If you’ve been following along with us here at Big Other, you know that in January we read and discussed Tom McCarthy’s C (more here and here), followed that up with Mary Caponegro’s The Complexities of Intimacy (more here, here, and here) and Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (more here, here, here, and here), in February and March, respectively. We’re reading and discussing Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures in April, and I hope you’ll consider joining us as we look at the book’s collection of three novellas.
I’m embarrassed to admit how little of Elkin’s work I’ve read, especially after having just finished the first of this book’s novellas, namely, “The Bailbondsman.” In it, Elkin manifests a virtuosic command of structure, voice, character, employing a prose abounding in wit, blazing with bravura. The narrative switches from the first section’s first-person perspective to the third-person in the next, only to oscillate between the two in the third section, and ending with the third-person in the fourth, and final, section.
It’s easy to cherry-pick passages in “The Bailbondsman,” passages that demand to be read aloud in order to fully appreciate their sonorities, their rhythms, their internal logic. Here is Alexander Main, the bailbondsman in “The Bailbondsman,” a racist, misogynist, megalomaniac, hyper-articulately describing himself, his river of words branching off into any number of billabongs:
And this is what I seem to look like. Mid-fifties, a hairline like a tattered flag, and something in my mug placid and vicious, some kinky catered lust perhaps, used two times a month, say on fourteen-year-old black chicks, my cock moon-pulled, tidal-torn, and you think here’s a guy that turns tables on those girls, who produces not the fifty he’s promised but the fiver that will not even cover their expenses, and a boot in the blackbird’s ass if she whines, power and cynicism planted there on my municipal kisser and in my eyes that puts me beyond law or retribution or redress, the mien of the mean, the phiz of the respectably ferocious, like a hunter who drinks sour mash. I look like a professional, you see, a cross between a railroad conductor and a deputy sheriff. You’d expect to see yourself fun-housed in my sunglasses. This is the look of me, the reputation I propagate with my cliché of a face, my death’s pan, the features actually trained into the face. Because the truth is your hood looks up to the impassive: he loves the anesthetized look of the deputy, the sober cosmetics of the hanging judge. Give the public what it wants; the customer is always right. Yes, and business never better. No complaints. Let them scream law and order, yell crime in the streets like the tocsin of a leper. Our times—here’s to ’em. Here’s to the complicated trade routes of the drug traffic, to micro-dot tabs of LSD, to folks’ vengeant itchiness as the discrepancies bloom apace and injustices shake like underground faults. Here’s to moonshots and the confusion of priorities. To TV in the ghetto and ads in the glossies and whatever engines that raise expectations like the hard-on, and drive men up one wall and down the other. To hard times and our golden age of blood!
This seemingly maddening rambling is, of course, carefully calibrated to chart Main’s ever-shifting thoughts, thoughts raveling out from whatever subject at hand. Main’s abusive, inflammatory, and priapic thoughts (later, he mentions that even a judge’s chambers can give him an erection (46)) are mixed together with all kinds of pseudo-philosophic asides and biting observations of people, surroundings, events. It’s an overflowing cauldron of inverted clichés and colloquialisms, the demimonde’s blustery braggadocio, the hipster’s argot; overflowing with clever wordplay: “the mien of the mean”; and “the phiz of the respectably ferocious” (the slangy “phiz,” an abbreviation of physiognomy); verbing of a noun: “fun-housed”; and there are even Joycean flourishes, found, for example, in this sentence’s sizzling sibilance: “Here’s…to folks’ vengeant itchiness as the discrepancies bloom apace and injustices shake like underground faults.” Main is super-self-conscious about his volubility: later, he says, “I’m called on to make colorful conversation in my trade. Don’t think I enjoy it. I’m a serious man; such patter is distasteful to me. When day is done I like nothing better than to ask my neighbor how he’s feeling, to hear he’s well and tell him same here, to trade what we know about the weather, to be agreeable and aloof and dull. Leave poetry to the poets, style to the window trimmers” (25). He’s lying, of course, this so-called apology, serving less to distract and more to underscore how much he likes to hear himself talk. Soon after, he brags about how someone “gets the benefit of [his] colorful rhythms” (27). So we can’t trust him when he says, “My altiloquent style takes too much energy” (67), because he will always muster up some reserve store, enabling him to release another torrent of words.
What William Gass had to say about Elkin’s The Franchiser, in A Temple of Texts, certainly holds true for Searches and Seizures:
Voice: For Elkin, that is no choirboy word. Just as in Beckett, the logos is life…And what is this occupation it speaks for, but acts and their names, agents and their frailties, the textures of their environments?…things, words, sensations, signs—all one. And the mouth must work while reading him, must taste the intricate interlace of sound; wallow, as I now am, in the wine of the word.
Gass also describes how Elkin “wrote for the grace of it, for he was an unmatched celebrator of the world, and most particularly of its unseemliness, its vulgarity, its aches and its envies, its lowlifes, its absurd turns, its apparently ineradicable superstitions—still for the grace of it…only that.” And this is perhaps what is most striking about Elkin’s prose in “The Bailbondsman”: he paradoxically makes something graceful out of something disgraceful, a whole lot of something out of a whole lot of what is, seemingly, nothing.
