Plus, by Joseph McElroy

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Plus'Joseph McElroy’s 1977 novel, Plus, is, without a doubt, my most neglected neglected book. I actually bought the Knopf paperback edition (one of the earliest examples of a simultaneous release in hardback and trade paperback) when I saw it on the shelves of the University Bookstore in Seattle back in early 1977. I had finished a wonderful English course during which our professor took the class through Ulysses, giving us just enough in the way of reading tools that I felt ready to take on the most daunting of texts. I was also just discovering experimental fiction, reveling in Queneau and Steve Katz and Harry Mathews, and I was sure that Plus was going to be of the same ilk.

And then I started to read it:

He found it all around. It opened and was close. He felt it was himself, but felt it was more.

It nipped open from outside in and from inside out. Imp Plus found it all around. He was Imp Plus, and this was not the start.

I struggled for several pages, then gave up. I felt like I was trying to scale El Capitan with my bare hands.

I set Ulysses aside, and there it has stayed for thirty-five years and a dozen moves.

When I started this site seven years ago, I always knew that I would have to return to the challenge. Facing a long flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis a few weeks ago, I saw the opportunity to hunker down and make amends for my neglect.

Joseph McElroy is, perhaps and simultaneously, America’s most neglected and highly regarded living novelist. Neglected based on the simple fact that, as Scott Bryan Wilson writes on the Constant Conversation, “there’s probably never been a time in his career when all of his books have been in print [at] once.” You will not find one of his books at Barnes & Noble. One in a hundred people who know the names of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo or Toni Morrison will recognize McElroy’s or be able to name any of his books.

At the same time, however, many of those who have read him consider McElroy one of the masters of contemporary American fiction. Each of his major novels–A Smuggler’s Bible (1966); Hind’s Kidnap (1969); Lookout Cartridge. (1974); and Women and Men (1987)–received glowing reviews from some of the most sophisticated reviewers in the business. Women and Men, in fact, has been called “the most important American novel since Gravity’s Rainbow.” His work has been the focus of an issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction and the Golden Handcuffs Review, along with numerous pieces in academic journals. Even Plus has its own Wikipedia entry (link). But as Garth Risk Hallberg wrote in the L.A. Times’ “Jacket Copy” blog, “McElroy’s work recalls William Gaddis’ description of a composer’s corpus in The Recognitions: ‘It is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.'”

Why the neglect? I think the reason is very simple: he writes difficult prose. As one Amazon reviewer of Women and Men wrote, “If you haven’t read McElroy, don’t jump into this unless you consider yourself the boldest and bravest of readers.” McElroy writes for grown-ups. By that I mean, he does not take the reader by the hand and guide him through the story like a crossing guard assisting a group of school kids. He expects the reader to discover the story–and more than that, the narrative perspective–by having the guts to take a deep breath and dive into the writing.

I like the way Mike Heppner describes it in his article, “The Courage of Joseph McElroy,” in the Golden Handcuffs Review (link):

It takes courage to write a sentence like the one quoted above [from Women and Men]; to risk ugliness, arrhythmia, tonal irregularities: those moments of dissonance and rubato that cause us to doubt our own ears. (Or, as Carl Ruggles defended Charles Ives to a quivering concertgoer who’d come expecting Brahms: “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”)

To be pedantic, the quote was by Ives, at a concert of his music and Ruggles (“When you hear strong masculine music like this, sit up and USE YOUR EARS LIKE A MAN!”). I’ve long thought this quote, despite its latent chauvinism, should apply to encounters with challenging art in any form.

And so I summoned my readerly courage and dove into Plus once I’d settled into my seat.

The actual story in Plus is explained right on the cover:

Plus is the meditation–the experience–of a disembodied human brain, once the brain of an individual with a wife and a child, but now orbiting the Earth in a capsule.

The brain’s function, as part of a solar energy project, is to observe growth inside the capsule and to transmit information along the Concentration Loop to the scientists on Earth, whom it knows only by sound: the Good Voice, and Acrid Voice.

