Stanley Elkin Essay - Elkin, Stanley (Vol. 6)

Elkin, Stanley (Vol. 6)

Elkin, Stanley 1930–

Elkin, an American novelist, short story writer, editor, and critic, writes parodies of contemporary absurdity and violence, aptly called (although he dislikes the term) "black comedies," in which he "deluges his readers with a Niagara of words—all controlled by a virtuoso." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Its awareness of the World has ruefully lurid consequences for the Self in Stanley Elkin's Searches and Seizures, three short novels which may be related in the way Elkin's prefatory note suggests—i.e., that "each … protagonist is a bachelor…, and each is concerned … with death." In fact, each story is the richly comic detailing of a "search" that is rewarded, not with its desired object, but with a painfully unanticipated revelation (a "seizure"), teaching the searcher what he has not wished to learn. Experience is a mean son-of-a-bitch, the sly Stanley Elkin implies; you may learn things from it, but it can kill you. (p. 129)

[In "The Bailbondsman"] Elkin twists the real and the imaginary together with compelling eccentric force. The methodical legalist must learn that there are "limits to his power and his own precious freedom." (p. 130)

In "The Making of Ashenden," the World outrageously compromises the Self's meanderings toward its ideal. Brewster Ashenden is the oldest living playboy, still in search of himself, unable to decide what's expected of him. A paragon of superfluous virtues, he is both an epicurean looking for exciting new sensations, and "classical, drawn by perfection as to some magnetic, Platonic pole…." A celebrated society princess accepts his devotion, and (true to her fairytale associations) sets him a task: to make himself pure again. Ashenden thinks "pure thoughts for three hours"; then, while wandering through the private zoo on a friend's London estate (Elkin is nothing if he's not inventive), is accosted by a 700-pound female bear, in heat, who has her own task to set for him.

If you think you've read everything, here is the story for you. The man-bear sex scene is vigorous, raunchy, painful, smelly—and downright touching. To Ashenden, it is revelation ("What this means … is that my life has been too crammed with civilization…. I have been too proud of my humanism, perhaps, and all along not paid enough attention to the base"). The "making" of Ashenden is the humbling of him.

"The Condominium" is more diffuse, though it has its own crazy power…. It is also a vision—of the squeezing of … lives into neat safe packages, stored behind walls of indifference and drowned out by their grotesque litany of materialism. The overstuffed, hyperactive world on which Elkin's window opens may defeat those who try to contend against it. But it is itself awesomely compact and coherent, at the mercy of a judiciously savage ordering intelligence. (pp. 130-31)

Bruce Allen, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.

In a way, one could call Stanley Elkin a humorist, and like many other humorists he's basically deadpan serious, desperately preoccupied with something else, too wordy and solemn by far to be very funny much of the time. But it seldom takes Elkin long to at least answer the nature-call of the Comic Spirit always moving within him. Again and again in these three novellas [Searches and Seizures] there are flashes of his mesmerically offbeat (and sometimes off-color) humor, and I found myself marveling once more—after ten years of exposure to him—"When Elkin's in good form, he's really not bad at all!"

Still and all, there is the mystery of the lack of rhyme or reason in regard to what happens or fails to happen in these three fictions: the starting point in any genuine discussion of this frenzied logorrheac. When in fact has any one of his stories or novels really made sense? Is it asking too much of him if we expect from his literary exercises coherence and purpose? What must his editors at Random House have been thinking all these years? Or is it that his shattered, splattered plots provide another element of subtle, unconventional humor? (p. 438)

I think Elkin may really be driving himself mad because his frequency isn't the world's. Consider these telltale words of Main, the bailbondsman: "'We die dropouts. All of us. Disadvantaged and underachievers.'" (p. 439)

Samuel I. Bellman, in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1974 by Newberry College), Fall, 1974.

The Eligible Men are word kings. They build up glittering verbal palaces around themselves, in cascading rhetorical monologues, in dreams, in deep wordy caverns of introspection. Their worlds are perfected right down to the final bauble on the last minaret. Then the crunch comes. They discover that no one else is living there but them. The brilliant talker is the proprietor and sole inhabitant of his universe; and he might as well be adrift in outer space. His fatal proficiency in language has taken him clean out of the world of other people.

