Stanley Elkin Long Fiction Analysis
Often erroneously categorized as a “black humorist,” Stanley Elkin wrote novels and short stories that bristle with a kind of modern satiric language and a blending of the ordinary and the bizarre that characterize much of the black humor that emerged in the 1960’s. Unlike contemporaries such as Joseph Heller, J. P. Donleavy, and Kurt Vonnegut, however, Elkin did not produce works that are particularly pessimistic or given to excessive lamentations over the inadequacies of contemporary culture. The world Elkin depicts in his fiction is indeed bleak, desolate, and unforgiving, but Elkin’s characters always seem to manage somehow, always seem to exhibit a certain kind of moral fortitude that enables them to persevere.
It is Elkin’s treatment of his characters that is perhaps the most striking element in his fiction, causing his work to stand apart from that of the black humorists. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Elkin does not disrespect the characters he satirizes, even when those characters have despicable traits or engage in criminal—even cruel—behavior. In addition, his characters have the ability to make moral choices, a characteristic lacking in most protagonists in works of black humor. Despite Elkin’s elaborate, artful characterizations, however, his fiction—because of his overpowering style, his artful use of language and metaphor (far beyond the characters to which he typically ascribes the gift of language), and his lack of emphasis on plot—has been somewhat of an enigma to literary scholars, who have struggled to understand the significance of his works and their place in the context of contemporary American literature.
Elkin’s first novel, Boswell, centers on the protagonist James Boswell, conceived as a loose parody of the eighteenth century biographer who pursued the most eminent man in the London of his day, Samuel Johnson, eventually befriending him and writing his biography. Elkin’s Boswell is also a pursuer of celebrities, but in twentieth century America, the task is more complicated—and the reasons for undertaking the task more pathological. Boswell is obsessed with death: the certainty of death and the prospect of having lived a meaningless life. In this regard, Boswell seems almost existential in nature. Unlike the earlier existential novelists, however, and unlike Elkin’s contemporaries, who often see life in the modern world as vacuous and absurd, Elkin pushes past this categorization, causing his protagonist to make a life-affirming gesture, to take from the confusion and chaos of modern life some organizing principle, or affirmative stance, that can overcome his oppressive feelings of meaninglessness. In Boswell’s case, as he stands outside, unable to cross the police barrier in front of the hotel where celebrities are gathering at his own request, he finally comes to understand the inherent injustice of a world that gives special status, even immortal status, to certain individuals while others are left in meaningless obscurity. The novel ends with Boswell’s uncharacteristically democratic gesture: He begins to shout opposition to these celebrities, choosing to remain an outsider just on the eve of his acceptance into their circle.
Boswell was received rather cautiously by critics and reviewers. The work’s lack of plot—not much really “happens” in the novel—and Elkin’s intense, almost overwhelming rhetorical style, with his seemingly inconsistent juxtaposition of formal speech and street slang (often coming from the same character, in the same paragraph), caused several critics to denounce the work as too artificial, too self-conscious, and too uncontrolled. Peter J. Bailey, in defense of Elkin, has argued that the early characterizations of Elkin were unfair for a number of reasons. For one thing, Elkin’s literary antecedents were misunderstood. He was not trying to write realistic plot-based fiction and failing; instead, he was writing antirealistic, comedic novels of excess, very much like his contemporaries Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, and Donald Barthelme. The confusion, according to Bailey, comes about because other such novelists use language that is extravagant, rhetorically excessive, and comical. With Elkin, the language is the language one hears every day, the language of shopkeepers and grocers. This realistic speech in the midst of bizarre situations makes Elkin’s work more insidious—and, Bailey argues, more effective.
A Bad Man
With his second novel, A Bad Man, Elkin continues what he began in Boswell. Like most of Elkin’s novels, it focuses on a single protagonist who tells his own story, a protagonist who seeks to heal his disparate, chaotic life through a single profession, or obsession, as the case may be. Leo Feldman, a department store magnate, seeking a way to test his resolve, strength, and fortitude, has himself put into prison for doing his customers illegal favors. In prison, Feldman confronts the system, personified by the warden, and ultimately confronts death itself in many guises, just as Boswell had done before him. The consummate salesman, Feldman is keenly aware of the art of selling himself, promoting the self, and he seeks to do this as he fights the warden and the system.
The Dick Gibson Show
In his third novel, The Dick Gibson Show, Elkin turns to the world of radio broadcasting, a perfect medium for the depiction of the loner, the orphan (a characteristic of many Elkin protagonists), the marginal modern hero who lives isolated from others yet seeks a kind of renewal, a connection with an understanding, sympathetic “audience.” The novel spans Gibson’s career (which coincides with the introduction of radio as a mass medium). The format at which he excels is the talk show and, later, the telephone call-in shows that became popular in the 1960’s. The callers telephone to articulate their despair, their feelings of inadequacy, and their inability to order their lives—feelings Gibson shares. Rather than succumb to these feelings, however, Gibson uses his position as adviser to help himself overcome them. In the callers themselves he finds a substitute for the family he has spent his life seeking in vain.
(The entire section is 2597 words.)