Elkin’s commanding style explodes whenever his eye lands on something. The abovementioned judge’s chambers is described as follows:
All that oak paneling—brown is your color of civilization—dark as bark, those long earthen fillets of wood like a room made out of cellos, the faint oily order of care (I remember the smell), the deep brass fittings like metals in museums, the lovely heavy leathers adumbrating strap, blood sports—geez, it’s terrific. The desk as big as a piano, and the deep, clean ashtrays on its wide top. And the souvenirs. These guys have been officers in wars, served on commissions. Their official surfaces trail a spoor of the public history: a President’s pen ammunitions a marble bore, Nuremburg memorabilia, a political cartoonist’s original caricature framed on the desk in love’s egotistic inversion, the flier’s short snorter aspicked in paperweight; toys, some pal industrialist’s miniature prototype—all respectability’s groovy junk. And cloudy, obscure prints on the walls, deft hunts and European capitals in old centuries, downtown London before the fire, Berlin’s Inns of Court. A fat globe of the world rises like an immense soft-boiled egg in an eggcup, girdled by a wide wooden orbit that catwalks its equatorial waist. Red calf spines of law-books glow behind glass. Only the flag distracts—an absurd bouquet drooping from a queer umbrella stand on three claw feet with metallic, undifferentiated toes. The judges black robe is snagged on a hatrack (46).
Who writes like this anymore? Hardly anybody, hardly more than what you’d be able to flick off with the fingers of a single hand, maybe two. There’s Gass, of course, who shares Elkin’s Rabelaisian obsessive inventorying; there’s Mary Caponegro, who’s still writing prose that pummels, that is unafraid of the color purple; there’s Alexander Theroux, whose bombastic style also seems to be an anachronism; there’s Coover, whose peculiar blend of excess and the uncanny still inspires; and there’s Barth, too. (Can we still add Paul West, who is now struggling with aphasia, to this list?) The passage above is just one of any number of passages in “The Bailbondsman” that rings with musicality. Here you find internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration; textural chewiness: all the o’s in “wood like a room made out of cellos, the faint oily order”; and metaphoric play, my favorite of which is this one: “A fat globe of the world rises like an immense soft-boiled egg in an eggcup, girdled by a wide wooden orbit that catwalks its equatorial waist.”
No, there aren’t many writers out there who are going to slow down enough to take a look at someone’s shoes, of a guard’s, for instance, let alone describe them:
Main notes his shoes, the heavy, cumbersome shoe shape like some pure idea of foot in a child’s drawing. The broad black leather facing, a taut vault of hide, a sausage, all its tensions resolved as if ribbed by steel or some hideous flush fist of foot. The shine speaks for itself. There is discipline in it, duty, and he wonders if there is a changing room somewhere where the men polish these stout casings, get them that lusterless, evenly faded black that has no equivalent in nature (58).
For Elkin, the world is a cabinet of curiosities. Yes, shoes are something most writers wouldn’t even look at, let alone describe, but Elkin goes deeper, falling, instead, into a reverie about these shoes, these shoes somehow universalized into an ideal only to be particularized, concretized by details, those details full of alliteration (“flush fist of foot”; all those “sh” words sprinkled throughout), and rhyme (“taut vault”), and metaphorical appositives (“a taut vault of hide, a sausage”). And there are many such moments in this novella, moments of intense attentiveness, a kind of scrutiny that entertains as much as it almost reprimands you for how much you miss trudging through your own inevitably mundane world. Through Main’s eyes, a sidewalk café becomes a site of romance (71), an office desk becomes a container of untold baubles (72), a barbershop becomes a cornucopia of eyecandy (73), and a hotel room becomes a palace of dazzling details (80).
In “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James admonishes the would-be writer to sharpen their focus, to hone their powers of observation, to persist in the struggle to see clearly, to wipe the scales from his or her own eyes:
The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it — this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, “Write from experience, and experience only,” I should feel that this was a rather tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”
How many writers are willing to examine things until what is not immediately apparent is seemingly suddenly revealed? How many writers have the necessary skills, have cultivated the necessary patience, to have discernment, to draw wisdom from knowledge? How many writers are really distinguishable from the masses of people on whom everything, ostensibly, is lost? As we see what Alexander Main sees, a man with “a marksman’s eye” (3), a man who, despite having tremendous faculties, is blinded by prejudice, by ignorance, a man who, as the worn saying goes, sees through a glass, darkly, we see that it is Elkin, in fact, on whom nothing is lost. One recurring thing that Main sees, is actually obsessed with, is teeth. Along with the “sunset of a man’s fingernails,” Main notes “which [of the man’s] teeth need attention” (3). At the museum, it is the teeth he finds in the exhibits that attract most of his attention:
He sees the tooth of the giant panda, large as a small seashell, the impression across its broad grinding surface like a curled fetus. Next to it a pair of molars from an orang-utan, the shape and shade of old dice, three deep holes in each like a goblin’s face, history throwing a six. There’s the dentin of a wild pig, dark as root beer, the pulp chambers in cross section like the white veins in liver. He sees the enormous tooth of a rhinoceros, taking the card’s word for it. It does not even resemble a tooth; it is deep, chambered as a lock. In another case there is a comb of kangaroo jaw, four teeth blooming from the bone like a cactus (59).
Main is obsessed with teeth: “It is teeth that he comes back again and again to see, as if these were the distillate of the animal’s soul, the cutting, biting edge of its passion and life” (60). For Main, the ability to discern what a set of teeth means goes beyond what one would call observation, and is likened, instead, to a kind of omniscience:
God sees through my bright caps, knows what’s beneath them, sees right down to the gums, the pink base of my being, the cloudy tracings in which the teeth stand parallel as staves. And under the gums the cementum-sheathed roots hooking bone, seeking wild handhold and purchase like some apraxic mountaineer. God knows my jaws (70).
Main, though, is brought down a few pegs, as it’s revealed that he “didn’t even know natural history; without the cards by the specimens in the cases in the museum he could not have told you about the teeth which so fascinated him (107).
My favorite section of the novella is the final section, which begins with a dream about a grave robbery, and ends with the anti-hero’s total mental breakdown. More on this later, maybe.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.