While some octogenarian fiction writers, such as Philip Roth and Alice Munro, have retired, and others—William Gass in Middle C and Cynthia Ozick in Foreign Bodies—set their recent novels back 50 or so years in the past, Joseph McElroy, born in 1930, streams full speed ahead into the present with an inventive novel about the war in Iraq. Yes “streams,” not “steams,” because stream of consciousness is the closest term we have for the unique cognitive style that has made—and still makes—McElroy one of America’s most audacious and intelligent novelists. Intelligent because into the sweep and swirl of personal, emotionally layered stories McElroy floats information about the physical world and its study that only he seems to know—or invent. The closest comparison is the septuagenarian Thomas Pynchon, but McElroy has a subtler sensibility and is, I think, more learned in the sciences that often gird his novels.
Cannonball starts with a splash. A 300-pound Chinese teenager, an illegal immigrant named Umo, predictably bombs the water from a high board in a San Diego pool. But then he climbs the board again and executes a twisting, no-splash dive, much to the surprise of Zach, a high-school student who sees the whole thing. Zach used to be a diver, until he scarred his chest and lost his nerve when one of his dives came down on the board. Zach befriends Umo in the hopes that he can help his father, the swimming and diving coach of a local club. Umo, on the other hand, believes Zach can help him get identity papers. Out of this mutual symbiotic relationship grows an unusual friendship between the “infinitely resourceful” Umo, who has no family and no apparent home, and Zach, who is affected too much by the conventionality of his mother, the criticism of his father, and a possibly incestuous intimacy with his slightly younger sister, Elizabeth. The opening third of the novel tells a sweet double initiation story, with Umo learning American arcana from Zach and with Zach glimpsing a wider—and exciting—world through Umo.
In the next third, Zach’s leisurely coming-of-age narrative jolts into a political intrigue when he decides to enlist in the Army after graduating from high school in 2002. (His father seems to have indirectly encouraged him to join up, hoping somehow to use Zach’s service and government connections to become an Olympic swim coach.) He becomes a talented photographer, though the images are judged too realistic and not sufficiently patriotic by his superiors. It is at this point that Cannonball turns toward Pynchonian conspiracy. Barely visible people manipulate Zach to appear at a pool in one of Saddam’s former palaces, where the U.S. government plans to “discover” scrolls purporting to be an “interview” with Jesus by a contemporary, unlike the gospel writers who came along decades after Calvary. For reasons unclear to Zach, Umo has followed him to Iraq. He, too, shows up at the palace, and is wounded when an explosion collapses the pool. Zach jumps into the wreckage to find Umo, but he’s disappeared—instead, he finds another man under the rubble, a chaplain turned underwater photographer whom Zach met during basic training, and who hands Zach a scrap of a scroll.
These coincidences suggest a plot, so in the novel’s final third Zach becomes an amateur detective who suspects that the bombing was arranged by the U.S. government, to be blamed on insurgents, thus heightening the drama surrounding the scrolls. Back in California, Zach finds that people from whom he might learn about the bombing either die, disappear, or clam up. His sister’s life is threatened, and Zach does another tour in Iraq to try to dispel the government’s fear that he will leak what he knows—and to possibly locate Umo.
I call McElroy “audacious” because he dares to frustrate readers’ expectations of the genres he mashes. Though he includes very specific and troubling images from Iraq, Cannonball has neither the fierce combat nor the biting comedy of recent war novels such as Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds and David Abrams’s Fobbit. Although Zach the investigator makes some headway, the novel—here comes a reverse spoiler alert—does not offer the solutions of detective novels. The scrolls—a “weapon of mass instruction” which presents a free-enterprise-loving, almost Republican “American Jesus”—may or may not be authentic, just as Roger Fenton’s Crimean War photograph of cannonballs in a road may or may not be fake. With these uncertainties or “named unknowns,” McElroy seems to be playing off Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns,” suggesting that had Zach—and other Americans his naïveté represents—been more suspicious of the war and its proponents, Iraq might have been avoided.
The pool explosion recalls official deceptions that elicited public support for going to Iraq, the scrolls clearly parody the Christian right’s support of the invasion, and Cannonball can be read as a meta war novel about unrecognized ideologies that lead to conflict. But McElroy has more on his mind than contemporary political commentary—namely, how to understand change. When Umo performs his dive, McElroy slows the action, breaking down stage by stage the rise and fall of the body. Zach’s father does the same in his analysis of swimmers’ strokes. Page to page, sentence to sentence, even sometimes word to word, Cannonball presents occasionally minute changes in the relationships between Zach and the world—how situations change him and how he changes the situations. As he puts it in terms that could apply to ballistics, he is “plotting an arc of motions that plotted me.”
Analyzing the flight of cannonballs was one of the major problems that Leibniz and Newton solved more than 300 years ago by creating calculus, a mathematics that could measure increments and rates of change. Zach, on several occasions, refers to calculus and wonders if it could be applied to sports. McElroy applies it to life. Change, of course, is fundamental to the bildungsroman. McElroy offers calculus as method that apprehends the world’s shifting complexity better than the more simplistic “calculation,” a word that occurs often in the novel.
Although the outlines of Zach’s story largely obey a chronology that could be calculated with any calendar, sentences are frequently broken into pieces, small fragments that alter the preceding or following lines. Qualifications, parentheticals, and alternatives modify the meaning of what you’ve just read. Dialogue is often interrupted by disagreements, hesitations, and digressions that quickly shift context and conclusions. Assertions are followed by negations, insights by errors. All of which is to say that Cannonball is one of the most realistic and pleasurably challenging depictions of the protean world and ever-reconfiguring mind that I’ve read, at least since my last journey through the late novels of Henry James. Perhaps a comparison with film is even more apposite. Like Antonioni’s Blow Up, in which another young photographer stumbles upon a murder, McElroy uses contemporary surfaces to entice us into an epistemology, a “calculus cure” for reductionism—or as Zach describes his calculus teacher’s formulas, “clarities you didn’t quite get but believed in.”
My description of Cannonball has become admittedly abstract, and the novel is sometimes inexplicably opaque. But vagaries of Zach’s developing consciousness are balanced by the concrete information that McElroy provides, the kind of knowledge that gives special substance to his earlier work—film technology in Lookout Cartridge, neurology in Plus, global ecology and chaos theory in Women and Men. In Cannonball, much of that information is about water, on which McElroy has written a nonfiction book, and a subject perfectly appropriate for a novel about “fluxions and fluents,” Newton’s terms for his calculus. Zach’s swimming specialty is the backstroke, which McElroy turns into a metaphor for life itself: the backstroker steams up his lane without knowing precisely where he is. He must take in cues about his position from the ceiling, from other swimmers, from backwash from the wall, and he must flip and change direction without certainty of the wall. From the narrow lane in seaside San Diego, Zach moves to the wide land where two ancient rivers meet and where he posits interconnected underground waterways. He even believes in veins of aquifers that connect across national borders, and that humans are composed in large part by salt water.
From Umo and war, Zach learns to trust himself and water. He escapes the threat from his own government by jumping into a sewer, as Hemingway’s Frederic Henry escaped his own army by diving into a river, and as Heller’s Yossarian paddled away from Milo Minderbinder’s war. A cannonball—metal or human—displaces water, but it regains its own level. At novel’s end, Zach’s a level-headed young man who has recovered his diver’s nerve. In the last scene, he uses his calculus of flow to rescue an Iraqi boy from a fast-moving, wind-buffeted river. The boy will have his chance to come of age.