Author: Joseph McElroy

2011, Dalkey Archive Press

Filed Under: Short Stories, Literary

This is one of the more difficult reviews I’ve had to write in a while. McElroy is an excellent writer, and this is a very good book. Here’s the thing though: I can’t really recommend Night Soul for most readers.

McElroy writes some of the densest stories I can think of. Often they start in one rather small, specific place–like two girls playing dress up in a closet in “The Unknown Kid”–then expand to encompass fairly huge ideas and lengths of time, as well as a number of settings. Eventually the story comes back, and any reader who manages to remain oriented for the ride will come back pretty enriched. In this way a McElroy story takes a shape like that of a balloon being blown up almost to its bursting point before the air is slowly re-inhaled and the balloon deflated. The problem is, I often found myself left behind for the return trip, grasping for a lifeline.

Even readers accustomed to tough reads should approach this book ready with their A-game. McElroy is not afraid to move–often frequently–between points of view, styles, settings, and temporalities. More than one story dip in and out of dream space; he plays with syntax; he’s happy to refer to characters as “the man” and “the woman” and the like; I counted one sentence at 255 words (that’s a whole page!), and I don’t think it was the longest. It’s easy to become disoriented and thus the book requires constant attention. If your mind drifts for a second, as mine often can, you could easily find yourself lost and in need of rereading a paragraph or a few pages to reclaim your bearings.

Exacerbating this is just how great McElroy’s writing is. He is amazing with a sentence. There were countless occasions where I found myself reading along happily, absorbed in the writing and present moment of the story, only to pause and realize I had lost all recollection of what was actually happening in the story. Then there I was with no bearing, grasping for that lifeline like I was lost in a blizzard. This happened a lot. He constantly diverges into tangents, and writes detailed, list-filled descriptions (which I love as a reader). Within those, he has an uncanny knack for making just one or two tweaks to make a good sentence into an exceptional one.

Sometimes things can feel convoluted though, even outside sentences of 100+ words. It’s easy to fall into traps he sets in the beginning of a paragraph like this from the title story, about a man waiting for his infant son to speak:

And he’s there for him in five seconds to find spread upon his son’s nose and mouth like a flame of milk the pale seal of night-light from the moon gone no higher than the broad southern sky but ready to for higher hauling indifferently this southwestern sea the desert, and the boy with it. Last night’s launched vowelish tries go into each other with a speed of going somewhere, it’s practice but it’s a new night, it’s not a thing he’s saying or some outcry, but soundings. So last night’s work is left behind with the man.

It’s almost like McElroy is daring you to keep up, making you work for his story. Still, for the readers that can keep up, or who are willing to continually throw themselves back in, this is a wonderful and rewarding book. The twelves stories cover vast amounts of ground. There’s family stories, stories written from the perspective of towns or societies, sci-fi, dreamscapes, and a 9/11 story, amongst others. McElroy describes things vividly and passionately. But since he so often toys with his reader, when or where the things he describes are is not always clear. It’s a mischievous book, but a good one. Casual readers be warned. But if you’ve just come off of something like Ulysses, or a collection of Robert Coover stories, then this is a book for you.

Similar Reads: Pricksongs & Descants (Coover), 40 Stories (Barthelme), Mao II (Delillo)

[A review copy was provided by Dalkey Archive Press]