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Joseph McElroy visits Los Angeles

January 31, 2011 |  8:25 am

Joseph McElroy appeared at Skylight Books on Sunday, reading from his new collection "Night Soul and Other Stories" from Dalkey Archive Press. The 80-year-old McElroy will be in Portland on Tuesday and San Francisco on Wednesday; while in L.A., he was interviewed by Michael Silverblatt for an upcoming broadcast on KCRW's Bookworm.

Silverblatt, he said, had helped him warm to the cover of his book, which includes a light wallpaper pattern. This suggests the possibility of design, as design is implied by McElroy's work, particularly "my novels," he said, "which have tended to be very ambitious and long."

Case in point: his 1986 novel "Women and Men," which ticks in at nearly 1,200 pages long. Here on Jacket Copy, Garth Risk Hallberg lauded the novel and its complexities:

Plot here means both story and conspiracy, and in the intricacy of the enjambment, McElroy makes few concessions to his readers' limitations. On the level of story, "Women and Men" follows apartment-house neighbors Jim Mayn and Grace Kimball, who never quite manage to meet. On the level of conspiracy, it traces the nearly infinite connections between the two, uncovering personal and political intrigue stretching from Pinochet's Chile to Cape Kennedy to the New Mexico of the Pueblo Indians.

McElroy chooses to elide key terms in these connections, which means that important plot points are left unresolved, like circuits that are simultaneously on and off. It also means that the novel overwhelms — intentionally, I think — the reader's memory. This is frustrating at first. Eventually, though, it makes the book come peculiarly alive; by the final episodes, every detail McElroy mobilizes — seemingly every word — resonates with half-remembered associations.

That write-up was from our PoMo Month, which focused on postmodern literature, but at Skylight, McElroy mused that he did not, in the end, consider himself a postmodernist. The stories in "Night Soul and Other Stories" are either the political -- facing "outward to the public life that we'd like to think we share" -- or the familial, in which "the mysteries of home and future and time," he said, "can be intricately woven."

When he considered whether the family-oriented stories are autobiographical, McElroy replied that yes, they were in part. But then he pushed back: "Who knows what autobiography really is?" He may reject the label "postmodernist," but he's still playing with the assumptions we make about what we read. "The story of my life is what I want to tell," he said. "Anything I say is a lie, or partial lie." 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Joseph McElroy signs books at Skylight Books, Jan. 30, 2011. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg