Richard Elman D. Keith Mano - Essay

D. Keith Mano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Richard Elman's stories in "Crossing Over" are inconsequential, disgruntling…. The collection has been edited hopefully: to give the impression of a hardening, a growing into form. The least corporeal, most irksome stories come first—the ones with nameless characters that begin, "Once upon a time when he was a man and she a woman, they got lost somehow and couldn't find each other anymore."… The Part I stories are meant perhaps to have the force of parables, but they are wearisome, trivial at best; and humor, which might salvage expectation, occurs only in haphazard bursts.

By the last five dozen pages of "Crossing Over" there is some welcome specificity: people with recognizable traits, places with at least a provisional geography. Yet, even at the heart of Part II, the fiction seems mere copy-book work. All but three or four of the stories are written in a tentative first person, which excuses Elman from any arduous descriptive or metaphorical responsibilities. The personae are not very special, nor are their words particularly distinguished. Elman doesn't bother to surprise…. I've read Elman's long fiction; I had expected more.

There is a theme of sorts. Aside from two political satires that use workaday science-fiction devices, the stories are concerned with selfhood and loneliness. Most of the characters try in some vague manner to integrate self by cannibalizing old parts from their personal relationships. Apparently few are successful. Just under half of the stories end with several lines of dialogue in upper case: "TELL HER I HATE HER" or "STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE AND I'LL BE RIGHT OVER." As if Elman thought dramatic progress and climax were just a matter of hitting his shift key at the right moment.

In an afterword the author writes, "It is simply not necessary to dawdle over these [stories], much less swelter." Elman is a first-rate critic of fiction.

D. Keith Mano, "'Crossing Over and Other Tales'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 4, 1973, p. 41.