Similar to when I read Robert Coover’s first novel, The Origin of the Brunists, which came out about this same time, I mistook the overall impression and reputation of the author when I first came across them for what that early novel would be like. Like Coover, McElroy is categorized as a writer alongside Pynchon, Delillo, Gass, and of course William Gaddis. But like Delillo and Coover, especially, there’s as much modern as postmodern in the fiction. This book also is slightly in the shadow of his 1300 page monstrosity Women and Men, which was how I learned about him.
So this book, the bulk of which reads pretty straightforward, was not the whacky, frenetic, paranoic fiction of Pynchon or the drug and psychosis filled fiction of Wallace or Vollmann, but a much more controlled attempt to capture the inner life of the main character.
A smuggler’s bible is one of those books with a hollow carved out in order to store something, whether that’s jewels, money, drugs, a gun, personal items, what have you. For this book, we’re watching David Brooker, possessor of eight manuscripts bundled together in a suitcase as he’s on a trip to Europe. Those manuscripts form this novel, and we know because of interstitial chapters that are either the mind of David Brooke, viewing himself in a third person narration as outsider actor and controller of David Brooke, the character in a novel, or the authoritative voice of McElroy himself viewing his own character and the control over him ala Daffy Duck in that cartoon where Bugs Bunny plays the cartoonist.
So those eight manuscripts are sort of little versions of literary fiction about David Brooke or concerning David Brooke. In the first section, we have an English bookseller in New York who becomes fixated on a teen boy who has told the bookseller that in profile, he looks like his dead father. David Brooke is merely a regular customer in the store. In the second section, we have first person narratives of David Brooke’s tenement neighbors, whose building just sounds awful, who only kind of know Brooke, except for the Communist upstairs who plays blearing opera records and lets his dog shit in the hallways because “there’s no such thing as private property”. He and David chat a lot.
By the time we get to the middle chapters, it’s clear we don’t have a very good understanding of Brooke, but the manuscripts have positioned him away from the main narrative. But we get to dive in more with the central texts and their third person narration that focuses on Brooke himself. And in these, he becomes almost like a Bernard Malamud main character — erudite, eclectic, and sometimes in Italy. We find out he’s married, and has a PhD, and has lots of opinions about contemporary English literary criticism. And the book keeps going.
It’s a strange book, and one of the strangest things is how banal so many of the forbidden manuscripts are. The secrecy and guardedness of them suggests intrigue, but actually reading shows that this life, is not all that much different from other lives. And of course, this too is terrifying.