Stanley Elkin Essay - Elkin, Stanley (Vol. 9)

Elkin, Stanley (Vol. 9)

Elkin, Stanley 1930–

Elkin, an American editor, short story writer, critic, and novelist, writes black comedies distinguished by his masterful use of language. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Stanley Elkin is our eminent vulgarian, a sensitive receiver at large in access-road America. Having eaten with the Colonel and seen "blockbusters" at Cinemas I through IV, having talked with the nation's innkeepers, Elkin invents The Franchiser, a marvelously voiced novel about "the man who made America look like America, who made America famous."

Few writers locate their fiction in popular culture as insistently and perceptively as Elkin does. Pynchon uses popular culture to extend the range of his paranoid systems. Barthelme and others make foolery of our stylized environment. Elkin's bit is finer and goes deeper. He drills desire, how popular culture creates and satisfies need, and he finds flecks of beauty in the roughage.

His first novel, Boswell, had celebrity as its subject. A Bad Man put the old-movie businessman in an old-movie prison. The Dick Gibson Show mixed fairytale with the heyday of American radio. Obsessed with singularity, the heroes of these novels rebel against the ordinary and conventional even while they are motivated by the big ideas of popular culture.

Now, in The Franchiser, Elkin makes a man who wants "to costume his country" with "all its ubiquitous, familiar neon signatures and logos," the franchised signs that he, Ben Flesh, is at home wherever he drops out of the interstate grid. Surely this standardization has its economic purpose, is esthetically disastrous, and may be megalomaniacal, but Elkin and Flesh register the pleasant twitch of familiarity—"There's the McDonald's"—that precedes our reasoned objections, the goofy comfort of Radio Shack and Dairy Queen, the vulgar services that link us in America….

The book consists of linked stories from Flesh's past and present. They are not a plot but a Rand-McNally view of man in motion, an atlas of comic and moving encounters…. [Elkin's] minor characters are best as chambers for Flesh's voice, intensifiers of his self-awareness, and as figures in the geometry of franchise he has created. Even the Insight Lady, amateur interpreter of everything and one of Flesh's women, is most interesting as yet another dummy for Elkin's voice.

This voice—wheeling, dealing, spieling, yet feeling, too—is, quite simply, the novel, its main attraction and source of all its other achievements. Sentence for sentence, nobody in America writes better than Stanley Elkin. For him, the novel is primarily a place for language, energized and figurative language, to happen. In The Franchiser, language possesses the world like a loan shark. The smudged surfaces of America come clean, the shoptalk of business clears, the texture of life in a popular culture beads up.

Elkin's prose is not photography but metaphorical semiotics. When he writes "popcorn in cylinders large as Quaker Oats boxes, with dollops of drawn butter and high drifts of buff popcorn in the greased glass like a spell of cockeyed weather," we re-see the physical and understand through metaphor our small pleasures at the popcorn machine. This kind of signification is stroked throughout the novel to give it an extraordinary density and grain.

Elkin's oral models—sales pitch, speech, reminiscence—give it energy. Even analysis has colloquial vigor and voice's momentum….

Some of this … points to the novel's weaknesses. Elkin's collecting deprives him of a large cumulative effect, and his attention to the "slag of the ordinary" sometimes seems a waste of perception. But these flaws are on the side of plenitude, the wondrous fullness Elkin shows us (and invents)…. (p. 27)

Thomas Le Clair, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 12, 1976.

The subject of Stanley Elkin's ambitious new novel ["The Franchiser"] is nothing less than the homogenized, manmade surface of America—that coast-to-coast plastic covering of shopping malls and interstate highways, of motels and service stations, of Baskin-Robbins, Burger King and Mister Softee….

The story—such as it is—combines the familiar Elkin ingredients of broad farce, visionary surrealism, sick humor, ethnic humor and a kind of grotesque pathos in the tradition of "Miss Lonelyhearts." (p. 5)

The appetite of readers for Elkin's brand of humor will vary. I laughed (sometimes guiltily) at a lot of it; some of the one-liners are especially funny ("The dishwasher has returned his steak saying it is too medium"). But I had to fight boredom and exasperation with the self-conscious straining apparent in some episodes…. A gifted mimic, Elkin can "do" hillbilly, Southern, black, Middle-American and the weird electronic jargon of a salesman of audiovisual appliances. But the prevailing dialect of "The Franchiser" is … freewheeling and exuberant Jewish-American—a tribal dialect in which Eklin can achieve effects worthy of S. J. Perelman and Wallace Markfield….

