A revaluation and appreciation of Stanley Elkin on the occasion of the Dalkey Archive reprinting of four separate volumes.
What is it that keeps Stanley Elkin isolated in appreciation? He seems fated to be admired by a discerning few despite a wealth of clever, humorous novels that are daring in style and form but also readily accessible. After his death in 1995, however, many of his novels went out of print. In 1998, Dalkey Archive Press began methodically restoring to print all of Elkin’s work. With these new editions come praise from on high. William Gass, Rick Moody, Cynthia Ozick, Max Apple and other literary luminaries profess their ardor for his craft. Maybe that’s the crux of Elkin’s appeal. He is a writer’s writer, and that brilliance doesn’t always equate to widespread appeal. He’s a craftsman appreciated by the guild for his exceptional quality, but someone who never catches fire with a large audience. Perhaps it’s Elkin’s obsession with language that alienates the mass of readers. In his introduction to The Magic Kingdom, Rick Moody writes that it was “language that Elkin was first concerned with” (vi) and William Gass, in his Foreword to The Franchiser, tells us that “His language carries him away” (xii). Fiction that sells is fiction with a good story, but it is the sentence wherein Elkin’s genius lies: the intricate whorls of predicate and participle, adjective and adverb. Comparatives and superlatives are stacked one upon the other in a delicately balanced construction best appreciated by the artisan working in the same medium. Elkin once revealed that the seemingly pedestrian elements of his work made him most proud: “I’m not just talking about the fireworks - I’m talking about getting Sam from one part of the room to the other part of the room. For me, language is sill where it’s at” (Bailey 23). The bits and pieces that hold everything together are as finely crafted as the architectural flourishes the reader first notices. Outside of the artist, only an aficionado can appreciate the skill and technique of such a seemingly mundane aspect of the craft.
In Elkin, language reaches excessive, immense artistic heights. An Elkin novel is a giant toy store, filled with magical clockworks of language contraptions and the owner is an extremely generous man. It’s like a…. Perhaps it were better for the critic to stop there. To enlist metaphor for criticism of Elkin is a dangerous and ultimately self-defeating game. Elkin was the master of the outrageous metaphor. Rather than suffer in comparison,let us allow him his own metaphor from The Rabbi of Lud: Elkin’s texts are a potlatch, a feast, a cliche that Elkin makes fresh again. They are a lavish ceremony of excess much like John Lookout”s feast:
The food was like nothing anyone had seen before. The sheer amounts of it, I mean. Oh, what a spread! It could have kept entire villages well fed for a winter. And the drink! Not just the ordinary Black Label Scotches, imported beers and French champagnes, but sparkling reindeer blood, horned sheep ales and moose liqueurs, fermented lichens, spruce wines, and the cedar sherries. (Rabbi 138)
Elkin’s language liquor intoxicates as only a sheep ale can. We get a weird buzz from an Elkin novel, drunk on words, listening to the sublime rantings of the guy at the end of the bar, an altered state where the mundane becomes rhapsodic.
So Elkin in service of himself works admirably. He chronicles the potlatch that is the real world, the contemporary cornucopia that makes up the cultural landscape of America. As Gass says, “Elkin plays the real world loud” (xiv). The fast food signs, theme parks, hotels, television shows, shampoos, clothes, and fashion keep coming, the endless supply of descriptive stuff that Elkin shovels toward us. Take it, take it all, his prose insists on us receiving the bounty of Elkin’s America. His potlatch isn’t destruction and waste in the service of ego. It builds and builds. No matter how much verbiage Elkin may waste on a description of the lobby of a theater, or the texture of a hotel bath towel, the rhetorical excess never dissipates. It adds and adds, exponentially metastasizing across the page, the culture, and the country, equating to more than was spent in its doing
And yet there’s so much more to like about Elkin’s fiction. If language is first and foremost Elkin’s concern, the cultural fecundity of vulgar America runs a close second. The real world is the kitchen for this language feast. Though fueled by the intoxicating multitude of experience in American pop culture, Elkin’s language is ironically in opposition to the underlying impulses of that culture. The documentarian of Americana freely provides while his source material restrains, pulls back always in the pursuit of profit, the bottom line, the efficiency that is in direct contrast to the inefficiency of Elkin’s excess. It is delicious irony that the chronicler triumphs in waste while the culture languishes in miserly reductions. Art triumphs over reality. “You’re fucking with Disney World” a character yells in The Magic Kingdom, and such sentiment could just as well apply to Elkin.
Elkin’s texts inflate, twist, and hyperbolize the unrelenting greed, the take and wait of the carnivorous cartoon world. Disney’s excess - its electric light parades, its mind-boggling detail - is a paltry handful compared to Elkin’s exploration of the real world. “This is the parade!” Colin Bible hisses in The Magic Kingdom, turning his retinue of diseased children away from the crude illusion of cartoons to the intricate multiplicity of the real world, “This is the parade and you’ve never seen it!” (220). The world is more carnival than anything a single corporation could invent. Excess fizzles out in our commodity culture because it is not cost-effective. Rome fell, Vegas teeters precariously on the ignorance and wealth of rubes. The Florida Marlins are a wreck and in danger of contraction. Only in words can waste turn a profit - an aesthetic one, anyway - in such free-flowing glut.
