One day, Jack Schiff, a political geographer at a large but unnamed American university and main character in “Her Sense of Timing,” the first of the three novellas in Stanley Elkin’s triptych Van Gogh’s Room at ArIes, wakes up and finds that Claire, his wife of thirty-six years, is leaving him. The most immediate effect on Schiff involves his struggle to get up unaided from his wheelchair and down the stairs, for this Jack is not the Giant Killer (and not the Ripper either, his verbal slicings aside) but Jack the cripple, victim of a neurological disorder, perhaps Elkin’s own multiple sclerosis.
Covering only two days, the story’s simple plot deals with only three events: Claire’s sudden departure, for which Elkin offers none of the usual background or buildup; Schiff’s equally sudden, even panicky decision to have an expensive communications system installed to assure him of getting help in the case of a medical emergency; and finally, despite misgivings, Schiff’s going ahead with the annual party for his graduate students, which Claire had always arranged for him. Hence Elkin’s title, and the irony it conceals, for Schiff does not really care for his students, or, it seems, anyone else. This is not surprising. Elkin has never been much interested in the creation of conventionally sympathetic characters or conventionally plotted narratives. The action in his wayward fiction is always elsewhere: on the page, in the language. In “Her Sense of Timing,” those pages and that language are very good indeed, most noticeably in Elkin’s rendering of the nuts and bolts of the handicapped life: the eating, dririlting, spilling, the jabbing oneself to prime the urinary pump, getting into a wheelchair without help, negotiating the Stair-Glide, pretending to be the Little Blue Engine That Could when using the walker (“I think I can, I think I can”).
The story’s sense of timing, like Claire’s, is blackly humorous. The political geographer who rarely leaves his home or wheelchair discovers that where he really lives is a country called “Farce,”
Schiff’s Own true motherland with its slapsfick lakes and Punch and Judy rivers, its burlesque deserts and vaudeville plains, with its minstrel peninsulas and cabaret hills, its music-hall mountains and its dumb-show shun’s, all its charade forests, all its low-comedy lowlands.
Schiff wants some help, some protection, some scrap of dignity, but his illness and now Claire’s defection—which, even as he rages against her, he understands—leave him vulnerable and exposed, and therefore more furious than ever. He wheedles and whines, looking not only for help but also for pity, yet he resents and at least verbally punishes those who do help or pity him. Schiff finds himself helpless and humiliated at nearly every turn. When the “S.O.S.” technician who has come to install the new communications system offers to make Schiff a sandwich, Schiff directs her to the refrigerator filled with the food Claire has prepared for the party. Only then does he learn that there is no food, because, as the technician (also one of Schiff’s former students) is the first to realize, Claire did not leave in a fit of pique; she had planned her departure well in advance.
His students, already aware of his situation, his latest humiliation, come to his rescue. Led by the fortyish Miss KoIm, they bring the food, drink, and decorations, promising to carry on and then clean up. Yet Schiff’s party ends in a disaster, the house a mess, the carpets ruined, the garbage disposal clogged and overflowing, the Stair-Glide broken, the door left open. Schiff almost seems to deserve what he gets, his comeuppance as it were. The wonder here is not that Elkin can joke about pain, especially a pain so close to home; it is that he can be so painfully comical.” ’I’d like,’ said Schiff, sorry as soon as he permitted the words to escape, ’for my life to go into remission.’
The comedy is quite a bit lighter but no less effective in the second novella, “Town Crier Exclusive, Confessions of a Princess Manque’: ‘How Royals Found Me “Unsuitable” to Marry Their Larry.’ “The title itself suggests how much less personal and more parodic this second novella is than “Her Sense of Timing.” “Town Crier Exclusive” brazenly proclaims its origins in the English tabloids and their obsessive interest in the royals. The tale takes the form of six installments in the Sunday editions of the Town Crier, running from January 12 to February 16, 1992, written by Louise Bristol, a twenty-eight-year-old commoner who was not bred to be a princess, let alone a queen. La Lulu, as the press has...
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