Stanley Elkin, the author of six novels and two collections of shorter fiction, is a maddeningly elusive writer whose work defies easy classification. His novels are, page-by-page, brilliantly and inventively composed, but they are also plotless, digressive, and therefore, say some reviewers, badly flawed. Yet his shorter fictions, excepting the novella The Bailbondsman (1973), are for all their unity less satisfying than his novels. Chronicler of the most outrageous vulgarities of American popular culture, he nevertheless treats them sympathetically, even lovingly, as if he were a combination Walt Whitman-Jewish comedian. Yet to call Elkin a chronicler of his times is to overlook the dense texture of his prose, which, unlike Theodore Dreiser or Sinclair Lewis, he produces at the painstaking rate of a page a day. (George Mills, for example, took seven years to complete.) This emphasis on narrative disruption and pyrotechnic style suggests Elkin’s affinity to post-Modernist writers such as his close friend, William Gass; while Elkin’s fiction has all of Gass’s artifice and precision, however, it has neither Gass’s cold detachment nor Thomas Pynchon’s academic trappings. In the recent debate over the purpose of fiction begun by John Gardner in On Moral Fiction (1978) and argued more forcefully by Gerald Graff in Literature Against Itself (1979), Elkin is one writer who uses his extravagant style in the service of human values rather than literary hermeticism—a position that keeps him outside both the avant-garde and the traditionalist camps and inimitably on his own.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Fiction of 1982, George Mills is, with The Franchiser (1976), the most successful of Elkin’s characteristically odd novels. Part family saga, part confession, and part picaresque, George Mills has a beginning and an end but a wildly jumbled middle filled with seeming digressions (one of which is 113 pages long), lurching shifts in time, place, and point of view, and interpolated passages set off from the “main” story by parentheses and brackets. Instead of using plot, Elkin organizes his novel around his central personality, following the logical consequences that flow from placing this character in certain situations. In George Mills, this character is the last in a long (some fifty generations) and distinctly pedestrian line of George Millses. The lengthy sections devoted to the misadventures of Greatest Grandfather at the time of the First Crusade (1097), of George XLIII in the early nineteenth century, and of George’s father shortly before and during the Depression are not extraneous to the novel; they are integral parts of the Mills legacy and serve to establish the current George’s Millsness.
In many ways, George is a typical Elkin protagonist. He is obsessed, powerless, isolated, unkind, and prone to self-pity; most important, he has a compulsive need to tell his story, to explain himself to everyone and anyone, including the dispossessed blacks whose furniture he carts away for his employer, Laglichio. In other ways, however, Mills is atypical among Elkin’s protagonists. He is too humorless, too passive, too satisfied with his unsatisfying life; he has no aspirations, no quest, no energy, no desire for community; also, he lacks some of the verbal flashiness and virtually all of the “heroic extravagance” that Elkin bestows on his favored characters. Moreover, George feels “saved, lifted from life,” his “will and soul idling like a car at a stoplight,” sure that nothing will happen to him. His salvation is, as one expects in Elkin, ironic. In the scene in which the saved Mills indifferently, even mechanically, masturbates his wife—a scene that is, like so much of Elkin’s fiction, precariously balanced between comedy and horror—the reader understands that in trying to protect himself from life’s pains, Mills has withdrawn not only from others, including his wife, but also from whatever would make him human. Unlike Elkin, who agrees with the William Faulkner character who says, “Between grief and nothing I will take grief,” Mills unwisely chooses nothing.
The cause of George’s predicament is his Millsness. Although a number of other Elkin characters are affected by their past—Feldman’s salesman father in A Bad Man (1967), for example, or Ben Flesh and the inheritance from his godfather in The Franchiser—only Mills carries the burden of a nine-hundred-year family history that began when Gillalume, “a sissy sir,” “doomed” his servant, the first George Mills, and “cursed” his race: “Learn this Mills. There are...
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