The capsule is IMP: the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform. Imp Plus is the brain, the CPU of the IMP satellite–or at least, of one of its key payloads.

But the story is not really the point of Plus. Instead, what McElroy undertakes is something that makes all previous attempts at the stream of consciousness seem child’s play. The real drama in Plus is that of a consciousness constructing its own means of understanding.

In this case, the consciousness has the added challenge of working without any of its senses. Imp Plus is a brain in a jar, so to speak, and the jar is in orbit around the Earth. While it carries out its various monitoring tasks, it grapples to establish an awareness of its new world through an extremely limited set of inputs. It has no skin to feel with, no tongue to taste with, no ears to hear with. Although the inputs from Ground Control are referred to as voices, I see them more as command line messages: “IMP PLUS WE READ NO DROP IN POWER FROM ACCUMULATOR.”

In another article from the Golden Handcuffs Review, “Sensation in Joseph McElroy’s Plus” (link) Yves Abrioux argues that McElroy “regularly deploys synesthesia … to insist on both perception and cellular biology as sensation.” I think this is illustrated by the way in which Imp Plus associates the command line transmissions with voices:

Between which the dim echo now must come transmitting correct velocities. But were they correct? And Imp Plus did not know if the transmission was to Ground or him. He seemed to be transmitting within himself. DIM ECHO. ACRID VOICE. GOOD VOICE.

He must heed the cavings-in, he must heed the cavings-out, and the shapes around whether they heeded him or not.

There was more all around, and the more all around was joining itself to Imp Plus.

He approaches sight in much the same way:

Imp Plus knew he had no eyes. Yet Imp Plus saw. Or persisted in seeing.

With sprouts, maybe.

But there is another input which Imp Plus cannot associate with a sense, even if it comprises a collection of sensations: memory. As the cover blurb says, Imp Plus was a man with a wife and child before his brain was taken out and transferred into its capsule. Early on in the book, the brain is aware that not all of its consciousness is tied to its spacecraft inputs:

What came to Imp Plus amid the brightness was that some of him was left.

So some of the gradients were Imp Plus.

There are not many remnants of his past life. One he returns to frequently relates to a camping trip taken to a Mexican beach not long before the operation. The man seems to have had some terminal illness. He may have been associated with the space program, or at least to have agreed to allow his brain to be used in the capsule. There are fragments of conversations.

From these limited resources, along with the growth of biological matter–the narration refers to chlorella–in the capsule, Imp Plus assembles its understanding. The picture develops piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle, but without the top of the box to guide it. So the pieces don’t always seem to relate to a coherent whole. Only over time, over the course of the book, can one finally–along with Imp Plus–gain the sense of a complete self.

To do so requires considerable patience from the reader, but enormous forethought and restraint on McElroy’s part. It would have been so easy to skip over a difficult step in the construction of Imp Plus’ consciousness with a fast bit of simple explanatory prose, as software programmers call external routines or scripts as shortcuts. But the task he sets himself in Plus is profoundly daunting. As David Auerbach wrote recently in an excellent piece on his site,, “McElroy’s ambition is to take the language used by embodied creatures and try to show how it might be applied in a situation where one’s interface with the world has completely broken down and been wholly altered: senses removed and replaced by new kinds of neural inputs.”

To help isolate myself while reading Plus, I put in my earphone and listened–several times–to Philip Glass’ epic four-hour work, “Music in Twleve Parts”. I think there is a certain commonality between the two works, in that each uses elements that are, in themselves, simple, but then creates, through repetition and subtle variations and aggregations, a new type of complexity and beauty.

Of course, Philip Glass’ music is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor is Joseph McElroy’s fiction. But after finishing Plus and thinking about it over the last two weeks, I found myself contemplating an assault on his magnum opus, Women and Men. Weighing in at 1.5 times the length of War and Peace and rated by the book editors of The Millions as one of the world’s “top 10 most difficult books,” it’s truly an El Capitan assault of reading. But then I found a copy for $15–it’s out of print and goes for three times that–at Shakespeare and Company in Missoula, so I think the Fates have spoken.

Plus, by Joseph McElroy
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977

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