Academic journal article Hollins Critic

"Death Grotesque as Life": The Fiction of Stanley Elkin

Academic journal article Hollins Critic

"Death Grotesque as Life": The Fiction of Stanley Elkin

Article excerpt

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In seven volumes of fiction published since the mid-Sixties, Stanley Elkin has made clear claim, by reason of the quality inherent in his work, to consideration as a major contemporary American writer. Yet though his books have inspired a following of devoted readers--both in and outside of the academic community--Elkin can be said to have largely missed out on the recognition due him. I should like to make a gesture towards righting that wrong by attempting a necessarily brief survey of Elkin's fictional works, and by making some general observations about his style and themes. For if Elkin seems to be some sort of spiritual descendant of Nathanael West in the ways in which he attaches out-loud, falling-on-the-floor humor to reflections on the human state as a steady downward plunge to death, he is nevertheless very much his own man in the manner in which he explores and develops that tradition.

Indeed, the very first words of Elkins' first published novel, Boswell (1964), seem designed to establish a keynote for the book as a whole, if not an entire career--picking up as they seem to from the ending of the film Body and Soul: "Everybody dies, everybody. Sure ... "People don't believe in death, Boswell claims, but Boswell does; as much a convert to death as Larry in O'Neill's Iceman, he seems to think that life acquires its form and definition from the fact of death, much as Wallace Stevens would say it acquired beauty. The notion that we all face death alone, and that we can cope with this situation only by a kind of manic fortitude, is developed by Boswell over the first few pages of the novel--pages that can be said to meander somewhat, while Boswell (surely named for Johnson's biographer, though Elkin leaves the allusion implicit throughout the book) reflects on what the succession of odd adventures which constitute his life has taught him. Yet Elkin believes committedly in the necessity for living an examined life. In a summation he made for me of an article he once published on the nature of plot, he defines the term in terms intrinsic to his notion of the rigor, the discipline, of his craft: "Plot is the willingness of a character to pay close and absolute attention to the situation in which he finds himself."

But not until the appearance in the novel of the "amazing" Dr. Leon Herlitz does Elkin really hit his stride--and establish his peculiar strengths. Herlitz has been a mover and shaker, a man who has influenced the course of history for well over half a century; among his other accomplishments are the facts that "he put Freud into psychiatry in the last century," made staff appointments which "account for the effective participation of the German army in the First World War," "talked Lindbergh into flying the Atlantic" and "counseled the French Existentialists." Remarkable as he is from such a fanciful description, Herlitz really comes alive when Elkin lets us hear his voice--and only then does Boswell truly come alive as well. Here is Herlitz talking about a character, Schmerler, whom he killed:

   "Who knew Schmerler? I told him a million times, 'Schmerler, you're
   an enigma, Schmerler.' It was a shame he didn't make himself
   understood better. He could have been the biggest name in the
   Zionist Movement. But no, he had to insist
   upon making the Jewish Homeland in Northern Ireland. He used to
   argue with Weizmann night and day. 'Weizmann,' he says, 'your Jew
   isn't basically a desert-oriented guy,' That was Schmerler for you.
   If you say you don't know him, there's your clue. He was always
   correct in principle, in theory. Mao used to call him 'The On-Paper
   Tiger.'"

This is a sampling of Herlitz's speech merely, and hardly establishes the man's significance to the plot (Herlitz predicts the course of people's lives, as casually as the Puerto Rican God in Bruce Jay Friedman's Steambath). What it does most clearly do, however, is to establish for us a sense of Elkin's splendid ear. …

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