Author: Constant, Paul
Date published: February 10, 2011
BARACK AND HILLARY GO CAMPING
The only appropriate answer to the question "Do you like stream of consciousness writing?" is "It depends on whose consciousness is doing the streaming." During last week's reading at Elliott Bay Book Company, Joseph McElroy proved he's still one of the best streamers in the fiction-writing business. A spry man for his age-"I'm 80 years old," he said early in his talk, sounding surprised, as though he was reminding himself-McElroy spoke extemporaneously with an exactitude that most authors can't manage on the page, after extensive editing.
"We all know that memory is a liar," he said, pausing, raising his eyebrows, adding, "And a lair. There could be no forgetfulness without memory." He declared his fiction to be "the story of my life. By which I don't mean my autobiography," but rather a narrative of what he called "the two McElroys."
First, he described the family man, who uses fiction to test the "intricate, perilous, terrifying" bounds of familial relationships. The family man, he said, was separate from "Citizen McElroy," who is continually in dialogue with the "disappointing, wonderful, overwhelmingly interesting" American experiment. To illustrate these separate consciousnesses, McElroy read two stories from his first collection of short fiction, Night Soul and Other Stories.
The first story, "The Man with the Bagful of Boomerangs in the Bois De Boulogne," is a brief-yet-Proustian meditation on a man tossing boomerangs in a Parisian park, beginning in a concrete realm of sense, expanding into memories of childhood and family, and then-yes- boomeranging back to a brief, funny conversation with the sportsman.
McElroy announced, "When a writer tells you the source of a story, the writer's probably lying," and then he prefaced his story "The Campaign Trail" with a story about how it was born out of a rage at CNN's overuse of clichés. "The Campaign Trail" is the story of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton meeting in the wilderness of Michigan for a quiet camping trip away from the heated campaign. It's a lush, surprising story constructed entirely from repurposed media clichés from the 2008 Democratic nomination process.
Night Soul shares a precise use of language with McElroy's dense, majestic novels. One of the best stories is "Particle of Difference," which runs a father's conversation with his son about the distant edges of physics through a linguistic impersonation of those scientific theories. The tenses shift from sentence to sentence, depending on which character is doing the observation. Night Soul reveals another side of a largely unheralded American master, one whose monolithic novels are a distant cousin from these bold little packets; another country, another state of mind.
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