In a sense, there is only one character in The Franchiser, Ben Flesh, and he only a voice in the novel’s continuous monologue. Elkin’s novel is composed of transcriptions of Flesh’s conversations and his rambling meditations on life, death, and the landscape as he travels America. Though Flesh encounters a large variety of other characters, they are, for the most part, interlocutors or, in the case of the Finsberg children, diseases with human names, collections of oddities and symptoms. There is, for example, Flight Lieutenant Tanner, Flesh’s hospital roommate, who suffers from “Leukopenia,” a rare disease that gives the victim the appearance of sweating blood. Clearly, Tanner is a Christ figure, and in his conversations with Flesh, he helps Ben to come to terms with death and suffering. Tanner is also two-dimensional; he is a sign of Ben’s growing awareness of his own mortality rather than a fully developed character as such.
In his ramblings, Flesh might be seen as a reader and interpreter of cultural signs. He observes the minute phenomena of the human world and attempts to make connections between the scattered manifestations of life and death. Ben spends a lot of time with Patty Finsberg, who refers to herself as “The Insight Lady” because she is obsessed with the parallels to be drawn among disparate cultural events: “Chandeliers must have come in with the development of lens astronomy at the beginning of the seventeenth century. I should think it was an attempt to mimic rather than parody the order of the heavens, to bring the solar system indoors.” While some of her insights are breathtaking, it is clear that Patty is paranoically concerned with “connections.” From her, Ben learns that there is order in disorder, contradiction in synthesis. Flesh as a character is, then, like a reader of his own novel, who interprets his life and observations as a commentator might discuss the patterns and repetitions of a fiction. Then, too, Flesh is like a writer: As a franchiser, he both organizes and disseminates the separated units of his financial network. Almost continually in physical discomfort and confronting the visible evidence of his own death, Flesh looks outward, on life, for the external order that will confer meaning upon his existence.