Post Road Magazine #24

The Work of Stanley Elkin

Seth Fried

My junior year of college, a friend of mine presented me with a book titled Stanley Elkin's Greatest Hits. The friend remarked that the book was strange and that he thought I might like it. He also mentioned that Elkin was a gifted and prolific writer who never quite got his due. He and I then proceeded to talk awhile about the writers who end up being remembered over time and (we sat in our school's cafeteria passing this Elkin book back and forth while we talked, examining it) the ones who don't.

Stanley Elkin's Greatest Hits didn't look like anything that would interest me. There's the old adage about a book and its cover, but the cover of this book was particularly bad. It was designed to look like a plain brownpaper package bound with white twine. There were fake address labels on the front bearing hamfisted warnings in a cartoonish font: "DANGER!" "EXPLOSIVE CONTENTS" "OPEN AT YOUR OWN RISK." Even the title seemed sort of dorky in its informality, the kind of saccharine wackiness you might expect from a rush hour DJ. However, I did eventually open Greatest Hits to its first pages where I was immediately thrown in to one of Elkin's comic masterpieces, a novella titled The Making of Ashenden.

The novella's protagonist is Brewster Ashenden, a millionaire by birth who is best described in his own words:

Last winter I fought a duel. I saw a man whipping his dog and called him out. Pistols at fourteen paces. The fellow—a prince, a wastrel—could get no one to act his second so I did it myself, giving him pointers, calling the adjustments for windage, and at last standing still for him as one of those FBI silhouettes, my vitals (we were on a beach, I wore no shirt, just my bathing suit, the sun, rising over his shoulder, spotlighting me) clear as marked meat on a butcher's diagram, my Valentine heart vaulting toward the barrel of his pistol. He fired and missed and I threw my pistol into the sea. He wept, and I took him back to the house and gave him a good price for the dog.

The above passage is actually one of his more conservative boasts. Throughout the course of the story Ashenden brags about having served as a fighter pilot in the RAF, having run with the bulls in Pamplona ("not in front of them, with them"), and having acted as a freelance spy against Greek and South American juntas. He also admits to dating women from all walks of life: "models, show girls, starlets, actresses, tennis professionals, singers, and the daughters of the diplomats of most the nations of the free world. All walks."

Ashenden is likable in that he is guilelessly unlikable. His buoyant self-esteem is so over the top that it begins to touch on something universal. More than just a funny conceit, his tendency to be self-pleased and self-congratulatory is a serious parody of the way all individuals are hardwired to see themselves at the center of everything, even nature. In fact, the novella's conclusion features a protracted scene in which Ashenden is—spoiler alert—raped by a female bear. This ridiculous and brilliant satire of the human ego, I would learn later, is a prominent feature in all Elkin's work.

Far from the impression made by the book's cover, Elkin's humor isn't corny at all—it's sharp and subversive. Reading Elkin for the first time, I also noticed right away how brisk and yet how dense the language is. Elkin's prose is exceedingly easy to read but at the same time somewhat overwhelming. His tone frequently resembles that of a manic carnival barker. He has a tendency to engage in acrobatic verbal vamping, resulting in impressive, muscular riffs that can last for pages.

The more books of his I went on to read and enjoy, the more my mind became occupied with the conversation I'd had with my friend. I began to wonder why so few people seemed to be reading him. Elkin wrote fourteen books of fiction. He won the National Book Critics Circle Award twice and was a finalist for the National Book Award. But despite his critical success, none of his books enjoyed popular success. When I mention him to editors and fellow writers today, most of them haven't even heard of him. What's more, on the countless occasions I have recommended Elkin, those who go on to read him tend to give me an earful afterward about how much they hated whatever book of his I convinced them to read. Occasionally I find someone who genuinely seems to enjoy Elkin, but more often than not the reactions are unequivocally negative.

The three major complaints my acquaintances tend to direct at his work are as follows:

1.) He is not funny.

2.) His prose style is annoying.

3.) The worldview in his fiction is overly morbid and ugly.

Obviously, the first and second items fall under the jurisdiction of de gustibus non est disputandum. But the third (which is the most frequently repeated among different acquaintances and which almost always features the word "ugly") is one that I feel warrants the most debate.

The contention that Elkin's work is particularly morbid/ugly is strange when one considers the success of morbid humorists like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. Books like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five are incredibly grim. The death tolls in Vonnegut's books are especially high. His two most beloved works prominently feature a famous atrocity and a fictional apocalypse respectively, whereas the action in Elkin's books is comparatively harmless. Elkin's protagonists frequently contemplate death, but few characters in his narratives ever actually die.

Other than his attention to language, the main difference between Elkin's work and that of other morbid humorists is that Elkin did not comment on the nature of society as much as on the nature of individuals. Stanley Elkin was examining the absurdities and madness of human experience. Books like Slaughterhouse Five encourage readers to ask, "Why do people act the way they do?" Elkin's books provoke readers into asking, "Why do I act the way I do?" The second is a much more uncomfortable line of thought than the first. A book depicting war atrocities allows a reader to sit back and judge others for having committed them, while Elkin's work forces a conscientious reader to face his or her own dysfunctions. Could that be the distinction that causes my acquaintances to dislike Elkin's work so much?

When novelist Anita Shreve once remarked on the insularity of the American literary scene in an essay for New York Times Magazine, she pointed out that "American stories attempt to draw readers in; many of the best foreign stories challenge them." This sentiment seems to have implications regarding my acquaintances' complaints that Elkin's style is annoying and his worldview ugly. Both accusations reveal a peculiar, customer-service attitude toward art, in which challenging works are valued less. Given Elkin's self-assured prose style and his commentary on human experience, perhaps his lack of an audience is due to American readers' expectation to be drawn in and cajoled.

I will be the first to admit that this is all conjecture at best. At worst it is a tenuous, far-fetched rationalization for why I think I am in the right for being a fan of Stanley Elkin. However, one has to worry about a culture that is only willing to listen to artists who tell it what it wants to hear. The process of personal growth is rarely entertaining. More often than not it is incredibly painful. That is why the most important books are the ones that initially seem so uninviting. In this instance, I almost didn't get past the cover.

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