Waxing Press

Book Review: Lookout Cartridge by Joseph McElroy

book reviews, tastemakingIan Wissman

Perhaps even more demanding than Women and Men, Lookout Cartridge is McElroy's talent on full display. Much can be said of the man's prose, which is at times a brick wall and others a raft along a river, but it's really what he's able to do with that prose that wallops you, the dear reader. In LC, there's a noir-ish mystery to be unfurled, and because of McElroy's prose style, he's able to render the truest elements of confusion, incomprehension, and messiness of a real "shaggy dog" story—in typical mystery writing, the tight wrap-ups and effective, clever solutions undermine the veracity of a story's telling, but here, the protagonist Cartwright's mission never is fully revealed, and our understanding of it can only come through the multi-facet view we can access through associations, characters and vagueries provided by the first-person limited POV. If you want quick, pat solutions, this is not the book for you, but if you're probably not that type if you're reading McElroy, anyway.


I've come to describe McElroy's prose as stream-of-pre-conscious. I think this coinage best encapsulates what he does and is doing in his artistic use of our language. That is to say, where Joycean stream-of-conscious has a verbalistic quality to it, McElroy's precludes the organizing principles of a consciousness, and therefore he captures the true spontaneity of thought, feeling and mentation. Further, when the reader lives in this pre-conscious thought-world, it has a startling effect of implanting thoughts and memories, so that, while the reader may think s/he is struggling at comprehension, there will, eventually in the book, come a moment, a strand of text, the perfect ordering of words, that fills the gaps and transmogrifies confusion into clearer concepts. In LC, McElroy breaks down time's linearity to reconstruct scenes and moments over and over again, processing the information of a scene in a different, new way each time, so that the reader can slowly acquire the fullest view of a frame—but because it's done so meticulously, it's not until the end of the book that those full frames come all at once, snapping in place, though still obscured, defying omniscient revelation—after all, there is no such thing in life and therefore no such thing in belles lettres.


The book, acting like a cartridge itself, can only be deciphered for the screen behind our eyes once it has been inserted into our mechanistic, computer-brain to decode and process. I'll admit freely that many moments of this book got away from me, and still remain un-begotten, like ripe fruit on the branch after harvest. I'll definitely be revisiting this tree to pluck those fruits from their arboreal home someday. Sweet rewards to look forward to; like any great book, I can't wait to keep coming back.