Stanley Elkin Elkin, Stanley (Vol. 4) - Essay

Elkin, Stanley (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Elkin, Stanley 1930–

Elkin is an American novelist and short story writer whose technically brilliant fiction is episodic in nature, often constructed around vignettes or anecdotes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

The first story in [Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers] sounds a note of unrelieved despair, but the final one echoes with a moving shout for the human spirit—drowning both criers and kibitzers with its improbable splendor, and even if the misfits who crown Union Square fail to recognize its significance, the reader of these nine remarkable stories can hardly fail to do so, for their blend of farce and pathos, their sheer mastery of style and martinet-like understanding of the human condition surely make Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers one of the most important collections of short stories published in recent years.

David Galloway, in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1968, p. 860.

That literature, like all our institutions and rationalizations, is counterfeit is no matter for despair. On the contrary, [the] recognition of absurdity helps the human since he is aware of the lies of life and of his own pretense. He refuses to jump over the times that test his humanity….

The humanist transvaluates within a world of lies. The absurdist, tortured by this world, cannot get beyond the shock that it is not true; he devises perspectives of pasts and futures, histories and fantasies, the fields of the galloping imagination, in order to keep the imagination untested by this life….

Parody in the contemporary absurdist novel [in this instance, Elkin's A Bad Man] is a serious matter. It clears the way for the heroism of language. The old character, morality, and metaphysics are mere shadows with which substantially fleshed words can box. The maker of metaphors is, like Barth's Burlingame, master of infinite disguises, and this lying, like Kierkegaard's, is meant to deceive us into the one truth—that fiction is a holy compensation for the loss of consoling gods. The novelist as hero uses his words to parody social relationships or spiritual yearnings, not as much in scorn of moral or metaphysical seriousness as in protest against aesthetic limitations…. Stanley Elkin's bad man [is] conceived as a cluster of rhetorical attributes and [is] actually a parody of a bad man (the moral competition between good and bad is simply the deck of cards)….

The fantasy of identity through victimization, the search for use, becomes a structural metaphor that displays itself lavishly and has nothing to do with moral value or metaphysical possibility. It is no wonder then that the final trial in Elkin's novel deliberately pretends to offer a qualitative judgment but merely teases us with it; the verdict nullifies any potential moral or metaphysical contest between crowd and hero and leaves the novelist in solitary liberation, "free to plunder and profane" …, victorious over morality, philosophy, and his clutter of characters.

Naomi Lebowitz, "The Twentieth-Century Novel: Old Wine in New Bottles," in Humanism and the Absurd in the Modern Novel, Northwestern University Press, 1971, pp. 125-26, 128.

Elkin does not theorize about laughter, but it is everywhere in [A Bad Man]. It is used, as the bulk of the writers in the sixties use it—in black humor, mixing it with pain, stirring our consciences without moralizing, and gaining some control over the despair that threatens to hand the plaguey mess over to everyone's Warden Fisher. In one parenthetical comment, Feldman mentions laughter: "It is in the long sad tradition of my people to pluck laughter from despair." Even as Feldman says it, Elkin means it, demonstrates it, and mocks it; this is, in small, an example of how he uses laughter.

Because A Bad Man removes … the last toehold on reality—the formal distinctions between good and evil—it is a good example of the kind of fable that was written in the sixties. It is not really a creation of fantastical characters moving in a fantastical world for the sake of escape or to illustrate abstract moral principle. It is a demonstration of what is fabulous about the actual world we live in. Filled with moments that shock us with their seeming fidelity to the known …, the book drives us back and forth from saying it is no world we know to saying it is exactly the world we know. A Bad Man removes all doubt that abstractions about Meaning could have any value. It is simply a world incredibly fabulous, filled with some force called Warden Fisher that overwhelms us, but against which we can still say with Feldman that life is worth affirming. Faced with so vast a confusion between fact and fiction, good and evil, life and death, and faced with a choice between Fisher's sterility and Feldman's madness, all that can be said is what Feldman's secretary tells him: "The world is getting to be a terrible place, and I don't know if it's your kind or their kind who makes it more awful, but if we must have terror, let it be gay and exciting, I say."…

Raymond M. Olderman, "The Fisher King Turns Warden," in his Beyond the Waste Land: A Study of the American Novel in the Nineteen-Sixties, Yale University Press, 1972, pp. 52-71.

Plots are only secondary … in Elkin's work, mere frameworks from which to deluge the reader with a Niagara of words—all controlled by a virtuoso. His narrator-heroes talk, dream, fantasize, backflash, surprising us in every paragraph, showing ennui at times, but never becoming inarticulate.

Publisher's Weekly (reprinted from August 13, 1973, issue of Publisher's Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), August 13, 1973, pp. 47-8.

Certainly [Elkin's] is a remarkably various talent, and the stories in "Searches and Seizures" nicely illustrate its range….

