The Mind Fields of Joseph McElroy
Trey Strecker

Joseph McElroy's writing charts the complexities of the mind in motion, composing the continuities and discontinuities of self among the field of what William James describes as "the rich thicket of reality" (517).  His novels and stories construct detailed cognitive maps of these neural neighborhoods, where narrative opens up "the spread of possibility" in "a field of developing surprise" as vectors collect in dynamic structures that invite readers to make connections ("Failure").  Since the publication of A Smuggler's Bible (1966), one of McElroy's consistent themes has involved the disintegration and reintegration of identity amid "the great multiple field of impinging informations" (Lookout 465).  Not a victim of the same pessimism that often overwhelms much postmodern fiction of entropic decay, his work demonstrates a generous appetite for experience and a serious desire to understand how people perceive events.  Often reconstructions of memory that blend a polymath's range and an uncompromising clarity of vision, McElroy's stories respect the power of human consciousness to organize life.    For McElroy, "the maker and the made" are both subject to these vagaries of knowing; we use our experience by constructing stories that use us ("9/11 Emerging").

    In "Joseph McElroy: Fathoming the Field," William Smith Wilson examines how McElroy's fictions structure themselves according to a field model.  He argues that this field aesthetic requires "a different and all-over distribution of energy and attention" for readers accustomed to the traditional novel's "figure-ground" perspective, where events are filtered through a stable central character and where straightforwardly realistic methods of linear narrative are incompatible with contemporary theories of causation.  "Being not on a path but within a field," Wilson explains, "produces different potential connections with other people, because those other people are themselves regions of field, not particles of single selfhood."   

    Through his writing, McElroy inserts himself into multiple fields of information, asking readers to enter his field-work.  Plotting a distributed field that preserves diverse, fluctuating potentialities and sustains multiple interdependencies, McElroy's cognitive realism circulates among distinct systems and subsystems, continually organizing and reorganizing the dynamic informational ecology of the narrative field.  "Integration within such a field," Wilson notes, "blurs the outlines of individuality, yet compensates with the feeling and thought that one belongs to the field which is set in motion by one who is set in motion by the field."  Writing about the "bond between observer and event," McElroy describes "perception as motion and the potential for it" ("Failure").  An observer makes a distinction to generate a difference, and in drawing the distinction he makes himself visible (Luhmann 54).

    In "Character," a man shares his recollection of a story from his Vermont boyhood with a stranger, his memory catalyzed by a recollection of hers.  The man remembers taking a maple block he found on the floor of his tool shed, "inherited" from the previous owner, and carving a whaleboat (86).  Dreaming of varnishes and nursing gouged fingers, he took up this "part of something else" and, with "a force of ownership," transformed it into the boat, alternately "a many-sided mess" and "not a mess," that serves as a nexus for the people and events surrounding this summer of 1966 (86, 88). The narrator (man and boy) enters this complex field, which includes the advice his great-uncle, a Coast Guard veteran, gives him about model ships; a mysterious American visitor coming from Vietnam to see the boy's father; his father's flag burning to protest the war; a car crash in the covered bridge; the distant, overheard transition from his mother's cello to her voice, singing; the tires of his mother's friend's car in the driveway; and, his play-mate's father's strange and slightly menacing presence in the tool shed door. 

    The narrator recalls that what emerged from the wood block was "more than a boat" (95), yet "whatever was in it still belonged to me" (97).  A "witness" to "these little things that come with an entire day and night in one long blink of someone's eyelids" (93)-"remembering these little things the way you can't not remember some larger ones" (87)-McElroy's characters belong to the field.  Outside, practicing the "trash astronomy" of his "sometime Nature mentor" and his mother's friend Rob (101), the narrator observes "the stars crowded and fixed, a shooting star descending not as if overhead were the legendary canopy we hear of but a dark flat and deep field graphed briefly and laughably by this stroke fading across a screen" (101-2).  The arc of the shooting star creates the field, makes it visible.  McElroy's characters construct the field to which they belong, yet this same field constructs them.  For McElroy, "the observer bargain[s] with what he observes . . . thus a limit-the acknowledgment of which is ÎNature, spied back through one of its own eyes.'  In the trap or limit is our largeness" ("Failure," Women and Men 1146).  As McElroy's Cartwright discovers, "You must build yourself into the life around you" (Lookout 410).  Reading McElroy's fiction is itself an experience in building oneself into the "more all around" (Plus 12).


Works Cited

James, William.  Writings, 1902-1910.  New York: Library of America, 1987.

Luhmann, Niklas.  Art as a Social System.  Trans. Eva M. Knodt.  Stanford: Stanford UP,  2000.

McElroy, Joseph.  "Character."  Golden Handcuffs Review 1.3 (2004): 86-102.

---.  "Failure.  Building.  Embrace.': An Interview with Joseph McElroy."
        Interview with Trey Strecker.  Rain Taxi Review of Books Fall 2003.

---.  Lookout Cartridge.  New York: Carroll & Graf, 1974.

---.  Plus.  New York: Carroll & Graf, 1987.

---.  Women and Men: A Novel.  New York: Knopf, 1987.

---.  "9/11 Emerging."  electronic book review 5 Mar. 2003.  Modified: 8 Mar. 2003.   

       <>  Search: 9/11 Emerging.

Wilson, William Smith.  "Joseph McElroy: Fathoming the Field."  electronic book review

                30 Dec. 1996.  Modified: 30 Nov. 2003.  <>. 
                Search: Wilson and McElroy.