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Women and Men (1986)

by Joseph McElroy

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206296,902 (3.79)32
Beginning in childbirth and entered like a multiple dwelling in motion, Women and Men embraces and anatomizes the 1970s in New York--from experiments in the chaotic relations between the sexes to the flux of the city itself. Yet through an intricate overlay of scenes, voices, fact, and myth, this expanding fiction finds its way also across continents and into earlier and future times and indeed the Earth, to reveal connections between the most disparate lives and systems of feeling and power. At its breathing heart, it plots the fuguelike and fieldlike densities of late-twentieth-century life.McElroy rests a global vision on two people, apartment-house neighbors who never quite meet. Except, that is, in the population of others whose histories cross theirs--believers and skeptics; lovers, friends, and hermits; children, parents, grandparents, avatars, and, apparently, angels. For Women and Men shows how the families through which we pass let one person's experience belong to that of many, so that we throw light on each other as if these kinships were refracted lives so real as to be reincarnate.A mirror of manners, the book is also a meditation on the languages--rich, ludicrous, exact, and also American--in which we try to grasp the world we're in. Along the kindred axes of separation and intimacy Women and Men extends the great line of twentieth-century innovative fiction.… (more)



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You cannot take the engineer out of the writer; you cannot take the integration out of life.

There was a time when I cross-referenced a Gravity's Rainbow relation of sunset, radiation dynamics of reddening shades versus the bloody westward draw over sea and foundered land. Whether 'twas a singular page or a singular thought of relative Pynchon's or my own, it didn't matter. What did was a figuring that in the duel between word and constant, equation and verse, mathematical flow of form and memorial firing of relation, I preferred story to solution.

Plot pulse. Theme pulse. Word pulse. Take your heartbeat as you wish and trust the rest to follow.

I no longer seek out a laboratory for my contribution to society, but that is a lie if metaphor is your friend and faithful fret, for what is creation by those who cannot help it if not a discovery, bred in light if not in number, boxed in bone if not in glass, lethal potential all the same?

The matter is we, for the longer one spends in the statistical mists the longer the system is we. I would speak plainly if I could, but every parse parts into the infinite stream, one for you and you and whatever your existence conjures at the differential moment of my saying "female", "atheist", "white", a shortened guarantee for each delineation of other. I find my place in the wave of things; mind your self less than the water.

...until the meaning of her day approached, and she almost had it

Ten years ago I studied the weather. Nowadays I tutor English. In the repetitions of the Odyssey, unobserved until explanation necessitated, I found the tidal aid of memory. In the water margin of Women and Men, coastal operative over a denser complexity than formula could ever hope to approximate, I reconciled my seventh grade failure to calculate the low pressure curve to my appreciation of what goes in to the wind, the sun, the snow.

It is raining today. How many breathers made it happen?

Politics, economics, rhyme, rhythm, calculate. Condensing is control is impossible without a correlating decrease in respect, climate change in charts, unhappiness in soap operas. We cannot comprehend the mechanics of earthquakes we fail to confirm our "science" of poli and econ we continue to kill each other and ourselves. We fear. Then we contain something, and we fear more.

Flick said anyone could have predicted the bomb: it was just bigger.

We could put forth the planetary motion of people as safeguard, obliging ourselves with acknowledgement of temporary status yet not really believing we'll ever find anything better. I could track down ever reference to anything ever within the bindings of this particular tome, but that is not a natural commitment of anything else I have ever read. My closure breeds in different ways, and until the void I let it lie.

...for if life is an education it must be to find out what you are already doing because can't avoid in some way Doing.

If you dream in sci-fi, are you innovative or simply giving the finger to Freud in the manner of one of many dreaded "genre" style constructions? No tech or politics in fiction for literature's sake, but that electricity wasn't made on the backs of philosophers, nor that forty hour work day. Whatever your comfortable level of luddism or adherence to Thoreau (two years on Walden two miles from home and brought back his laundry every weekend for his mother to do), you are a set of the system. Contemplate the creeded words of Hegel and co., but understanding's a nominal thing if existence is only respected in parts. Pretend as you may, you're not dead yet.

...In my keeper's multiple dwelling there are many Mansons.

Not so appealing now, is it.

...call nationalism just another brand of competition which is death next to cooperation...Does that get your goat?

...to a neutral economist who says in the long run "it" evens out, and to Lord Keynes who said In the long run we are dead...

You should know my stance on free market capitalism versus a living wage by now.

...and now he works steadily against the death penalty ("against death as a penalty")...

