Picking up where we left off mid-chapter, there seems to be some rumination about Margaret and the role of her storytelling for both her departed daughter and grandson Jim, but then it spirals wayyyyyy out into broader, more ethereal territory, and we also find the first direct use of the novel’s title:
Women and men each other’s axles, she felt on good days; each other’s future and frontier—Words, words, words, Grace Kimball quoted herself, getting to the point by getting away from some other, women and men each other’s separated cooperative, for this is the future, she said, this is it, babe, and we are it, ’cause we know if we don’t do our thing, why darling nobody’s going to do it for you.
Grace and Jim seem to be inextricably linked in some abstract manner, but then we are cautioned not to make that abstraction too concrete:
Now, they two aren’t to be thought of in the same breath here. Yet if the chance remains that they should never meet to our satisfaction, still we ourselves are their relation, think of them as being like married folk who have so much between them they need friends to be between them too.
Again, we are teased that Jim and Grace will never meet physically but that doesn’t matter because the relations they share, the web of interactions between people they know, is more important than that. The angel narrator – at least, I think it is based on how damn abstruse his spiel is – even takes time to dwell on that line about “so much between them”. And at this point we find the angel is actually addressing an “inquisitor” and is undergoing some kind of interrogation. Does this change how we process the narration? Does it hold a further meaning now that we know it is being delivered under duress? Is the angel being tortured? What does he know that is so important for the inquisitor, what secret is being unlocked?
New characters are now factored into the mix: a Buddhist monk who sets himself on fire is invoked, as is a woman in Grace Kimball’s Body-Self Workshop – which was earlier alluded to as her avocation and probable source of income. We also see the child learning about light, but I’m still not sure what to make of it, then move along to the basso rotondo, who sings at the same opera as the tapeworm-dieter from earlier, and is seized by a self-consciousness of his abilities as to place his performance in jeopardy. He is saved by the presence of the kavalier, who I think is the singer we focused on before, as well as by thoughts of very delicious food that awaits him.
Which then becomes a tangent on light and the nature of light which was both amusing and impossible for me to look back and really process. And we learn that both Jim and Grace were able to attend the opera but for different reasons chose not to go. Jim has a presentation of his own, if I understand it right, dealing with budgets and the future, listening to a tape recording which I’m sure will hold significance later, and then we move on to the Wide Load truck barreling down some highway, an image we encountered at the beginning of the chapter but which I did not dwell upon in writing about the first half, except now it’s discussed in greater detail, especially the house it is carrying with two large rooms. Is it significant? I don’t think it is meant to be the home of anyone we have currently met, but I would not bet on that just because.
And there is an interesting bit of tangent building I noticed,nae there is talk of baseball in “Indiana or Ohio” which segues to a mention of Columbus being “offered by the Indians an herbal pick-me-up”. Indiana sounding like Indians and Ohio being the home of the city Columbus – is that how we moved from one thought to the other so fluidly? As a reader, am I supposed to find it reassuring or maddening?
Then we go to Margaret and the Hermit-Inventor of New York that she met while the Statue of Liberty was being assembled, who told Margaret to go west the way her daughter Sarah would later send away her grandson Jim. And there is the story Margaret tells of a Navajo Prince and the Eastern Princss of Choor, a land that is the title of the next chapter so my attention was grabbed, looking for some hint I may need, but to no avail.
And then I get the impression that Sarah did not die on Jim and her family but that she “went away where salt waves rolled and eyelashed upon a beach”. At that point, I panicked and went rifling through the first half of the chapter, verifying there was talk of a ripped-up obituary and a grave marker and a cemetery. So what was going on here? Did she leave to try to recuperate from her ailment, only to die and be buried when it did no good? Or was there something metaphorical at work here?
Ai-yi-yi. The chapter ends but the relief I felt was provisional at best. I could probably dwell on this chapter a few more days, some weeks even, to try to master it. And yet, I know enough a this point and am aware enough of the obfuscatory sequences that I will just move along to the next chapter.
Stepping just slightly onto a meta level, this reading journal of the novel is not meant to be a definitive explication of the book but merely my impressions as I go along. It is a difficult book and the difficulty sometimes gets to me, but I don’t mind – I’m willing to brave through this, to be swatted around by the challenges this poses me, and hope I leave behind enough digital breadcrumbs that I can make it through to the end with my sense of narrative and thematic enichment intact. Like many books, this one will benefit from repeated rereadings and this will be my first real time reading through it all (fingers crossed). In that sense, this reading journal is crucial – it keeps my head in the game, it provides a personal point of reference if I wander too far adrift.
I suppose I could be mad at the author for being so obscure, for not making it even a little bit easier for me. But why bother reading this book, then? I want to be pushed to my limits, to find out my failures as a reader, and to keep trying anyway.
And to be fair, McElroy doesn’t leave us completely stranded. The narrative spirals from setting to characters to levels of abstraction, but there are certain repetitions and motifs that help us keep track. The power vac is about Grace, the mother who leaves is about Jim, the net of relations can be sussed out for the opera singer, and we manage to get bits and pieces on each character as we go along.
That said, plot and narrative don’t mean as much to me as the beauty of well-wrought prose, and in this respect this chapter shines. The angel narrator under inquisition is quite the raconteur, albeit one whose scope of vision and experience is well beyond my own (and well it should be, if it is a celestial being). I could just bask in the torrent of words and the way it flows from one idea to the next, from one tangent to the next, with the belief that it all makes perfect sense to the narrator. There is a confidence and playfulness to the angelic narrator that makes you aware he knows more than you but that he won’t dummy it down for your sake. “Your” perhaps being the I inquisitor, who probably CAN follow these daisy chains of thoughts if he is also a celestial being. In which case, the reader is merely an eavesdropper in a on interrogation well beyond our ken.
So that’s about it for me. Let’s see what the next chapter brings.