May 25, 1987 12:00 PM

by Joseph McElroy

Any reader who takes on this much-publicized 1,192-page novel must be willing to endure difficulties not generated by most writers. The main woman character is Grace Kimball, a feminist. The male protagonist is James Mayn, a journalist. They live in the same New York City apartment building but never meet. McElroy recounts incidents about several generations in their pasts, an opera singer, a convict, a Secret Service agent, an American Indian and assorted anonymous voices that describe events and disjointed scenes. Some passages of dense, elaborately cluttered prose have a kind of hypnotic power. Many others seem abrupt and unintelligible. Some sections seem curiously irrelevant to whatever grand design the author may have in mind. The following typical sentence, selected from page 812, indicates the problem: “So, while it was with ‘I am responsible’ derived from Alexander’s characterization of Margaret that Jim had solved (oh for God’s sake let’s get out onto the field) questions re: (a) wake and bird, and (b) why at a certain juncture of discussion he could not ask Margaret something about his recently departed mother, he had a lingering doubt, for after all he had answered his own question and perhaps had his own way or had in the parlance of later times no feedback, cruller’d or disturbing.” If you can figure that out, perhaps this book is just what you’ve been looking for to fill all your summer hours, and maybe slop over a little into fall. The ironic ending, which seems to suggest impending violence, certainly is not worth the pain of trying to read it all. McElroy, who is the author of five other books, teaches at the City University of New York. (Knopf, $27.50)

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