Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Author profile: Stanley Elkin

Not long ago, a friend gave me a copy of Stanley Elkin’s novel A Bad Man. I’d never heard of him before; a number of his books have been republished by Dalkey Archive Press, but they’re not easily found everywhere. On the cover of the Avon trade paperback edition is, strangely, a quote taken from the novel itself:

They came to a last steel door. The guard moved Feldman against the wall with the muzzle of his machine gun. “Fix your tie,” he said, “or I’ll kill you.”
I’ve never been crazy about this kind of ad hype, but... that’s a good one.

A Bad Man concerns Leo Feldman, a department store owner whose obsessive need to provide everything (everything) for his customers eventually lands him in prison.

That’s about all the plot summary that can be managed, because Elkin’s narrative weaves off the tracks of reality around page 10 and realigns itself every once in a while, just to catch its breath. The prison is run by a Byzantine permission system that changes from inmate to inmate (and guard to guard). Feldman, upon arrival, is dressed in a blue “fool’s suit” (thus identifying him as a bad man); later he finds himself amidst a dinner party hosted by the warden; even later, he finds himself amidst the warden’s wife. Said warden reigns, godlike, over the prison, and seems to have chosen Feldman to be his special project.

It’s all very strange, and gloriously well-done at that; Elkin’s prose zigzags and corkscrews, his language sharp, his images startling:
There was only the breathing in all the cells. It was a sustained, continuous sigh, the men’s breath going and coming like hissed, sibilant wind. Somewhere down the cellblock he heard a toilet flush. Someone wrenched up phlegm from a sour throat. In their sleep men turned uncomfortably on their narrow cots. Rolling, they groaned. He heard farts, coughs, the clipped, telescoped declarations of dreamed speech. No one was escaping. All cells were locked. They were cornered, all of them. No one could get in.
Elkin was born in New York City in 1930, and apparently suffered from multiple sclerosis for most of his adult life (he died in 1995). Indeed, an attitude that one's own body is the worst prison imaginable permeates: there’s a lengthy sequence in A Bad Man where Feldman straps himself into an electric chair, in a desperate attempt to do what he thinks is the warden’s bidding. Issues of morality and ideology are Elkin’s primary concern; his characters are their own worst enemies, especially when imprisoned, with no one but themselves to answer to.

And the writing! Oh, my, the writing. Funny, prickly, cynical, outlandish. Elkin is a writer’s writer, in the sense that plot takes a backseat to the prismatic expression of ideas. He taught at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri until his death, and like his contemporaries he viewed the style of the 19th-century novel to be hopelessly out of date in a culture where the threat of total global annihilation is very real. He’s one of those writers whose technique is stronger than his storytelling; you don’t necessarily care what he’s saying, but how he’s saying it. Surrealistic touches in an Elkin novel aren’t as gimmicky as they might be in one by, say, Tom Robbins; Elkin crawls right down to his characters’ levels, however low they might be, and sees, through their eyes, a world run mad by order.


Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964)
A Bad Man (1965)
Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers: Stories (1966)
The Dick Gibson Show (1970)
Searches and Seizures: Three Novellas (1973)
The Franchiser (1976)
The Coffee Room (1978) (radio play)
The Living End (1979)
George Mills (1982)
Early Elkin (1985)
The Magic Kingdom (1985)
The Rabbi of Lud (1987)
The Six-Year-Old Man (1988)
The MacGuffin (1991)
Pieces of Soap: Essays (1992)
Van Gogh’s Room at Arles: Three Novellas (1992)
Mrs. Ted Bliss (1995)

Further resources:

“Reading Stanley Elkin” by Rick Moody
September 1974 interview with Stanley Elkin from The Paris Review (PDF)
Encarta entry on Stanley Elkin

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