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.
15 thoughts on “Reading Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: On “The Bailbondsman””
Guess I’ll have to visit the Strand in order to catch up as the New York Public Library has let another one slip out of circulation.
A quibble with the question “Who writes like this anymore.” It doesn’t seem like anybody wrote like Elkin, ever.
But there are a couple people who emulate him; Lipsyte and Moody come to mind, despite the fact that they fall far short.
Yes, Elkin is definitely a singular stylist. My question is still a pertinent one, because I think that outside of a circle of very few writers, some fellow-travelers of whom I describe above, Elkin’s approach to language, an approach indebted to the wonderful excesses of Faulkner, James, and Rabelais, among others, is sorely missing from contemporary mainstream literature, a literature privileging certain circumscribed notions about how writers should write, and what publishers should publish.
You know, I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve read of Lipsyte and Moody, but I haven’t read anything of theirs that even comes close to resembling what Elkin does. And more power to them.
Just wait until you read the next novella in the collection, The Making of Ashenden…!
What a wonderful appreciation of The Bailbondsman in particular and Elkin in general! I love Elkin, he’s my favorite, and if you really have read only a little of his work, I’d say The Dick Gibson Show and The Franchiser should go on your list next — they’re absolute musts (well, all of his books are, but those two, along with Searches & Seizures, are especial favorites).
Your comments about Elkin’s attentiveness and scrutiny, and Gass’s about Elkin being “an unmatched celebrator of the world,” are so right on — Elkin’s style, his extraordinary use of language, actually transforms the mundane and imbues it with wonder. And it reminds me of something wonderful Helen Vendler said. A few years ago, the New England Review collected reminiscences of Elkin from his friends and fellow writers.
Vendler: “Stanley and Joan and their son Philip began to go around with me and my son, and it was only then that I saw the full range of Stanley’s genius. We would all have gone to some fair where there there had been a horse-pulling contest. My un-novelistic mind would see the horses, and see how it was done, and who won, and how the children enjoyed it–but only that. Scrolling from the typewriter the next day would be the fair as seen by Stanley–every nuance, every bit of comedy, every heave of muscle, every horse–all sheer exuberance and wit…. Technicolor over drabness, gaiety over downtrodden earnestness, grotesquerie pervading the ordinary. The ordinary, to Stanley, didn’t seem drab or earnest or ‘normal’: it was a lit-up world. ‘Music I heard with you was more than music,’ was the line that occurred to me whenever I was along on a Stanley-excursion; ‘Life I saw with you was more than life.'”
Funny you should say that, Jon. Just moments ago I’d written this: “Can I just say that Stanley Elkin’s ‘The Making of Ashenden’ is one of the most luxuriantly outrageous stories I’ve ever read?”
I definitely plan to read all of Elkin. And I think I’ll just do it chronologically after this.
I didn’t know about NER’s festschrift. That quote from Vendler is great. I’m going to try to get my hands on that one. Do you have any more details about it?
Thanks for your comments, and stay tuned for my thoughts about the next two novellas.
Oh, and for fun, check this out when you get a chance: http://bigother.com/2011/03/01/a-good-man-gives-me-a-bad-man/
No kidding, I was there at the Sam Lipsyte/David Dougherty event! I wanted to ask Lipsyte what Elkin’s current reputation is among his peers and in literary circles, and Dougherty what his students think about Elkin and if he knows whether other professors assign Elkin’s books, but I clammed up. But lucky you, you got that book from Robert Brown!
You can order back issues on the NER website. Here’s the one with the special feature on Elkin:
The issue contains Robert Coover’s account of Stanley’s reading of The Making of Ashenden in front of a live audience at a Carmelite monastery in England. This was a working monastery with real monks present. You can imagine the horrified reaction.
Anyway, looking forward to your thoughts on Ashenden,
Nice to know you were at that event, too.
You know, I hope that I’m wrong, but I suspect that Elkin’s books are largely ignored by most creative writing programs and literature courses; and when they are assigned, it’s an anomaly; and that they’re championed, largely, by rabid fans and literary connoisseurs, or some fusion or confusion of the two.
Oh, here’s a link to my thoughts on “The Making of Ashenden”:
Drop a line if you can.
A great, gay old ride from Elkin. With all the dialogue, I immediately thought it should be a film and was filmed in 1976 with Jack Lemmon – Alex and the Gypsy.
The dialogue swirls and at times rivals Mamet at his best, especially the interrogation of the arrested 35-45.