This is an art that takes time—his scenes are comic turns that build cunningly toward climax in deflative bathos, and in the novels there's an inclination toward the episodic, the compulsive storyteller's looseness about connections and logic….

In Elkin's fiction, violence may bring at least the illusion of renewal …; or it may bring a recognition, however appalling, of how one's own fate fits into the general fate of humankind…. In any case, the seizure that follows the search is an act of possessing, or being possessed by, something worth knowing, and Stanley Elkin is finally a good deal more than just another comic novelist.

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 21, 1973, p. 3.

Stanley Elkin is one of those talented but quirky writers who seem always to stand on the brink of both popularity and critical acclaim without, somehow, achieving either. Critics tend to carp at him—and I am afraid I am about to do so, too—giving with the one hand and taking with the other, while the public has simply refused to respond to him in any manner commensurate with his considerable gifts. In his previous novels and collection of stories …, he has demonstrated himself to be both an extraordinarily funny writer and an unusually complex and serious one. His language is unfailingly superb; he is, without question, one of the finest prose stylists that we have. Unfortunately, these qualities have not been an unmixed blessing, as we shall see.

In the three novellas that make up [Searches and Seizures] … Elkin's virtues are on prominent display. His language has never been more brilliant, his metaphors never more apposite and finely tuned, his erudition never more dazzling…. All of [the central characters] are rootless wanderers; all of them in their various fashions are seekers not only after truth but logic, structure, rationality. Like most human beings, they ask only to be given something to live for. Like most human beings, they fail to find it. At the heart of each of these stories lies the death of God and the failure of philosophy. It is at once our bitterest dilemma and the source of our greatest fiction, a nettle to be grasped and grasped again: the heartbreaking quandary of the human condition.

Yet for all Elkin's acuity, formidable skill and astonishing inventiveness, two of these tales do not succeed and the third—The Condominium—seems both overlong and occasionally overwrought. Elkin's characters are artifacts, superbly sculptured statuary adorned with rich garlands of prose. Sedentary, separate from us, their gestures frozen, they are meant to be observed but not experienced, admired but not touched. The strength of the writing imbues them with a kind of static life, but it does not bestow upon them either an autonomous vitality or a poignant humanity. They exist to prove a point. The way in which they are written about is more important than the way they react to their surroundings, and they are trundled from place to place like demonstration models, more for the purpose of description than for faltering and imperfect reasons of their own. In a way, the prose itself becomes the hero.

Only in The Condominium is the protagonist acted upon by his environment, his dilemma shaped by circumstance and not by language…. Despite a certain ornate feverishness, it shows us what Elkin is capable of when he is able to liberate himself from the chains of his own artistry and contemplate his plot as closely as he contemplates his faultless metaphors. One fervently wishes that he would do it more often; once he grants himself such freedom, it seems as though there is nothing he cannot do.

L. J. Davis, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 28, 1973, pp. 10-11.

In Boswell, A Bad Man and The Dick Gibson Show, Stanley Elkin demonstrated lavish verbal and comic gifts, a generosity of spirit and a talent for staging extravaganzas of the absurd. If his plots lurched and his ideas went off like random flares, Elkin's characters commanded attention because of the manic way they acted out their necessities.

In Searches & Seizures, a collection of three novellas, each Elkin hero obeys his needs with results that vary from the bitterly funny to the preposterous and pathetic….

Elkin, one of America's most inventive comic writers, is also adept at old-fashioned realism.

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), October 29, 1973, pp. E3, 122.

Character, like language, is a defense against disorder, and the real subject of the three short novels contained in Searches and Seizures is a complicated invention of character by means of snowballing language. The writer in vents characters who invent themselves as they talk and thereby invent him, the writer….

What guides and gives structure to these fictions is Elkin's fidelity to the oddness of his own imagination, which in turn simulates a fidelity to the jerky, arbitrary movements of the real world. This means that the pieces of the fictions—patches, paragraphs, sentences, gags—tend to be better than the wholes they hardly turn out to be parts of, and William H. Gass's allusion (on the dustjacket of the book) to Henry James's notion of the "beautiful and blessed nouvelle" is so inapt as almost to constitute a definition in reverse of what Elkin is doing. Of the three stories here, only the third comes together to make the comic, desperate sense the other two hint at rather darkly.

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), March 21, 1974, pp. 20-1.

I must have been mad or blind or ignorant to have missed, when it first appeared in 1965, Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers by Stanley Elkin. But no matter. I've now caught up with him …, and I've spent days reading (and rereading some) these superb stories. One I've read three or four times, "A Poetics for Bullies," which comes as close to running, colloquial, irresistible poetry as anything I've ever read. To be able to sustain a teenaged first-person narrative like this which convinces completely and yet pleases by the beauty of its prose is a major achievement. In that much-maligned and often-neglected genre the short story, there are indeed still some giants in the English language, and I now count Elkin among them.

Doris Grumbach, "Fine Print," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New York Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 23, 1974, pp. 32-3.