I ordered the chapbook and am really looking forward to it.

    I guess I also forgot to include “Ship Rock” in my little essay, but since that’s just an excerpt from _Women and Men_ I’ve never bothered to search for a copy, though I’m sure I’ll pick it up when I stumble on it for a good price someday.


    Posted by Scott Bryan Wilson | July 17, 2010, 8:45 pm
  6. Hi,
    I work on an advisory capacity at Small Anchor Press, and we have indeed just published Joseph McElroy’s “Preparations for Search” as a special edition chapbook. Small Anchor has worked directly with Mr. McElroy, who is enthusiastic about bringing this rare work to the public. Orders are already shipping, so visit smallanchorpress.com for more information.

    Posted by Mike Heppner | July 19, 2010, 2:23 pm
  7. A few years ago I had a graduate workshop with McElroy. It was a pleasure to listen to him talk about stories; I felt he read, thought, and spoke about stories differently than any writer or critic or friend I’d ever encountered. He never gave any speech to his own work, which I didn’t discover until Actress in the House, whose pages I still randomly turn to when I need inspiration about the possibilities of language and writing. Always love to see his work being talked about, as I fear he’ll be left behind. The one thing I wish readers would see is that even if his plots can be complicated to the point of frustration, you can read his prose rather quickly and pleasurably, because what he’s telling you feels like an authentic way our own mind processes thought and imagery and observation (to put it somewhat clumsily). Great post.

    Posted by Nathan Schiller | August 13, 2010, 3:00 am

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