The Riotous, Wounded Wit of Stanley Elkin: On Illness as Muse
It's the voice of a carnival barker. It's the voice of an auctioneer. It's the rhythm of beat poetry, the language of the malt shop, the punctuation of a PhD. It's New York City delis and Midwestern college towns and, there, in the background, a slow-moving pain-in-the-ass-wheelchair.
It's the voice of Stanley Elkin.
Stanley Elkin was the son of a traveling costume jewelry salesman, which may account for the sales-y cadence of Elkin's prose. In "My Father's Life" Elkin wrote that his father was a great storyteller and a handsome and generous man -- "expansive and male, ostentatious as the sexually puffed throats of birds" -- but also a snob. His was the vulnerable snobbery of a man who built his own fortune and was sensitive about his background; he grew up on Hester Street in the early years of the twentieth century, way back before it was hip to live on the Lower East Side. It didn't matter, his son still looked up to him, "tried to be him."
Elkin, in contrast, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, spending summers vacationing on the Ramapo River in New Jersey. This was the thirties and forties, when "men wore hats and women looked like telephone operators" ("A Kinsey Report"), and Elkin's was a life of privilege and ease. "My daddy's rich and my ma is good lookin'," he paraphrased Gershwin in "Foreword to Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers." Elkin went to college at the University of Illinois, did his time in the army, got married to an artist named Joan, and sold his first short story to Epoch in 1957, the same year he turned twenty-seven. In 1958 his father died -- he'd had not one or two but four heart attacks by then -- and gone was the man whose gift for storytelling had inspired Elkin's career.
Over the next decade Elkin published two well-received novels -- Boswell: A Modern Comedy and A Bad Man -- as well as a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers. But he would share more with his father than a knack for storytelling: they both occupied broken bodies. It wasn't until after Elkin's heart attack in 1968 (the first of three, the last of which would kill him) that he began writing essays.
They aren't what he's known for, the essays. No, Elkin is mostly remembered for his fiction. For his humor, absurdism, and complex prose ("like a jazz artist who would go off on riffs," said William Gass, Elkin's colleague at Washington University). He wrote ten novels and a plethora of short stories and novellas, and was awarded for many of them -- including two National Book Critics Circle Awards (for George Mills and Mrs. Ted Bliss).
But the essays, like the sketches of a talented sculptor, both give the reader access to the man behind the fiction and are works of art in their own right: rollicking and rhythmic, sometimes full of rage and sometimes so hilarious that the reader has no recourse but to snort aloud. His essays have the observant cynicism of David Foster Wallace and the restless anxiety of Geoff Dyer, but he started writing them back when Wallace and Dyer were still just kids.
Elkin's first published personal essay, "A Preface to the Sixties (But I Am Getting Ahead of Myself)," was printed in 1971, and in it he argues that inspiration is as "real as digestion." He gives an account of being struck by inspiration for a short story, and poses the idea that talent might be "a critical faculty at least as much as a creative one" -- the ability to look at a situation and see a story. It's pretty standard this-is-how-I-write-fiction fare, though his prose is nice and he does manage to create a likable narrator; no small task in a personal essay. One year later, Elkin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
MS can do a thousand things to a person -- it can disable limbs, affect cognition, blur vision, cause fatigue... the list goes on. Elkin had to buy a cane pretty soon after the diagnosis. At first, he writes in "Pieces of Soap," he used his cane "larkily, boulevardierly, like Fred Astaire, say, like a prop for my disease," but by the end of the decade he required a leg brace, and later a wheelchair. Fortunately -- for the reader as much as for Elkin -- he didn't lose cognitive ability. He wrote, if anything, even better than he did before, especially in his essays, which were suddenly anything but standard fare. Elkin explains this change in "Foreword to Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers": "As the old saying should go, as long as you've got your health you've got your na´vetÚ. I lost the one, I lost the other, and maybe that's what led me to revenge -- a writer's revenge anyway; the revenge, I mean, of style."
