On a Sentence from Joseph McElroy’s Actress in the House

Greg Gerke
5 min readJan 16, 2024

Actress in the House — Joseph McElroy: “…Daley heard steps on the sidewalk outside focusing the free disturbance of the city, its words breathed not for you yet not not for you.”

This 432-page novel only has thirteen pages to go when this sly, at first plain-Jane sentence starts up before bursting into a more imbricated pattern with a truculent yet zen second half. I can’t be caught attesting to the fact of one sentence standing for the whole of a novel, but the latter-half of this unique utterance (the speaker of the novel speaks it so the words rain down on the characters) comes very close, especially for an author who has the grand reputation of McElroy — that ignominious “difficult” and all the faultlines such a declaration trips. This sentence is not difficult and the gradations of the trumpeted ending are simply black, white, and gray — though a gray that insinuates itself in our imagination to be taken for a spin, a twirl, a Saturday night on the town in our history and that nether oceanic thrust of the collective unconscious. The hundreds of pages preceding this can’t simply be discarded but they come to an inflection point of sorts, the lines but also behavior and moods of “the city” (Manhattan), one of the characters in the book, which lead the humans, the action, but mainly the syntax of the sentences into a darkened theatre in Tribeca. The city is always there, and at every moment that someone begins to do something it will remind you that it is there, with the nine million endlessly breathing, going on errands at all hours, so that while one’s life is changing, so many other lives outside (though “steps” on the sidewalk outside) are just beginning to come into eclipse — and in moments that are synchronous, we can share with those strangers, even if we don’t see them: a code of conduct between fellow New Yorkers to insure that things keep on keeping on — that “free disturbance,” more in terms of “having the legal and political rights of a citizen or “not determined by anything beyond its own nature or being” meanings of “free,” is the emblem cityfolk may spurn but recognize. This disturbance we all build and sometimes deplore. And the “words” of the city, which could be images, stray conversations, anything the city produces, these come for us, they may even hurt us. The sounds of this slightly askew syntax nudge us and enliven, like the beat of the chest to keep oneself innervated — a matter Gregg Biglieri delves into in his glimmering essay “Being Inside the Sentence”:

The sound of McElroy’s syntax keeps corkscrewing in your ears, even as its implications, once you get a feel for the reverberating waves of the tuning fork, widen and expand in concentric circles. The zigzag trajectories of the sentences belie an intricate crisscross over similar territory, like transversals that cut across strata. Lacework webs connect across an interior distance; and these webs are not some form of superfluous embroidery but rather are trammeled and tense, curiously reminding you of the dictionary depiction of an axon cell; a kind of vibratory starfish, each point a live wire to whip, parse and pass on a chain of sensations. Or perhaps it’s more like the lacewing, an insect with “lacelike wing venation… and often brilliant eyes.” The key being that the tracery is integral to its function.

Here is the scientific process at the heart of McElroy, but of course, his language also smacks the sensations, like how classical music or jazz can outfit a human vessel, teasing an eerie tympanum that something in and outside of us might respond to. Elizabeth Sewell writes of language’s affect on the body in The Orphic Voice: “The body mates with forms no less than the mind does. The more abstract they are, the more specialized, rarefied, perhaps even concealed an image they offer to the body; but that image is always there.” As one can feel some writers in the mouth, like William Gass, McElroy locates his work in the nervous system, something sparkling and hidden to the eye, though located in the body. To Bigleri’s point, encountering McElroy’s syntax can be like the experience up close of some exquisite starfish or insect , but the way one feels the experience in the insides of one’s own body while looking at something uncanny — so the words of Hopkins: “what you look hard at seems to look hard at you,” are shaded into “what you look hard at seems to inhabit you.”

Even when the book ended, I kept thinking about that sentence over the course of two or three years — what was it doing there? How could it seemingly be so nonchalant in its being tucked so far back after so much that has happened when it is the capstone to the mountain for me?

“…its words breathed not for you yet not not for you.” In the city’s disturbance there is this burrowing of eight short one-syllable words, though one is garlanded with italics — all the “nots” making a knot where one sticks out in its glittering apparel to tell us that we are welcome to the words. One can keep rubbing against this course sentence ending, producing different sparks and elements, some positive, some negative. The “nots” surround that ancient phase of so much import “for you,” two signal words carrying reverberations of Emerson’s “Nature” essay and Stevens’s “The Rabbit as King of the Ghosts” poem (“The trees around are for you, / The whole of the wideness of night is for you.”) The hypothetical words in Actress could be “for you,” why couldn’t they? Throughout a number of McElroy’s books there are city settings — mostly Manhattan and Brooklyn — and McElroy endows and promotes the congruences and integrations of the city dwellers: their connections, their high signs, the invisible eye-beams that trace the space and bring us into a frisson — citizens and tourists all.

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Greg Gerke

Author of See What I See (Zerogram Press) and Especially the Bad Things (Splice) greggerke.com