As with the last big chapter on Jim Mayn, this chapter focuses on Grace Kimball and a day in her life. Grace is a rising feminist figure who holds seminars on body and sexuality, emphasizing the notion of sex-positive and denouncing bad things in people’s lives as sex-negative. When the chapter starts, we find Grace in her Body Room, which turns out to have mirrors and fixtures in the shape of genitalia. Grade is masturbating, which is an important sex-positive act of affirmation for her, and it turns out this is something she teaches in some of her seminars, even having her entire class masturbate at the same time, make and female.
I don’t know if all this talk of masturbation is supposed to be shocking when the novel first came out, or is merely meant to show the attitudes of the self-help, New Age, and second wave feminism in the 1970 (was it the second wave at that point? I may be wrong). At rant rate, nowadays it is amusing and even quaint, but Grace sees herself at least a little as a revolutionary who sees a better future for her followers and the world with her message of sex-positive Self-Sex (the term she uses).
This long chapter shows just how much goes on in 24 hours of Grace’s life and the many people who are in her orbit. There is Maureen, her assistant, who is having her house burgled. There is her old friend and seminar client Cliff, who I think is gay and was supposed to drive her to an appearance in Long Island the night before but had to back off. There is Clara, whose husband seems to be the Chilean that Jim Mayn was seeking out a few hundred pages back. There is the family who hosted the Long Island event: Sue, who is ready to be a lesbian and leave husband Marv, who is not happy with Grace, and Larry, the couple’s eighteen year old son who Sue says needs to get laid and is interested in nerve gas. (This all feels very DeLillo to me for some reason.) There is Manuel, the doorman to her apartment building, who is a friend of Grace but fired from his job; he assures Grace, though, that he has the support of other tenants, including a Mr Mayn.
And that’s just scratching the surface. For someone diddling herself for much of the chapter, she encounters a lot of people earlier. In Long Island she meets Kate, who is described as “political” and who scares Maureen when they drive Grace and herself home. There is Dave Shea, who I think is Grace’s father? And we find out she had a brother, who was a milkman back home, but he died young. There are people that Grace encounters when walking in New York, including an older couple named Martha and a man described as a Hermit Inventor, as well as an African American in an alligator hat who Grace is convinced she will eventually have sex with.
A timeline: last night Grace went to Sue’s house to give a talk, and she recorded her talk but forgot the tape. She goes to Marv’s office the next morning for the tape, and along the way encounters the old couple and the guy in the alligator hat. She then goes home to listen to the tape, Manuel tells her he got fired and that he let in a friend of hers who she realizes at the end of the chapter is Clara, who is a client but not quite a friend, and who wasn’t even seeking out Grace at the apartment in the first place. Clara’s husband makes me think this may have to do with Jim Mayn but it may spin out even further than that for all we know. Clara has decided to move into this building, as has Sue and her family, we were told earlier. So the building is becoming a nexus for what follows, I assume.
Interspersed throughout the chapter are indented passages that first seem to come from the notes of Grace’s sketchbook and later from the recording of her talk the night before. It is an interesting technique, especially in how it segues from Grace’s inner thoughts to these more externalized expressions of the same thoughts. It didn’t work so well for me at first, though the surprise shift to the recording was a nice jolt to the system.
The description of New York as a kind of freak show parade with a lot of funkiness for all ages was, like the masturbation, quaint and endearing and even made me a bit nostalgic. I grew up on Long Island in the 1970s so I have some faint memories of what it was like in New York back in those days and this feels true to the spirit of that time. But I was just a child then, so maybe I’m thinking more of the accounts of the time, especially in histories of the early days of punk rock.
I still feel like there’s a lot of having to keep track of the plot details of who and when and where, but I’m not sweating it as much. There are enough markers and reminders as the story goes that I get the gist if not the more granular details; for me, this will be something that a second reading of the novel will clarify – and yes, I intend to read this again after I finish it. (Or rather, if I finish it. Finally.) I do get a sense of the time and place and attitudes that McElroy is trying to recreate, the sense of new beliefs about self and relationships overtaking the world, which is quite salient to the themes of the novel. I notice early on that Maureen is described as baby’s breath, though Lord knows if there is a payoff waiting there or a reminder of the Angels breathing. I’m still hanging on for the ride.
And I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten this far in the book until now. Which is making me hopeful.