Elkin is often drunk with words. At its best, "The Franchiser" achieves a sensuous poetry evocative not of flesh and sexuality but of the texture of carpeting in movie theaters, of the dazzling orange and turquoise sheen of a Howard Johnson's, of the polished walnut of the caskets in an undertaker's display room. (p. 22)

Unfortunately, abundance too often slides into plethora. Ben—with his magnanimity, his yearnings, his afflictions—is obviously designed as a large-scale character, an epic hero of pop culture, but he is also verbally incontinent. His speeches—some of them splendid set-pieces …—too often degenerate into endless tirades that make the reader want to clap his hands to his ears. There has been an element of force feeding in much of Elkin's fiction from "Boswell" on. Comic or bizarre situations are protracted self-indulgently until they lose their impact. One learns more than one wants to know about the operation of local radio stations ("The Dick Gibson Show") or what it is like to inherit a condominium apartment or to copulate with a female bear in heat ("Searches and Seizures").

This uncomfortable excess is partly attributable, I think, to another weakness in Elkin's fiction. While he can invent wonderful scenes full of madness and power, Elkin seems unable to create a sustaining comic action or plot that could energize the book as a whole and carry the reader past those sections where invention flags or becomes strained. Without the onward momentum of plot—no matter how zany—we are left with bits, pieces and even large chunks that tend to cancel each other out and turn the book into a kind of morass. An insistence upon plot in comic writing (apart from gags or nightclub routines) is no doubt old-fashioned, but it is worth noting that even a Marx Brothers movie has an ongoing action whose complications provide the set-up for any amount of horseplay. The need is especially felt in a book as long as "The Franchiser," where the potentials of situation, character, and theme—very rich potentials—are never fully mobilized into a truly memorable novel. For all of its frenzied motion, "The Franchiser" is oddly static. (p. 24)

Robert Towers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 13, 1976.

Stanley Elkin is one of a small group of writers, the announcement of whose new works can fill a reader with pangs of anticipation and alarm…. [He] resurfaces in each book, a John Gunther of cultural changes, with the latest word on our national dizziness.

Elkin's style is manifest from the first paragraph [of The Franchiser]. Not overtly experimental, his syntax is nevertheless crowded with cunning shifts of meaning and extravagant deployments of wit. The purpose of such stylistic pyrotechnics is clear, sometimes even academic…. The novel's bravado is to set itself against cultural illiteracy of the untellable in all its forms; when the untellable is the truly monstrous disease of multiple sclerosis, Elkin's verbal triumph is very moving. It may not be an insight into our public mess, but when Ben Flesh observes that his multiple sclerosis is "always incurable but only generally fatal," his grammatical trickery is literally lifesaving….

As a survey of American life, The Franchiser is seldom flattering and often offensive. The narrator and leading characters make witless cracks about blacks, Puerto Ricans, homosexuals, the uneducated, the rural, women and their physical functions…. [The] reader wonders at the point of all this baiting….

Elkin … trivializes some of his moving situations by making them extended puns, the most vulgar form of allegory. (p. 151)

Elkin treats the subject of disease with an imaginative power that has few antecedents. In Proust's great novel, Marcel's grandmother suffers a stroke in a Bois de Boulogne rest room. Later, walking through the park, she tries to thwart her coming degeneration by recalling her past life, exercising the instrument that is about to permanently wind down. In a similar attempt to exert his decaying sensory powers, Flesh tries to discern the denomination of a coin in his hands, when in fact there is no coin. One also recalls Malcolm Lowry's taxonomy of the manic highs and lows of alcoholism, when Elkin tells and shows us "manic rage, anger, petulance, exuberance, exul- and exaltation" as the symptoms of remission….

The Franchiser lacks a political and economic sensibility … [and] is best read as a display of literary virtuosity. Elkin's prose rhythms train the reader to expect an eruption of outlandish parallels coincident with the presentation of each new franchise. Yet despite the relentless prolixity of The Franchiser, the novel accomplishes something new and wonderful. During the recent summer weeks, only the power of Elkin's vision could make the sensation of humidity seem a blessing. (p. 152)

Anthony Heilbut, "Dregs Addicts and Cultural Illiterates," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), August 28, 1976, pp. 151-52.