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To summarize A Smuggler's Bible is a difficult task, but, essentially, an easy one (have I contradicted myself?). David Brooke, on the verge of a breakdown, is attempting to assemble, from eight very different manuscripts, his identity, his place in his friends' lives, as seen through their eyes. And in a variety of styles (the influences are strongly Nabokovian & Joycean), with each single manuscript having more material than many respected novels, the story unfolds, and we too begin piecing together what makes David Brooke David Brooke.
McElroy shows a command of characterization, setting, voice, and metaphor that many a lesser novelist has been praised for. I highly recommend this novel, which demands multiple readings, along with McElroy's Lookout Cartridge (currently out of print and perhaps the single most neglected work of the '70's).
Joseph McElroy's works far, far better than this hastily composed "review." Please read him.
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"Plus" is by no means an easy novel to read. In fact, it challenges the reader at every turn. However, to read it through, to contemplate its implications, and to finally understand it, is to take part in its achievement.
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The plot of Women and Men is very much tied into the structure of Women and Men, and one can think of the structure as a vast net ballooning outward (think Big Bang) as the novel progresses. Facts, storylines, characters and themes accumulate and swell at an alarming rate, and by the novel's midway point the reader will no doubt feel overwhelmed. But McElroy's Universe appears to be a closed one, and, slowly, eventually, the facts start coming together, storylines mesh (to a degree), characters sort themselves out (mostly), and some resolutions occur (though not all). And if the structure of Women and Men is a ballooning/expanding mesh (it could be, yet is also so much more), and if the characters are the points where this mesh (or "field") crosses, then the connecting mesh between these points could be seen as representing one of the most distinctive aspects of this novel: the first person plural narrative, the "We" who sometimes refer to themselves as angels (during sections titled "Breathers"). Messengers yes, but also Medium. Of the sound (voices) and the light (images) that connect the characters, of how they know one another, of how they become part of each other's lives and are thus reincarnated in others. (Something like that; I'm fudging this, but I'm not far off: they also represent the ultimate "connectors," we the readers.)
Main plot points? Two lives: Jim Mayn, an estranged journalist who's mother committed suicide when he was fifteen, and Grace Kimball who lives in the same apartment building and runs a very '70s feminist Body-Self workshop. They never meet, but do influence one another's lives (through the web of characters). There is also woven into this some international conspiracy involving a possible planned assassination of Chilean President Allende (talk about a tangled web!) and a fascinating underlay of Native American myth and "real life" biography involving Mayn's grandmother and a Navaho "prince" who has fallen in love with her and follows her across late 19th century American). And much more, all minutely detailed and told in endless Faulknerian sentences (some over a 1000 words long) that actually speed the reader along. The last 50 pages are breathtaking (including a wonderful, and necessary, dreamstory), the last 10 are as affecting as anything I've ever read.
Either give this book up after 100 pages, or read it all the way through; it's a book that's only complete once it's completed, and you should find yourself vastly rewarded and awed as I was, and still am. Few writers put as much into a novel as, say, Beethoven would put into a symphony. Joseph McElroy does. But like all of his novels (excluding his The Letter Left to Me), it does ask a lot of you (this is "cool" media, not "hot"), and it is as good as you, the reader, are willing make it, and I think that is a good thing.
I also highly recommend Tom LeClair's The Art of Excess, which has an essay on Women and Men that puts this grasping review to shame. The Dalkey Archive Press's Joseph McElroy Number (Spring '90, Review of Contemporary Fiction) is invaluable too.
Joseph McElroy is currently at work on two novels, one of which should be published in the near future. I eagerly await them.
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