Women and Men, by Joseph McElroy. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Dzanc Books, May 2018. 1300 pages. $25.00, paper.
In the new edition of Joseph McElroy’s classic novel Women and Men, we follow James Mayn and Grace Kimball, two neighbors who “never quite meet” but whose lives nearly touch through mutual friends across the city, Grace’s dreams, and a few passes in the streets. The narrative is told in a vignette style, jumping between the rehearsal of a musical based on Hamlet, the launch of the Apollo 17, Samuel Colt’s work inventing and improving his revolver, etc. This scattershot approach means many events feel only loosely connected, but each individual vignette is tightly crafted with enough tension or character moments to carry you through to the next.
The joke answer to where you start your story is at the character’s birth. Joseph McElroy, in the style of a post-modernist, chose to challenge this advice in his novel. The normal problem with a birth scene is that they add little, but McElroy uses the birth to show his hand for the tone and style for the novel. This scene is told through the mother-to-be’s thoughts both in the moment and a few weeks later as she listens to her husband talk about their “division of labor” at a party. Which makes the woman angry because he had done little work as she went through the pains of giving birth and, as she gave birth, she realized that in a marriage “we suffer alone.” This scene is told without character names. The woman thinks “of [the doctor] as Shay”, but otherwise the characters are simply “she” or “he” which is continued through most of the novel in chapters where only a woman and man interact.
The novel postures itself from the first chapter, where the narrator focuses on the difference of how the husband and wife react, as a book about gender differences. Although the Dzanc edition isn’t the same as the original printed in the eighties, as McElroy writes in a note at the beginning, this edition was written to be “as accurate as [they could] make it” to the original. So, this book doesn’t have much modern nuance on gender issues. This is obvious in the occasional casual thoughts on rape that could trouble some readers such as when a female character ponders “is rape how they get to be goddesses?” But these sections are spread sparse across the novel and can be easily skimmed over by any uncomfortable reader.
This is a concern at a narrative level though, and the narrative of Women and Men, as brilliant as it can be in presenting a variety of scenes and experiences, is not the biggest draw of the novel. The Dzanc edition is 1300 pages. Keeping a compelling narrative for that long is a herculean task. McElroy steps up to the plate at times by dragging us across time, through the spiritual, and into dreams to keep the narrative varied and engaging throughout the novel, but McElroy’s control of language and ability to come from every angle with it is what makes all 1300 pages worth reading. The language captures the simplicity of Ernest Hemmingway’s narration, the pounding beat of the Greek chorus, and unique character voices in various places throughout the text. The narration also switches perspective and style from collective first to distant third to stream of consciousness which can make following the text difficult, but the variety makes the length feel earned.
The “BETWEEN” chapters are the most difficult to comprehend and warrant slowing down. While the novel is told primarily in a distant third person, the BETWEEN chapters are told in a first person collective by “relations angels.” These angels are nominally appropriate when they discuss the reality of relationships outside of what we’re shown, such as when they refer to Grace Kimball’s marriage as “grotesque only in practice” following a scene of her and her husband flirting. The angels often come back to Grace’s “interhemispheric tapeworm” and its origin from a fish in Japan and prescription from an indigenous doctor. The angels seem written with an obsession with this tapeworm which, due to the distance between the BETWEEN chapters, can throw a reader off their rhythm as they remember what tapeworm they’re talking about. Even after a chapter where a family is held up at gunpoint or knifepoint at a restaurant, the angels still return to the tapeworm saying “whatever” to the relations of the family. This specific BETWEEN section, starting a quarter of the way through the novel, is one of the most abstract and hard to follow sections thanks to the pages-long sentences filled with parentheticals that would impress Donald Barthlme. It is also one of the longest chapters as it switches between scenes with Grace Kimball with the angels commenting in streams of thoughts that at times feel like excerpts from an automatic novel.
The length of this novel may be of concern to some readers. It is definitely one of the longest novels one could read, but thanks to the always changing narrative and beautiful language, the novel feels much shorter. The chapters with lower case are also more self-contained but connected short stories than pieces to the puzzle of the larger narrative, while the chapters with titles in all caps act as adhesive connecting the other chapters, so the book can be put down and picked up again later in case we feel exhausted by the length of it.
Overall, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men may not be the most pulse-pounding action novel out there. It is also not the most modern novel, but through its intricate characters, highly varied plot, beautiful control of language, and epic length, Women and Men becomes a novel worth spending a month or two reading and dissecting.
Joaquin Macias was born in Sumter, South Carolina, to a surrealist and a communist. He is an aspiring writer and student of English and Theater at Winthrop University. His work has previously appeared in Crack the Spine and Riggwelter.