Joseph McElroy, who turned 80 last year, published his first book in 1966. He's a stylistically radical writer -- a genuine avant-gardist -- and his sentences are deliberative, dense and allusive. His best known novel, "Women and Men," is 1,200 pages long. He writes like a man who's not in a hurry. After reading his new collection of stories, I'm still not sure if he's hostile to the mainstream, bemused by it or simply indifferent. But in a glib culture, it's hard not to admire his refusal to pander.
The dozen stories in "Night Soul" deal with family, art and science, secessionist states and secret languages. For all the diversity of their subject matter, each tale exhibits the author's fascination with the vagaries of cognition and communication. McElroy is interested in why, in a world flooded with information, gossip and other forms of cultural noise, it's so hard to truly understand one another.
"The Unknown Kid" is a story that exemplifies these concerns. Musing on his life as a business traveler, the unnamed narrator explains, "I pass to and from one aerodrome or the other, promoting steel in major cities. ... I wake up, having been awake deep-seated in the multiplied upholstery of a system that works, and correct my slouch, guarding my lower back as a thing, a being, a moral that could come true." He wants to catch up with his daughter, learn what she's studying in math class, yet as a visitor in his own apartment he can't help but ponder a question familiar to many parents: "Wasn't there a strength in her, separating her from me?"
Elsewhere, the book features a send-up of the American political process ("The Campaign Trail," in which a very competent "brown man" is deemed "too thin to lead"); a look at the friendship of an unemployed New Yorker and a 9-year-old Syrian immigrant ("No Man's Land," a story that explores ignorance, fear and post- 9/11 America); and a portrait of a country that has literally vanished from the map ("The Last Disarmament But One," which includes sentences that find humor in the scientific inscrutability of the situation: "Micro-forces unique in our experience had barraged transparent interfaces along the risen ghost frontiers ... ").
"Annals of Plagiary" stands out as thoughtful rumination on memory and the exchange of ideas. Narrated by an author whose book may have been plagiarized, the story is another that carefully examines how the mind processes strange new information. When confronted with the possibility that his work might have been stolen, the story's narrator -- "a lifelong water engineer" -- finds himself unconsciously couching the matter in familiar terms. It was, he says, "as if the words in my book ... had been absorbed or, yes, dissolved, yet now re-precipitated." The story takes a turn when the engineer comes to believe that he might not be an innocent victim after all. "I am trying to get it right," he explains, which, finally, is the best any of us can do.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and book critic in New York.