I was not leading you astray with my hopeful view of We in the beginning. Only my definition may differ, for a lack of a considered life after the croak has made me all the more keen on the hearing of now. All for one, one for all, and heaven help those sputtering 'but'.

...people are the obstacles we choose and by a system that is always double we are inclined toward these obstacles in order by some last-second correction like multiple-reentry missiles to veer away around them at risk yet with awful chance, too, if we can find the way in to the risk of our lives...

If I can do it, so can you.

All of this speaks. In many bodies or, as our leaders have said, on an individual basis. Speaks also, we understand, in this "we" that we have heard. What is it? some community? Ours. Operating less than capacity then suddenly also beyond itself. So that in the zone between we have this voice of relations—is that it?—of possible relations too.

There is no we in I on a linguistic case level. So come, tell me the familiar anew; on a level of life, we'll find it yet. ( )
3 vote Korrick | Apr 29, 2014 |
Link to Women and Men forum: Women and Men

Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men opens with a birthing scene. The woman is at a party flashing back to her experience of birthing the baby. The title “division of labor” sets the economic tone of labor and productivity that recalls Karl Marx’s Division of Labor . She was experiencing awful pain while her husband Shay, formerly David, was below awaiting the birth of their child. He was paying attention and documenting everything, but can never really know her pain. She had her husband, the young male obstetrician and two nurses with her, but she felt alone in company. They both coached her as she labored to push the baby out. She, who was usually the healthy one, became the invalid, not invalid, but being fruitful and productive. The men never really saw her labor, but were looking forward to the fruit of her labor. She had become the model of productivity. The true experience of her pain is in the unspoken void, a personal experience that she can never completely communicate to others. “Between us, it was what marriage was all about. We suffer alone. We are not alone...” She felt that he felt “that he could share her labor only by not looking back at her.”

This sets the tone for the book of an allegory for the economic balance in relationships stemming from personal relationships, history and ecology. Each relationship involves accessing the gain and cost, goods substitution to maintain satisfaction, changing value depending on supply and demand, and negotiations between parties on a promised future.

This book is divided into 33 chapters of the all-caps, the small-caps, and the traditional caps, and categorized according to meaning. Each chapter is whole in its storytelling. Even if a chapter is not directly related to the main story line, it imparts an important message that helps to understand the main story.

ALL-CAPS and normal case:
These are the key chapters in the book that most relay the character, ideas and plot of the book. Of these, the five Breathers are the most disorienting since they are not in the linear narrative, but are meant to express clues from a simultaneity of times, point of views, and synecdoches. They represent the process of the metaphorical current moving in and out of the ecosystem, of fragments of sound coming from varying sources, of echoes from history. Breathers are the live, breathing entities, the you, me and “the breather Jim Mayn”. Reading this massive novel involves taking a pause in your breathing to listen to the void, what is not explicitly communicated in the novel, but an amalgamate of information that tells an implicit message.

Among the characters present in the Breathers are the faceless Interrogators, who change in persons. They are the questioning perplexed ones, the ones who want to understand but are unable to. The balance to the Interrogators are the Angels, perhaps souls waiting to reborn as humans, listening and learning the lessons before they become wardens of their area of human existence.

They are McElroy’s short stories that are an aside to the main plot, but offer significant clues to understanding the book. They start with the “unknown” grouping, “division of labor unknown”, “the unknown sound”, and “dividing the unknown between us”. “division of labor unknown” tells of the not knowing of the labor between the husband and wife, as the wife becomes annoyed at her husband’s inability to comprehend her tremendous birthing experience or labor. The title also refers to Karl Marx’s theory that says labor is value. In “the unknown sound”, a woman hears a sound that the man is unable to help her pinpoint, foretelling McElroy’s symbolic usage of sound as fragments of information (and information as fragments of sound) that one has to listen to carefully to understand. In “dividing the unknown between us”, the husband and wife shares unspoken knowledge as if through telepathy, foreshadowing the collective unconscious theme of Women and Men, the merging of shared histories and knowledge.

From the “unknown”s are the other small-cap chapters. “still life: sisters sharing information” is the first of the mistaken identities that require that attention need to be paid to get the right meaning. The two women exchange information, one about her husband, the other about her boyfriend, both coincidentally named Dave. With a dizzyingly fragmented information style, much as they’re received fractiously in life, the two women discovered that it is the same man. But the main effect is on the disoriented reader. With this chapter, McElroy prepares the reader for more of the same throughout the book.