Elkin’s language screams inefficiency, drawing curlicues and rococo frameworks around the disneyfication of America. In Elkin’s novels, we are operating under a different set of economics. Like the mania for bar mitzvahs and embossed lettering in The Rabbi of Lud, “the very idea of cost effectiveness is thrown out all together” (13). Or like that book’s Alaskan economy, where:
It’s only money. It’s no big deal. It’s like a value-added tax. We’re a community. Everyone belongs. Whoever handles an item, whoever orders it, or makes it, or stocks or modifies or services it, or, like me, maybe just only even picks it up and delivers it, gets to goose up its price a tick. It’s, I don’t know, like a chain letter or the pyramid club. You know that sooner or later it’s got to come crashing down around your ears, but in the meantime,so long as the balls are all up in the air and you make sure that the last to sign on is somebody else, it works. Or seems to anyway. Alaska is scam, man. (125)
This isn’t the economy of language of Hemingway or Carver. It’s a wonderful scam, and the balls never do come down.
What we have in Elkin is the pleasure of the text taken to a certain extreme. His fiction is best viewed close up, at the level of the sentence, the rant, or the diatribe. Elkin’s language attains a free-standing monumentality, where the rhythms, the images, the inexorable and inexhaustible march of syllable upon syllable become the raison d’etre of the story. It’s a quick step up to note that such a style is - must be - rooted in the voice of characters. Throw out plot, or at least place it aside for a moment. It’s people and people alone that are the font of such verbal fountains.
E. M. Forster wrote that most characters go dead as a novel winds up, killed in the service of plot. But rarely does Elkin have to worry about tying up a plot because causality does not move his stories forward. No bloody clue leads to a smoking gun. Jerry Goldkorn of The Rabbi of Lud comes to an understanding about his daughter. Eddy Bale and Mary Cottle have sex after Rena Morgan dies at a Disney Resort in The Magic Kingdom. Ben Flesh, the franchiser, sees the inevitable failure of his new Travel Inn motor lodge. These are not tumblers and latches falling into place, sliding the bolt home. Resolution is not a matter of logical procession because Elkin’s books are motivated by illogical minds. Rather they are propelled by messy characters that are expressive personalities, not chess pieces in a fictional game. The Franchiser ‘s Patty has no concept of her creator when she says “the great work is the great action. Plots are more important than language” (185). She’s in the wrong work. She may be correct that “Plot is the language of time,” but Elkin’s fiction subordinates time just as easily as plot. Elkin’s work is not a cause and effect structure, literary Rube Goldberg machines that propel a steel marble character around tracks, wheels, and levers until a final resolution pops out at the end of 250 odd pages. No, for Elkin, it’s all about character and voice. Elkin’s work, in his own words, is “event driven and language driven, and, I hope, driven by personality” (Bailey Interview 9). We see the genesis in such early characters as Push in “A Poetics for Bullies,” Ed Wolfe in “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe,” and Bertie in “The Guest” from Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers. There’s a voice undeniably identifiable as both Elkin and yet uniquely a product of these individual characters. And it’s a voice that contains within it power. In “The Guest,” Bertie’s hip-cat voice of the mooching jazz trumpeter flies all over the page, a mischievous attendant to Bertie’s downward spiral of self-destructive behavior. In the end, however, the voice isn’t enough to sustain Bertie. It starts to fade and it is only an act of burglary, brought on by Bertie’s carelessness that opens a window for the character to achieve something like an identity, a respect and fear borrowed from anonymous thugs.
Push, by contrast, finds power in his voice. His cry at the end of “A Poetics for Bullies” foreshadows the affirmation of a diseased, corrupt, broken world that is still somehow praiseworthy, remarkable, and even miraculous:
I feel a power in me. I am Push, Push the bully, God of the Neighborhood, its incarnation of envy and jealousy and need. I vie, strive, emulate, compete, a contender in every event there is. I didn’t make myself. I probably can’t save myself, but maybe that’s the only need I don’t have. I taste my lack and that’s how I win-by having nothing to loose. It’s not good enough! I want and I want and I will die wanting, but first I will have something. This time I will have something. I say it aloud. “This time I will have something.” I step toward them. The power makes me dizzy. It is enormous. They feel it. They back away. They crouch in the shadow of my outstretched wings. It isn’t deceit this time but the real magic at last, the genuine thing: the cabala of my hate, of my irreconcilableness. (216)
The voice is critical. With such a style, the character needs time to expand. Elkin’s short stories in Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers, are finely crafted, but his is a style that needs the breadth, the expansion of the novel for his abundant voice to stretch to its fullest. Ben Flesh, Jerry Goldkorn, and the multiple, fragile, doomed children of The Magic Kingdom can no more be contained in the short story than Elkin’s voice can be bounded by traditional notions of well-wrought sentences. He colors outside the lines.