What makes it so refreshing is it begins in one manner and richocets into something unexpected. The development is not in plot but character consciousness. Alexander Main is a bad man, Elkin demonstrates it and then keeps burrowing. He’s so in love with himself and filled with world-hate, he can’t help making everyone look ridiculous – to not would offend his style too much.
Elkin must have been on a scientific kick for this one, with all the references, not only in the last “I’m going crazy” conversation with Crainpool, but as you mentioned at the museum and the account of the liver fluke through a cow’s intestine to a human being – 27-28:
“Everything else in the cow pat dies off–every microbe, every virus. Just the flatworm, rising out of its matrix of shit like a befouled Phoenix to nest in the basement of a single blade of grass…”
So many passages, after his Egyptian dream he finds it was a wet dream: “…there was his cobra cock and, still spilling from it, the white sweet venom of his come.” 105
It’s subject matter is kind of rooted to the 70’s like Sidney Lumet’s 70’s films (post to come on him), yet the prose is Shakespearean.
I agree with you about Elkin’s dialogue. He’s got such an incredible ear. He might have been describing himself in this passage from “The Condominium,” the collection’s final novella: “Preminger’s ears are grown enormous, like deep-dish radio telescopes. He hears everything as he sits, neutrally naked as the rest. Their voices flow into his brain like bathwater filling a tub.” What follows, appropriately enough, is a zigzagging zaniness.
Colloquial speech bumped up against highly-stylized pronouncements, blistering tirades rhythmically shifting to comic asides, and any number of musical effects, definitely make for a resemblance to Shakespearean prose.
I’ve to second the “wonderful,” above. I’ve held off on saying anything, perhaps wrongly, in part because I didn’t want to interfere much w/ your discovery.
On the “who writes like this” question — while it’s true Elkin was & is *sui generis,* it’s also useful to understand him as an old-fashioned social & psychological realist w/ a rare degree of irony & a breathtaking stylistic gift. The bailbondsman’s quandary, in these pages, is after all grounded in moral issues that have an economic basis, a Midwestern city basis, & the passages celebrated in the post (& the comments) are among other things praise-songs to the American cornucopia. In these elements, Elkin locates his peers in folks like Saul Bellow, as much as in his friend & Washington U colleague Gass.
Jamie Gordon, in her superb novel BOGEYWOMAN (1999) at one point exclaims: “what a feast run amuck the whole earth was.” At that feast, few dig in so heartily as Elkin.
I grock this John. As much not to center something in the other arts – I think the Elkin feeling that all is fucked/I can’t understand it/I’m so mad! (not to simplify) (something I can only grasp at since I was a toddler) in the early/mid 70’s has correspondents in the fetching US cinema of that time, especially NETWORK, TAXI DRIVER and NASHVILLE.
I must admit that I’d have trouble situating Elkin within the context of “old-fashioned social & psychological realist[s],” considering his disruption of conventional narratological structures, his “jarring” (for readers used to a certain kind of profluence, to episodic rhythms) shifts of point of view, not to mention the constant qualifying, which, for this reader, serves to points away from the narrative, the supposed dream, the illusion of reality, and toward the writer of what was written (all of which is mighty fine by me).
Elkin’s affinity to Bellow is, in one way, shown through his similar tendency to embrace both the formal and the vernacular. My sense, however, is that Elkin plays with the fusion of this supposed dichotomy to stylized excess. Considering Elkin’s longstanding friendship with Gass, it’s easy to see how their mutual fondness for each other and each other’s work resulted in a kind of mirroring. If I were to distinguish between the two, and there’s much to distinguish between them, I’d generally liken Gass’s sentential approach to fugal forms, his sentences marking out themes, which are then successively restated and embellished, whereas Elkin’s sentences are, in contrast (and I don’t mean this pejoratively), looser, wild, layered sedimentally (as I argue in my post about “The Making of Ashenden”). Then again, you can find examples in each of their work that seem mighty similar to the other’s.
Greg, thatnks. Elkin had his fellow-travelers in cinema, mos def, & Scorsese & Altman reveal a similar energy, certainly.
On the other hand, consider — in a dialog-interview he had w/ Gass, published I believe in IOWA REVIEW c. 1976, Elkin got off one of the nastiest, pithiest slams of cinema I ever saw: “It’s an artform based on how long people can go without having to pee.”
Gass, in awed response: “That has the ring of truth.”