“the departed tenant” and “the future” is about the meaning of voids left by an entity. “the departed tenant” features a character who is not really there, the former tenant who calls concerned about the welfare of the present tenant. Interpretations and misinterpretations abound as the tenant and her boyfriend worry about the motive for the former tenant’s solicitousness. “the future” features the anxious void left by the robber of a restaurant, and everyone trying to make sense of the robbery. The void is a major theme throughout the book, with the major one being Sarah’s disappearance presumably by suicide.

Next are the “known bits” set. The facts are arranged in alphabetical sequence with “known bits I” starting with the letter “a” and “known bits III” ends with the fact grouping of “y”. The “known bits” feature the bike messenger “Jimmy Banks” as he connects the characters via messages exchanged between them. Acting only as messaging machine, Banks was given all these significant information but lacks the perception or need to make sense of them. With this loss of significant information, McElroy tells us that “people mattered” in their ability to perceive through multiple senses, and to perceive what is not materially there.

“the unknown saved”, “the message for what it was worth”, “daughter of the revolution”, and “news” are short stories about the inadequacy of transmitting information.

“rent” is about the economics of renting a bike. A man took his six-year-old daughter, Sarah, to rent a bike. The father’s thought is consumed with the economics of renting versus buying. He’s weighing time versus money, wondering how long she would use it before she outgrows the bike. He wonders “if wealth was a claim on someone else’s labor”, he’s only claiming the labor of someone taking the bike out of storage. Then again, the rental people are exerting a claim on his labor, since he gave them cash for the rental. He’s also expending labor in order to buy and maintain the bike. Sarah had the greatest claim on him, but she’s not paying. He’s paying the rental people “to give Sarah his labor.” He ponders, “What did it cost Sarah to rent him?”


In the future at Locus T, two people are standing upon a four-cornered alloy metal plate in a line of pairs waiting to be transported to an Earth-Moon frontier colony. Unbeknownst to them, they will arrive as one. For economy purpose, they are transformed from a pair into a unit. Such is James Mayn’s flashes of a memory of a future where he has been, and not in a dream, because he doesn’t dream. He wonders, “... what the two transformed to one are transferred to, where do they wind up besides together?” Besides confusing flashes of a future that he has been, Jim, a business and technology journalist, is lost in the memory of the possible drowning suicide and disappearance of his mother, Sarah, and remembrances of his grandmother Margaret’s cryptic autobiographical tale of the East Far Eastern Princess’ journey to the wild west, she being the East Far Eastern Princess.

In 1885, twelve-year-old Margaret was in New York harbor on Bedloe’s Island when the Statue of Liberty was being uncrated. She was with her father who was documenting the event for his recently acquired small New Jersey newspaper. She was gazing inside the face of the statue seeing that there was a touch of Native American to the face, when she met the old Hermit-Inventor of New York. The Hermit-Inventor would show up several times more, during Sarah’s disappearance and in Jim’s adult years when the Hermit lived in a Greenwich Village railroad flat predicting New Weather that would foretell a great change. The Hermit-Inventor told Margaret to "go west, young girl, that’s where you must go, and you will," and "Look her in the eye, you’ll see what she never will, a whole world outside tracing your window and bent like weather by light." Margaret’s adventure in the west begins the tale of the East Far Eastern Princess.

The East Far Eastern Princess, on a giant bird, left her father the King of Choor for the New World to find monsters. At the New World, she met her Navajo Prince on the night of the Night Sing and was led to his people. There she encountered the Prince’s mother with a hole in her head brimming with demons and the Anasazi healer, a medicine man and seer who the Prince is apprenticed under. Despite the fact that her giant carrier bird missed its food and began to eat the Navajo horses, it was a happy time with her beloved Navajo Prince where she learned about drying vegetables, weaving, crop-planting season, irrigation and birthing babies. With the impending union of her son and the East Far Eastern Princess, the demons became louder and the mother died, thereby closing the hole in her head. Thinking she caused the mother’s death, the Princess left on her giant bird. The Navajo Prince, with a Colt pistol he acquired from the Anasazi healer on the night of the double moon (foreshadowing change and potential), followed the Princess to protect her. His leaving caused his mother to come alive, with the hole, not a hole but an opening, in her head opening again. Meanwhile, the Anasazi medicine man decided that it was time to leave the world. Upon his death, instead of reincarnating, he transited to a cloud form in order to check for the “foam volcanoes” in the eastern states despite the hermit telling him of their nonexistence. He predicted that a young person would “take responsibility for a new form of reincarnation.”