But with such unrestrained exuberance, it is fair to ask how an Elkin novel holds together. So rooted in character, at the expense of plot, Elkin’s novels easily slip into the episodic. Like The Magic Kingdom ‘s Nedra Carp, they can be criticized for being “in command of many solutions and hundreds of explanations but few principles” (128-9). Yet even in the episodic nature of Elkin’s structure can be found coherence. As each scene piles atop another, as each metaphor stacks on the mound before it, patterns develop. What passes as cause and effect is an accumulation. We cannot pinpoint the turning points of an Elkin novel, like we can turn to the devastating cut of a Jamesian world. Rather it’s a slow dawning, a subtly reinforced pattern that organically grows until its presence was seemingly there all along. Elkin is a fugue. Fugue - from the Latin for flight. His works are flights of language that cover similar ground until we see the pattern of migration. The effect is mirrored in Ben Flesh’s serial sexual progress through the nine Finsberg females, the collection of twin and triplet daughters of Flesh’s godfather:
But if the sex was better each time for his practice, that did not mean it had ever been fumbling. No. Never. The kiss he had given Lotte beside the bus all those years before had had in it all the implications of his most recent fuck. And some increment of the social in his relations with the girls, of the historical. (180)
It’s an epistemology derived through analogy, through correspondence, and through recurring themes. In each woman is the pattern of the whole, yet in each there is also individuality. Similarly, each episodic scene is isolated, seemingly connected only by Flesh’s appearance on the stage, but in each, the pattern of all the others is contained. The abundance heaped upon abundance has a purpose. Elkin claimed that the invention of the word processor facilitated, even made possible, such subtle structuring devices in his work. By retracing, searching the long word files of his fiction, he could uncover patterns instinctual but subconsciously present. Then he could build upon them, refine them, mining his own work for its coherence. The books literally wrote themselves.
This remarkably subtle structure makes Elkin’s books wonderful. It would not be enough, as certain Elkin short stories reveal, for the linguistic feats to stand on their own. The short fictions never rise above the “fireworks” of astounding verbiage. The polyphonic register of “The Guest” exposes the incompatibility of the short story and Elkin’s style. While Elkin’s ending just barely reclaims the story’s worth, the bulk of the text seems an exercise, a sketch for a larger work. Only when Elkin stretches out do encompassing patterns become perceptible, and excessive language results in more than a wasteful pile of clever phrases calling attention to themselves and nothing larger.
Elkin’s style is a paradox. His books are about language, but they are not metafictions. The language may at times strain to slip its earthy bonds, lifting upward in fugue-like flights of fancy. But unlike Raymond Queneau or later Samuel Beckett, Elkin’s foregrounding of language does not remove us from the world to contemplate the pure aesthetics of the word. On the contrary, Elkin’s loquacious exuberance celebrates a very real and concrete world built through language. Elkin is a photo-realist of an over-written culture, the documentarian of pop-culture’s incessant babbling. Thus at bottom, Elkin’s characters always seem to be somehow sympathetic, emotionally engaging despite the intellectual demands on our aesthetic Geiger counter. In the postmodern tension centered around mimesis, Elkin manages to write a mimetic novel far from the constraints of a naive realism, yet with a language whose lexical excess both draws attention to its artificiality as well as transparently reproduces the polyphonic discourse of late twentieth century America. As the ersatz Colonel Sanders says in The Franchiser, Elkin “enhances the resemblance” (91)
Perhaps it is time to appreciate Elkin for his commentary on social constructions as well as his linguistic prowess. Despite his insistence that ideology was not a concern of his novels, no author manages a full retreat from social commentary. Description is a way of understanding, and Elkin described his world as well as anyone. His style is a critical stance on his world. Were it not an interpretation, it would not be unusual, nor would it cohere artistically. A freshly released convict advises Ben Flesh to “find his reality.” Elkin’s reality is enmeshed in the string of words that are not so much created in his mind, but dictated from the world. Fiction, no matter how referential, immediately connects to the world as soon as a word is formed. The sublime surfaces of Vladimir Nabokov or Gertrude Stein still connect to a world beyond the page, no matter how self-referential. Elkin’s exploration of this world’s intertextuality is not so experimental as those predecessors. Despite the fireworks, his language is very much transparent, exactly mimicking the world of words that contemporary culture has become. Elkin’s ideological critique/celebration recognizes that in a hypermediated America, things don’t matter nearly as much as words. Like a good post-modernist, Elkin’s reality is in words. The language is the freestanding monumentality of it all - his style, his books, the culture he sees. “The culture?” Ben Flesh exclaims, “I’m the culture” (193). Elkin’s voice is the voice of the strip mall, the hotel, the car lot. It’s the voice of our cartoonish, plastic world.
Bailey, Peter J. “An Interview with Stanley Elkin” Review of Contemporary Fiction. 15 (1995): 22-34.