And what a style! It's one of long, whiz-bang sentences; elaborate as Proust, colloquial as a sales pitch. "Stanley folds sentences inside sentences and pushes things further than they have any business being pushed," the novelist Geoffrey Wolff said to Ken Emerson for The New York Times. Emerson elaborated, noting that Elkin's sentences are "almost impossible to quote out of context." Not just because of their length and complexity but also because of their content -- Elkin had no qualms about being a "dirty old man," and his prose is often peppered with profanity and obscenity. He once read aloud in a monastery a bestiality scene from his novella The Making of Ashenden. The monks canceled all future literary events.
At their best, Elkin's sentences immerse the reader in waves of sound, closer to poetry than prose. As an example, here is just one sentence from "Pieces of Soap," the practically perfect title essay of his only nonfiction collection and an account of his own immense and improbable soap collection:
Two or three hundred pounds of wrapped motel, hotel, airline, railway, and steamer soaps and others, too, some of which I have and some of which I have seen only (from the stately homes of England, royal weddings, the sealed tombs of pharaohs, from all impressive, high-ticket places -- the soaps of San Marino like an intimate postage, the Great Wall, soaps of the poles and trade winds) in imagination -- equatorial soaps, space soaps, soaps of the jet streams and ocean currents.
He collects soaps because his dad always brought soap home from his sales trips. Unlike his father, however, Elkin doesn't actually use the soaps. With the "Dewey decimal heart" of the obsessed, he refuses to allow anyone to use them, and when a few bars are missing after a visit from the cleaning lady, he asks his wife, Joan (to whom all his books are dedicated), to demand of the woman that she never use his soaps again. "No, I'd feel ridiculous explaining how important your soaps are to you," answers Joan, who is frequently the voice of reason in his essays (and, by all accounts, in his life).
In "Pieces of Soap," as in almost all of Elkin's essays, MS is always lurking in the background, affecting each aspect of his daily life. He cannot run, jump, or drive; he cannot button the top buttons of his shirt or take a bath in a tub without handicap bars. It's a "second infancy," he writes in "An American in California," as his travels are managed by a team of friends and colleagues, so that Elkin is "passed off from hand to hand" in his "bucket-brigade life." Secondary health issues pop up frequently. A friend advises him that the monumental thirst he experiences while traveling is due to stress, and Elkin ponders the validity of his friend's impromptu diagnosis: "It could be. His father before him was a doctor. Mine, before me, was a patient."
Elkin writes about himself, but he's not a navel-gazing essayist; he is a man in the world, even if it's difficult for him to physically maneuver in it. In his essays he interviews a whoopee-cushion salesman, a racetrack aficionado, and several scholars at the Newberry Library, among others, and our introductions to these characters are filtered through Elkin's mortality-obsessed brain, where thoughts spiral out in ribbons of sales-speak, carnival barker speech. Like some of the best humor, his comes from sorrow, even if it's not always expressed outright: he lives in pain and he will die.
Near the end of "Pieces of Soap," Elkin sees a doctor who tells him that a cure for MS might be as close as ten years away. Odds were against Elkin living that long (he didn't -- the essay was first published in 1990 and Elkin died in 1995), and he responds: "Ten years? In ten years you can fuck multiple sclerosis." He goes home. He thinks. He frets. He takes decisive, dramatic action... but no spoilers here!
There are hints of this struggle in his fiction, but we witness it firsthand in his essays: "I publicly whine," he admits. "I don't keep myself to myself, which is where, in all probability, I probably belong." But this is no standard illness-narrative, and Elkin doesn't want our pity or our admiration. He is a dirty old man (in "What's in a Name?" he argues that Stanley is a name for someone who might molest a kid), he is difficult and demanding, he is a "heart-bypassed, foot-braced, chip-toothed, balding old gent, morning-breath'd all hours of the day and night, a lowardly mobile, body-imaged chap." He is not a "holy cripple"; he is deeply flawed.
For most of us, our last days are probably going to be as inelegant as Elkin trying to exit a shower without a grab-bar in a California hotel room. His body's limitations held him back; had he not been a writer, he might have become inescapably bitter, but he writes his way through the pain with humor. On the page, his wounds are his strength, and however dirty or whiny he professes to be, the act of writing preserved his "bobby-soxer heart." He was as generous with words as his father was with money, and in the end, Elkin's essays helped him become both the writer and the man he wanted to be.