Simultaneously, the East Far Eastern Princess was also followed by her suitor Harflex (Alexander), a young man who was to eventually marry the headstrong and independent young woman. After her bird was killed by a lightning bolt, the Hermit-Inventor helped turned her into a sun-drenched mist at the Statue to help her in her final journey back East to her home. One account was that she went with the wind, leaving her Navajo Prince, who was hiding in the Statue’s head. Another account was that the Princess disarmed the Prince, and took back the Colt revolver to change the course of history, a “common revolver that in all the hands Indian, Mexican, American that handled it, multiplied into perhaps a small arsenal in fact.” Another account said that Harflex killed him.

After her time with the Navajos, Margaret went west after reading “the 1892 commissioner’s report and knew that medicine men were adjudged to be barbarous conjurers and got ten to thirty days in jail for a first offense” to do some reporting, visit the slaughterhouses, and see the Chicago World’s Fair. She returned east partly with Coxey’s Army in their unemployment protest with Alexander trying to track her down.

Coxey's Army

Alexander and Margaret’s child Sarah was Jim’s mother, an emotionally distant talented violinist. Ironically, Margaret, who fearlessly traversed the continent alone as a journalist and lived among the Navajos, suppressed Sarah’s independent soul when she wanted to live abroad in France. Margaret carefully monitored Sarah’s 1925 visit to France for music studies at Fontainebleau. There Sarah fell in love with a young violinist named Robaire and wanted to stay longer. Her mother forbid the stay and forced her to return home. There, Sarah withdrew from life and lived only through her music. As an act of self-sabotage, she resigned herself to a loveless marriage with Mel Mayne, a tone-deaf journalist who became a “widowed scapegoat for his ignorance of life’s sweet mystery. In a loveless marriage, Sarah had an affair with a married electrician, Bob Yard, that produced Jim’s half-brother Brad. Mel himself had his own affairs. In 1945, Sarah disappeared at the Jersey shore and was presumed a drowning suicide. Since there is no body, Jim considers her a void. Before her disappearance, she had spoken to the Hermit-Inventor. Sarah “followed the strains of her violin conceivably, if you call that music waves.”

. . . ever drifting, drifting, drifting
On the shifting
Currents of the restless heart;
Till at length in books recorded,
They, like hoarded
Household words, no more depart . . .


In 1976, after years of feeling lost and a journalist’s career that takes him away from home often, Jim divorced Joy and left his two children, to end up at Ship Rock on Navajo land, as if there was a wind pushing him in a certain direction, like “hands on your back pushing you, or one hand there and the other not there or not much there”. Ship Rock used to be inside a volcano and came “up from below.” The Indians saw the rock from the volcano’s throat and said that the rock brought them there. They “told a story of how this deep-keeled Rock had brought them. As if it had not been here until they were. So they’re still at least tied for first.” Uncovered, this fifteen hundred feet high of sacred Indian symbol of the blood of monsters killed by the mythic Hero Twins is now visible thirty miles from the Four Corners Power Plant. While the mythic Ship Rock used to be inside a fuming volcano, its technological neighbor emits cheap surface coal. Looking at this rock that looks like a ship, hypothetical man Jim (here but in the future), thinks that “it brought him here. And it will get him home.”

Lagrangian Point

Jim’s sun is balanced by the feminist Grace Kimball's earth. “Grace saw ahead into a future that looked back at her through the same eye with which she saw it, into a room without furniture. Her Body Room she would call it,... “ Grace, a descendent of various matrilineal Native American lines, sees a better and radical way of living to free the feminine selves from its patrilineal heritage. She ran a Body-Self workshop that helps people to depart from the confines of societal restraints, and to free themselves to be the best that they can be. Jim, who “was in future imagining our present as his past”, was the reverse of Nietzsche’s “will to power”. Living in the same apartment complex, he never met Grace, but are related to her through their many relations, the libration points created by their pull. They and “we are the relations between them”. Jim’s search “didn’t bring him, but did one day yield, Grace Kimball herself”, the representative of personal resolution and power. A representative of the “weaker” sex and the poorer economy, Grace’s empowerment and economic growth creates a convergence for the future of the sexes.

The complex web of connected characters include the Diva Luisa, a Chilean born opera singer with a Swiss passport. She pressured an Ojibway medicine man to prescribe her a tapeworm to lose weight. McElroy uses the tapeworm’s tracks, along with Coxey’s March and the Colt pistol, as a metaphor for the movement of history. The Diva has an affair with a Chilean officer named Talca. Luisa’s father is under house arrest in Chile and she hopes to persuade Talca to help her father. Luisa’s friend Clara (both attend Grace’s workshop) is the wife of Mackenna, a Chilean economist who worked under Dr. Allende. Jim Mayn is trying to get some information on the Chilean economist.

