Obsession had brought me to Joseph McElroy’s apartment building. I was vibrating from too much caffeine. I had been up late with his 1,200-page novel, Women and Men, suffering the long-forgotten nervousness of cramming for a difficult final. The elevator opened directly into his apartment—a surprise. I hadn’t prepared my facial expression. McElroy, in a purple checked shirt tucked neatly into neutral pants, greeted me cautiously. As he led me through a maze of books, I noted the strength of his voice and the way, at eighty-seven, he walked with only the faintest hint of caution. I sat in his study beneath a large printed photo of McElroy himself staring angrily down at me. For the past decade, every time I’d entered a used bookstore, it was with the hope of finally finding a copy of Women and Men. Now I was interviewing its author, something that I’d had no desire to do.
My interest in the novel began with Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult,” a takedown of William Gaddis. I wasn’t yet aware of the phenomenon of big-game hunting, the youngish critic making a case for their own fiction by taking down a writer who is either too lofty or too dead (ideally both) to punch back. Franzen’s argument relied on a binary: there was the “Status model” of evaluating novels—artistic greatness regardless of the novel’s popular success—and the “Contract model”—a friendly egalitarian compact between writer and reader. While Franzen allows that certain novels like House of Mirth can be appreciated in both modes, the categories diverge over challenging works. For a contract reader, difficulty is an impediment. I took note when he identified a status canon of “intellectual, socially edgy white-male American fiction writers … Pynchon, DeLillo, Heller, Coover, Gaddis, Gass, Burroughs, Barth, Barthelme, Hannah, Hawkes, McElroy, and Elkin.”
I had never heard of Joseph McElroy, whose 1987 book regularly sells for more than three hundred dollars on eBay. The one volume in the New York Public Library system is impossible to secure, there is no e-book, and I grew fascinated with the elusiveness of Women and Men. I wasn’t alone. Most online discussions of the book are tips on finding it. The novel was notorious, eleven years of labor that quickly vanished from cultural consciousness. Many books go out of print because they are unremarkable, but few acquire the cult status of Women and Men. We who hadn’t read it all had the same questions: Why was it so long? And was it good? And why, despite its failure, did it still fascinate so many? Read More