ACTRESS IN THE HOUSE

By Joseph McElroy

Overlook. 432 pp. $26.95

Click on Joseph McElroy's name at Amazon.com, and you'll be told that customers who shop for him also shop for the best and brightest of post-World War II American novelists: Pynchon, Gaddis, Coover, Gass and (the writer McElroy most resembles) DeLillo. He has never attracted quite the following they have, even though his oeuvre is as impressive as theirs. Debuting in 1966 with A Smuggler's Bible, which was reminiscent of the astonishing first novels of Gaddis and Pynchon (and is to be reissued this summer by Overlook), McElroy produced one brilliant, cerebral novel after another -- Hind's Kidnap, Ancient History, Lookout Cartridge, Plus -- culminating in his magnum opus of 1987, the 1,200-page Women and Men. A winsome novella, The Letter Left to Me, followed in 1988, but nothing since. Thus it is especially welcome to have a new novel by this postmodernist master, and one that both builds on his previous accomplishments and explores new directions.

Actress in the House begins with a slap: An actress performing in an off-Broadway play is struck harder than expected by the actor playing opposite her, and her shock is shared by a man sitting in the theater, Bill Daley, a lawyer twice her age. Like the flap of a butterfly's wing in Brazil that, according to chaos theory (which McElroy was hip to long before other novelists), can cause a tornado in Texas, this slap generates the long novel that follows, as Daley becomes involved with the actress, a bright young woman named Becca Lang. Concerned for her after that slap, he takes her home after the show, and the rest of the novel tracks the week in November 1996 that follows.

They begin exchanging stories, anecdotes, opinions. Becca is developing an autobiographical one-woman show and performs it for Daley in his house the night he takes her home; the more reserved Daley mostly asks questions, providing personal background only as needed, but he is inspired by his provocative visitor to dredge up details of his earlier life.

Like most of McElroy's novels, Actress in the House explores the hidden, unexpected connections between things. It turns out that Becca had called Daley the day before the show to ask him to take on her eviction case; it later turns out that her older brother knew of Daley back in the early '70s and even told his kid sister about a helicopter exploit Daley had been involved in. Slowly -- and this novel moves very slowly -- a wealth of detail accumulates around this odd couple and the people they know.

What makes the novel challenging is the odd style McElroy has adopted for Daley's musings. After a talk with a friend named Lotta, Daley realizes: "He hardly knew what he'd told her all jumbled together." The reader is likewise often left in the dark as to what exactly is being said and why. Part of this is strict mimesis: Two people getting to know each other will exchange information that is jumbled, out of sequence, lacking in context, and filled with the names of friends and relations yet to be introduced. Daley says admiringly of Becca, "One thing: she paid attention, picked things up in no order, gave them back her way." And that's the way the reader gets things. The sentences are often choppy, sometimes incomplete, as in this typical paragraph: "It was other people's lives she talked about on the phone. Lotta's clients shading into friends. Not only clients with second houses, who bought [jewelry] from her. A mixed couple sanding a table outside, fitting legs to it, having a fight while carrying on independent conversations with Lotta, the guest standing around under a tree, a failing Berkshire elm, with her coffee mug. Daley tried to put his finger on it."

The reader likewise tries to put a finger on the significance of what's being conveyed, and whether the detail of a Berkshire elm is worth remembering. It might be important 200 pages later, or it might not. McElroy could easily have presented all this material in a more chronological, coherent manner, but the result would have been yet another standard mid-list novel with a limited shelf-life. He is more ambitious, and in one of Daley's many discussions of jazz we might discern McElroy's narrative strategy.

Listening to a Dutch saxophone player and a Turkish trombonist jam at a jazz club, Daley thinks, "For fifteen minutes the Dutchman and the Turk went their ways -- how did they do it? -- so separately jettisoning a succession of milling-around boplike flights and halfway volcanic omnidirectional grinding that in self-defense against this no-man's-land of tonal centers (what the Free guys called them) you could feel oddly closer to the person you were with, barraged, instructed, not hardly borne along because what kind of vehicle was this? Instead intellected out, elasticked in a greater field than Daley could help being drawn toward yet unhappy and ignorant of the jazz sounds, the hopeful eyes, the plainer chords Daley didn't want to miss out on; or you could feel it was marvelously relative and/or pointless and deep going nowhere and wonder what you were doing here, singly or coupled, or curiously combat-ready."

Much of Actress in the House feels that way: milling-around boplike flights -- though McElroy always remains closer to Henry James than Harry James -- and "intellected out, elasticked in a greater field" than the traditional novel encompasses. It's the kind of novel where you don't learn the name of Becca's play until page 385, and where the climax of the novel involves a discussion of abalone protein, but one finishes it feeling as the protagonist does after his week with an actress in the house: "A doubling of Daley's horizons, faintly befuddling, emerged as a reason for whatever had happened." *

Steven Moore, a literary critic, edited the Joseph McElroy issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring 1990).

Glenn Ford slaps Rita Hayworth in the movie "Gilda."