Mrs. Ted Bliss
Stanley Elkin was a postmodern Walt Whitman singing America (“the varied carols I hear”), his seventeen books a massive Whitmanic “Song of Occupations.” His Jewish American “barbaric yawp” is excessive, extravagant, exact—as Elkin himself liked to say, “More is more.” Whitman’s great hope was that the country that he believed was itself the greatest poem would “absorb him as affectionately as he had absorbed it.” Like Whitman, Elkin wanted to be if not “absorbed,” then accepted, and he longed for his books to be bought, read, praised, honored, and not only with a National Book Award for George Mills (1982) either. Elkin’s wants were as extravagant as his prose; still, he deserved better than he got: more than a small but dedicated following, more than critical respect as a writer’s writer, a term far better suited to his St. Louis neighbor and Washington University colleague William Gass. (Elkin’s prose may have been conventional, but it was never inaccessible and was always immersed in and strangely respectful of American popular culture.)
Unlike Whitman, however, Elkin had no intention of filtering out of his writings the “querilities” and whimperings, the daily grind of an “old age” that had begun early. Elkin had long suffered the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis (MS), a blackly humorous disease for someone who spent his entire adult life writing manuscripts (MSS, including two featuring characters with multiple sclerosis: The Franchiser, 1976, and “Her Sense of Timing,” 1993). Yet it was not multiple sclerosis that killed Elkin on May 31, 1995; it was the bad heart that beat the multiple sclerosis to the proverbial punch(line) and that had first manifested itself, ironically enough, when Elkin was the same age at which Whitman began celebrating his robust soul and perfect health. Heart disease was in Elkin’s blood; it was a family complaint, another designer disease for a writer destined to become the master of complaint, the Rabelais of grievance, ringing his variations on a theme by William Faulkner, “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief,” to which Elkin gave his characteristic “more is more” spin. Elkin always gave as good as he got, in fact better: the quid pro quos of high-flown heartache and matchless prose.
Whitman hoped to cease not until death, and as he was about to depart advised his followers to look for him under their boot soles. Elkin’s readers will have to make do with their bookshelves as they grieve both for Elkin’s passing and for its sense of timing, just when American fiction seems so depressingly “downsized,” risking little and achieving even less—a far cry from the kibitzing art of a writer whose most gargantuan imaginings were always firmly grounded in his characters’ everyday lives.
Mrs. Ted Bliss bears more than a passing resemblance to Saul Bellow’s differently elegiac novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970). The sense of decline—personal as well as social—is strong in both books, as is the tendency of both authors’ Jewish American protagonists to cast, like Whitman, “a backward glance o’er travel’d roads.” Like Whitman, Bellow uses language in order to transcend language, to insist upon something real but ineffable, some spiritual bond or knowledge that the modern age has unwisely forsaken, what Arthur Sammler calls “the terms of the contract,” “the terms which, in his inmost heart, each man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it—that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”
Moments of transcendence such as this play no part in Elkin’s fiction, not even in Mrs. Ted Bliss. Here it is not the rage, resentment, and remissions of Elkin’s earlier work that seem so noticeable; it is retrenchment, a more careful, even parsimonious expenditure of verbal energy and narrative mayhem—fewer avenging arias and displays of pyrotechnic brilliance. This is the result, one suspects, not of any drying up of Elkin’s manic muse but instead of the consummate craftsman’s ability to trim and tailor his special genius to this latest and lamentably last in the Elkin line of the put-upon and the passed-by.
Mrs. Ted Bliss’s occupation, as it were, is widow left financially secure but otherwise at a loss following the death of her husband, “the bloodless butcher.” Ted had after all “done everything for her,” from driving the car and writing the checks to rescuing her from an imperious employer. Dorothy’s pilgrim’s progress takes her from Russia to Chicago to Miami Beach, the salesgirl and lady’s...
(The entire section is 1914 words.)