This is the central theme of the three short novels that make up the book [published in England as Eligible Men and in America as Searches and Seizures]…. Elkin has perfected a form of garrulous baroque, a sort of solipsist's Scrabble. Like grotesque illustrations to a theory of Chomskian linguistics, his characters seem to have been born with outsize generative grammars installed inside their craniums. (p. 83)

The ordinary laws of physics and human conduct just don't apply to these cursed language-using animals, and that is their tragedy.

For the power of Elkin's writing lies in his capacity to move smoothly from the real into the fantastic and back again. His characters, no matter how wild their imaginative and linguistic flights, are always rooted in the ordinary. He can create a city street, or a hideous housing complex for the retired middle class (in The Condominium, the best novella of all), as ably as any devout realist. And around the terrifying limitlessness of characters who have not learned that language has its limits, he has moulded a sad, sour, entirely satisfying fiction. (p. 84)

Jonathan Raban, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1975.

I suggest that the extraordinary linguistic vitality which Stanley Elkin has unleashed in such works as A Bad Man, The Dick Gibson Show, and "The Bailbondsman" (collected in … Searches and Seizures) owes something to Elkin's choice as narrators and protagonists of aggressive, unsentimental, often vulgar and bullying businessmen, who love their work and are not alienated from it. To be sure, these are metaphysical entrepreneurs who invest their businesses with dimensions of romance, mystery, and exotic challenge that go far beyond the mere pursuit of profits. And yet the intricate, concrete facts of the business in question—running a department store, radio announcing, making bail bonds—are always profusely and lovingly particularized, something which lends to the characters a more than hypothetical individuality. The talk and gesture of these characters are full of energy because, though complex and often tragically self-contradictory, they are not overcome by identity crises, attenuating self-consciousness, and the diffusions of the protean self. In a world given over to equivocation and sentimentality, they follow a hard line, knowing what they desire even if they fail to achieve it. (pp. 330-31)

Gerald Graff, in TriQuarterly 33 (© 1975 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1975.

"There are only two kinds of intelligences, the obsessive and the perspectual," says James Boswell, hero of Stanley Elkin's first novel, Boswell. In statement and act Boswell affirms the obsessive and thereby points to what I believe is the single most important theme—and description of technique—in Elkin's work. In Elkin's fictional world, the perspectual intelligence—rational, balanced, Apollonian—gives way to the obsessive imagination, the willful, kinetic force that destroys accepted perspective with its compulsively straight and irrationally jagged lines. For Elkin, perspective means objectivity, ordinariness, and compromise. Obsession is subjective, strange, and extreme; it is characterized by a narrow focus on fixed ends, by intense desire and extravagant means, and by the lack of relations and options. Elkin does create perspectives on his characters' actions through comedy and invites the reader to analyze the nature and effects of obsession. But within the work itself,… obsession dominates. It rules character, dictates structure, and permeates the voices Elkin loves to throw.

Elkin's protagonists are ordinary men with extraordinary purposes and singular dreams, men who become obsessed with the improbable possibilities of the self's expansion. Isolated by their obsessions, these manic heroes mount single-minded assaults upon the world and force themselves toward ultimate fulfillments. Although development is their end, plot becomes the compulsive repetition of action and complex situation is reduced to simplicity by their obsessions. Even setting is defined by the radical subjectivity of the obsessive inhabiting it. Sellers of singleness, pitchmen of transcendence, Elkin's narrators and heroes have a high-energy, repetitive rhetoric, an exclamatory prose that intensifies the ordinary, presses the impossible, and registers the urgency of their fixations. The result is a unity of effect, a Siamese connection of substance and style.

It is probably a truism that characters in contemporary American fiction are obsessional, but Elkin's heroes, unlike those, say, of Mailer, Hawkes, or O'Connor, develop their obsessions from natural authorities, common needs, or the promises of a popular culture rather than from some social, psychological, or religious ideology. Elkin's are not the exotic products of a subculture nor the constructs of an experimental theory but the distortions of the American almost-ordinary. Because their obsessions arise from areas of mass fascination and because they expend their energies within recognizable—if sometimes dislocated—systems of value, their private thoughts and public careers reveal truths particularly relevant and available to the American present. Theirs is the singleness that illuminates multiplicity, the focus that creates perspective, and Elkin uses them to examine both the normalities and aberrancies of our time. (pp. 146-47)

Thomas LeClair, "The Obsessional Fiction of Stanley Elkin," in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 146-62.