Sue, who is married to Marv, is strongly influenced by Grace’s workshop and made radical changes. Their son, Larry Shearson, is an 18-year-old college freshman who lives in the same building as Jim Mayn. In Larry’s chapter, he refers to himself in an impersonal “one” to reflect being a statistic. He is sitting in Professor Rail’s Economics class. This chapter is heavily loaded with economic terms as Larry’s mind weaves in and out of noting the lecture and using economic metaphors when thinking about his relationships. Larry has a lot on his mind. Larry is unhappy with the new dynamic of the “ruling junta of their Open Marriage”, his parents’ marriage. Larry is going to a ball game with Jim. He has a crush on Amy, a college drop-out who works as the Chilean Mckenna’s assistant.

Ray Spence (a.k.a. Ray Santee or Santee-Sioux), a sleazy fellow reporter, oftens tracks Jim to scoop him on the news. He often changes his look for his detective work and is not above using underhanded means to get a story, and will sell any story to the highest bidder. He soon became Jim’s mortal enemy, but did a 180 after discovering a truth about their linkage.

George Foley has his own unique chapter in OPENING IN THE VOID (smile). He is a prisoner from whom Jim is trying to get information on the Chilean economist. The chapter has him speaking in the second person communicating with Jim via a Colloidal Unconscious. Foley later escaped from prison with his story.


A decade in the making, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men was published in 1987, a time when new theories about communication revolutionized how society was perceived, heralding the proliferation of the computer and its offspring, the internet. It was also a time when the scientific world was revolutionized by mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot’s term “fractal” to describe the patterns in nature such as in a tree or a snowflake. These patterns are self-similar yet defy topological boundaries. Fractals are not limited to geometric patterns, but can also describe time, sound, economics, and practically everything in the universe that has organic growth, and as applied to the growth of information. Claude Shannon, in his information theory, discussed the problem of transmission of information over “noise.” He came up with theories in which data can be transmitted over “noise.” About that time, Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy came up with the general systems theory that describes the interrelations of systems as ultimately subunits of a whole. For living or open systems, the rigid mechanistic models do not apply. The interaction of the living systems are in continual motion and search for equilibrium.

In line with the information revolution, this fractal of a book used complex references freely as metaphors. Time and point of views change without warning within the chapters containing the main plot lines. Descriptions are given as shards of details and noise, much as if you’re standing in a crowd surrounded by conversations and sights. According to the Wiki on this novel,

What follows is a version of the events in the novel arranged in a timeline. Large portions of the story are told in a "spiral" style, with a little bit told at first, then repeated with a little bit more, and so on. Often, multiple plotlines are advanced nearly simultaneously, in long rushing sentences that refer to minor details across the decades and centuries. As an example, some important characters go without a name until very late in the novel.

-Women and Men

It was such a privilege to read Women and Men written with uncompromising vision. It’s the PoMo to beat all PoMo. This tour de force managed to create a multiverse experience within a two-dimensional media. If you're an intrepid reader with a thirst for knowledge, you won't finish this novel without having learned something about yourself as a reader. Either that, or you won't finish this demanding novel, which is on Publisher's Weekly Top 10 Most Difficult Books list. ( )
3 vote AlohaSwan | Oct 19, 2013 |
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Beginning in childbirth and entered like a multiple dwelling in motion, Women and Men embraces and anatomizes the 1970s in New York--from experiments in the chaotic relations between the sexes to the flux of the city itself. Yet through an intricate overlay of scenes, voices, fact, and myth, this expanding fiction finds its way also across continents and into earlier and future times and indeed the Earth, to reveal connections between the most disparate lives and systems of feeling and power. At its breathing heart, it plots the fuguelike and fieldlike densities of late-twentieth-century life.McElroy rests a global vision on two people, apartment-house neighbors who never quite meet. Except, that is, in the population of others whose histories cross theirs--believers and skeptics; lovers, friends, and hermits; children, parents, grandparents, avatars, and, apparently, angels. For Women and Men shows how the families through which we pass let one person's experience belong to that of many, so that we throw light on each other as if these kinships were refracted lives so real as to be reincarnate.A mirror of manners, the book is also a meditation on the languages--rich, ludicrous, exact, and also American--in which we try to grasp the world we're in. Along the kindred axes of separation and intimacy Women and Men extends the great line of twentieth-century innovative fiction.

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