Stanley Elkin Short Fiction Analysis
From the time Stanley Elkin emerged in the mid-1960’s, critics applauded his novels and short fiction as some of the best satirical writing in American literature. His stories—often labeled black humor—are essentially dark, urban comedies in which unusually articulate, marginal figures struggle to define themselves in a confusing and chaotic modern world. Often, the means of definition is essentially linguistic, as the characters attempt to construct an understanding of themselves and their place in the modern world through language itself. The interplay between the characters’ harsh circumstances and their ability to overcome those circumstances through language is the hallmark of Elkin’s satire. Throughout his work, Elkin depicts extremes of personality—people in crisis, engaging in personal (if, from external perception, trivial) cataclysms. His characters are often grotesque; Elkin has written, “I stand in awe of the outré.” His stories do not hinge on plot; in fact, often little “happens” in the stories. Rather, they delineate a situation and resolution of greater internal than external consequence. A key to Elkin’s art is rhetoric. He uses a rich variety of language composed of “shoptalk,” the lingo of the professions of his characters: grocers, bailbondsmen, hipsters, and collection agents. His characters, however, do not speak consistently “realistic” speech. Many magically possess the full range of rhetorical possibility, from gutter speech to learned philosophical flights. So, too, many characters are conversant with areas of knowledge far beyond their nominal experience—a metaphorical representation of their heightened consciousnesses. Elkin does not seek literal verisimilitude in his characters’ speech. This fictive rhetoric, like that of Henry James, is deliberate artifice. Elkin has written, “Rhetoric doesn’t occur in life. It occurs in fiction. Fiction gives an opportunity for rhetoric to happen. It provides a stage where language can stand.” Elkin’s characters obsessively seek to make contact with their worlds, and their “fierce language” is both symbol and product of that aggression.
“Everything Must Go!”
In “Everything Must Go!,” a story which later became a part of A Bad Man along with “The Garbage Dump” and “The Merchant of New Desires,” a young Jewish boy has traveled to southern Illinois with his half-mad father, who is a peddler of rags and snatches—a demented master salesman who can sell anything—who, in fact, has defined himself existentially as an archetype of the Jewish peddler fulfilling the biblical prophecy of the Diaspora. His son loves and hates his father, feeling acutely his “otherness,” and is alternately amused and horrified by his father’s mad intensity. The man sells everything including individual months torn from calendars: “April,” he called in February, “just out. Get your April here.” He sells from his wagon “old magazines, chapters from books, broken pencils, ruined pens, eraser ends in small piles, string, rope, cork scraped from the insides of bottle caps. ”
The man tries to educate his son in the fine art of hawking wares, insisting that the American-born lad (neither is an immigrant) sound like the archetypal peddler: “Not ‘rags’ not ‘old clothes.’ What are you, an announcer on the radio? You’re in a street! Say ‘regs,’ ‘all cloze.’ Shout it, sing it. I want to hear steerage, Ellis Island in that throat.” The boy’s call decays into “Rugs, oil cloths!” and “Rex, wild clits.” “Terrific, wild clits is very good. We’ll make our way. ”
The story reaches a climax when the father invades a county fair’s ox-pulling contest, and in a hilarious and manic display, sells every item on a wagon towering with junk. Throughout the tale the father has referred to one “unsalable thing,” which he finally reveals to his son is himself. When at last he dies of cancer, the son, metamorphosing into the true salesman, proves the father wrong. He calls the doctor to tell him that the father has died. “They argued but it was no use. The doctor, on behalf of the tiny hospital, could offer him only fifteen dollars for the body.”
The son, named Feldman, grows into a department store magnate, as the reader finds out in the novel, eventually turns to a life of crime, is arrested, and revolutionizes the prison to which he is sent through the use of the same gifts and manias which possessed his father. (Another story excerpted from the novel, “The Merchant of New Desires,” hilariously depicts Feldman’s running of the prison commissary, which has become an avatar of his father’s wagon.) Together, the stories form a potent and typical introduction to Elkin’s work. The language is nonstop; the “vaudeville-like patter” is continuous. The manic events mask a desperate attempt to form an identity and connect with the world. Both the situations and the rhetoric display the art of the bizarre, the grotesque manifestations of feverishly heightened consciousness and wild emotional excess.
The rhetorical aspects of Elkin’s fiction combine with an exact description of every setting. Hotel rooms, for example, are described down to the texture and grain of the plastic wood veneers of the dressers and the weave of the drapes. The stark realism of locale combined with the wild multifaceted language of the characters (who often narrate their own stories) form a unique texture. Throughout, the language is not an end in itself, but...
(The entire section is 2276 words.)