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Joseph McElroy: A Smuggler’s Bible

McElroy loves picking up a theme as a metaphor for the human condition and, as the title makes it quite clear, smuggling is the guiding metaphor here. But McElroy, as in much of his work, is also concerned with how we take disparate bits of information and try to make it into a coherent whole, even if, of course, that whole is manifestly false. The parts here are clearly outlined from the beginning – the eight parts of David Brooke’s narrative – but bringing them together is the problem. There are real[ly] simple things in this music that you don’t hear for a long time. Textures? Patterns? A pattern of disconnection that holds all the currents in the same pool. In other words, how do we make sense of it all? In short, we do not, at least in McElroy’s novels.

Brooke is travelling east, with his English wife, Ellen, on board the ship Arkadia, carrying a box file containing what he calls his pieces of eight, in fact eight manuscripts which we find out are his work, texts about himself and his acquaintances, texts that, essentially, make up his existence. He has eight days to take these manuscripts and put them together into a coherent whole. Can he? Can we? Most of the novel consists of the texts of these eight parts which give us, in bits and pieces, David’s life, full of ambiguous references and post-modern tricks. The smuggling – he uses a hollowed-out Bible for smuggling (apparently something McElroy saw for real in Cornwall) – is clearly McElroy’s cute condemnation of our spiritual emptiness. The whole thing is very clever but it is certainly not a novel you will read for fun but if you are into post-modern this is as good as any.

Publishing history

First published 1966 by Harcourt, Brace & World