Critics’ darling McElroy (The Letter Left to Me, 1988, etc.) uses an onstage slap as the start for his elaborately wrought, glacially paced ninth novel.
Lawyer Bill Daley is in the audience of this “downtown, twelve-dollar-a-seat house” because Becca Lang, the actress who receives the blow, has asked him to forestall her eviction from a loft she rented with the help of the show’s producer. It’s a Wednesday night shortly before Thanksgiving 1996; by the end of the evening, 24-year-old Becca will have come home with 45-year-old Daley after a stroll through Manhattan, during which they talk endlessly and enigmatically about everything from the Civil War to Ruley Duymens, the mysterious part-Dutch entrepreneur who may have been the lover of Daley’s dead wife. Duymens recommended Daley to Becca; he’s hooked up in real estate with the show’s producer; and he’s got shadowy business ties in the East that led Daley’s client Lotta to appeal for his help when a Taiwanese woman she met on a plane was apparently abducted. Such oblique connections are the stock-in-trade of this circuitous narrative, which crawls through present time as Daley remembers over and over again various past events: his engineer brother Wolf’s near-fatal accident in Osaka; Lotta’s phone call demanding that Daley sue the state of Connecticut for earthquake damage to her art collection; the four-and-a-half-million-square-foot fabric roof Ruley constructed in Jedda. Extracting these events from the barely there storyline is more like doing homework than reading a novel. Since the reader feels no emotional connection with the characters, Becca’s coy admission (through a one-woman show she’s creating) that she had sex as a girl with her much-older brother hardly registers. A last-minute revelation—that in 1970 Daley piloted a helicopter from which five Vietnamese, including a teenage girl, fell or were thrown—comes virtually out of the blue as the author strains for a significance his portentous text has never earned.
Alienating to all but the most masochistically pretentious.