Ken Emerson, in his rather fine article “The Indecorous, Rabelaisian, Convoluted Righteousness of Stanley Elkin” (March 3, 1991) writes:
Elkin, no lover of those writers he has called “the Minimalistas,” when advised by an editor that “less is more,” retorted, “I don’t believe less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough.”
Later in that article, Elkin’s highly-stylized prose is given some attention, Elkin explaining that, just like the “highly wrought sentences” of his beloved James and Faulkner, his sentences take their convoluted form because of “‘the qualifying, the constant qualifying. By that process you’re doing a kind of whittling, a kind of honing to the bone, until you finally get whatever the hell it is you’re looking for. It’s an exercise in sculpture, chipping away at the rock until you find the nose,’” Elkin going on to explain that his sentences are also
“my way of making music. I listen to jazz, and I hope that some of what my language is doing is jazzlike.” Thus qualification is accompanied by a kind of improvisation. “I ride a pretty tight shotgun on myself, believe it or not, but when, in the course of human events, something occurs to me that gives a particular kick to a sentence, I’ll probably let it past. I’m aware it’s not decorous, I’m aware it’s not classical, but I’m willing to do it.”
Some critics have complained of Elkin’s willingness to wing it not only on the micro-level of the sentence, but also on the higher plane of narrative structure. “Is there a writer anywhere more exasperating or whom we read with more delight and dismay than Stanley Elkin?” Leslie Epstein once wrote, decrying the absence in his work of the “final belief in order, in coherence, in cause, that breathes life into the novel.”
No, I don’t find Elkin exasperating, nor do I read him with dismay. No, it is timidly qualified praise, the kind of hedged-bets-praise that Epstein offers, that I read with dismay; Epstein’s idea that order and coherence and cause (or, rather, his idea about what those things are) are what “breathes life into the novel” is not only a narrow and an unnecessarily confining idea, but also an ahistorical one, for the novel, like love, is a many-splendored thing, having a far more complex history. Epstein appeals to some imagined standard of what a novel is, that is, that the novel must proceed linearly, while still allowing for some deviations from that progression, a standard, that, if anything, is a more recent standard, since any history of the novel must include the far older tradition of disjunction, fracture, and digression, elements which may be frowned on in contemporary mainstream literature, but elements that are, historically, much more prevalent than the more conventional and static ideas of what the novel should be.
Of the three novellas in Searches and Seizures, it is “The Making of Ashenden” that, perhaps, best exemplifies Elkin’s singular style, its outrageous and outré elements surpassing all expectation. As I recently argued elsewhere, regarding David Foster Wallace, Elkin is, among many other things, an incredible, no, virtuosic, stylist; and as a stylist, especially any singular stylist, he necessarily deals with the materiality of language (I should note that any writer also and inevitably works with words as material, but far less apparently and pleasurably, aesthetically, than a stylist does, especially a singular stylist, e.g., Wallace, Woolf, Gass, Gaddis, Schutt, Elkin, Caponegro, Joyce, Stevens, Brock-Broido, etc.). The greater the degree of the play with the materials (that is, the sonorities, the textural minutiae of syntax and semantics, but also the play with forms, with structure, all indicating that what is built was, in fact, built by someone, namely, the author), the greater the degree of authorial presence (I should also say that, an awful writer, ironically, also brings greater, though negative, attention to themselves, and woe to them), and the artifice of their project, that is, the skillfully contrived devices that any writer necessarily uses to create the narrative, the fiction.
Yes, I don’t think that a writer can ever truly be invisible—while reading, I always see the author pointing, in some way or ways, to him- or herself; what differs is the degree of self-referentiality. There are readers, I suppose, who can totally suspend their disbelief, and allow themselves to be ensconced in an imaginary world, and will, in obeisance to that humbug of a wizard, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain. For whatever it’s worth, I’m not one of those readers, finding myself often looking at the supposedly invisible wires, the trompe l’oeil backgrounds, the writer putting words in everyone’s mouth. No, I’m not one of those readers, and while I sometimes wish I didn’t see the wires, I actually find a lot of pleasure in seeing the artist at his or her work. Yes, fortunately, I do find myself transported while reading; if I didn’t, I would probably have to stop reading—what would be the point? While reading, I want to be taken somewhere else, but the vehicle of that transport is largely language, through the examination of how the artist uses rhetorical devices to make his or her art, some elements of which I briefly described above.
Elkin’s narratives tend to have outrageous premises and detours, and “The Making of Ashenden” is especially outrageous (what other word is there to describe what is, essentially, a screwball comedy that explodes into a wild fantasia, or, better put a lyrical reverie on an act of bestiality?). Here is Ashenden forced by a Kamchatkan brown bear in heat to thrust his “hand into her wet nest”:
There was the quality of steamy mound, a transitional texture between skin and meat, as if the bear’s twat were something butchered perhaps, a mysterious cut tumid with blood and the color of a strawberry ice-cream soda, a sexual steak. Those were its red lips. He had grazed them with his knuckles going in, and the bear jerked forward, a shudder of flesh, a spasm, a bump, a grind. Frenzied, it drew his hand on. He made a fist but the bear groaned and tugged more fiercely at Ashenden’s sleeve. He was inside. It was like being up to his wrist in dung, an a hot jello of backing brick fretted with awful straw. The bear’s vaginal muscles contracted; the pressure was terrific, and the bones in his hand massively cramped. He tried to pull his fist out but it was welded to the bear’s cunt. Then the bear’s muscles relaxed and he forced his fist open inside her, his hand opening in a thick medium of mucoid strings, wet gutty filaments, moist pipes like the fingers for terrible gloves. Appalled, he pulled back with all his might and his wrist and hand, greased by the bear, slid out, trailing a horrible suction, a concupiscent comet. He waved the hand in front of his face and the stink came off his fingertips like flames from a shaken candelabra, an odor of metal fruit, of something boiled years, of the center of the earth, filthy laundry, powerful as the stench of jewels and rare metals, of atoms and the waves of light (180).
Elkin transforms an awful moment, a moment of undeniable terror, into something beautiful, a beauty marked by its metaphoric play, and also by his, as Elkin puts it, “qualifying, the constant qualifying,” these qualifications layering like the process of sedimentation, which pertains to variously sized objects, e.g., large forms layering against each other, granular deposits, suspensions of dust and pollen particles, and even to arrangements on the molecular level; Elkin’s qualifications also taking on various forms and sizes. That final sentence in the passage above, for instance, which begins with a simile to describe how the stink wafted from Ashenden’s fingers, offers four qualifying descriptions of the stink, only to further qualify the qualifications with two descriptive layers regarding how powerful that stink was.
Foreplay continues for almost five pages, which leads toward further intimacy:
He kissed its mouth and vaulted his tongue over her teeth, probing with it for the roof of her mouth. Then the bear’s tongue was in his throat, not horrible, only strange, the cunning length and marvelous flexibility an avatar of flesh, as if life were in it like an essence sealed in a tube, and event the breath, the taste of living, rutting bear, delicious to him as the taste of poisons vouchsafed not to kill him, as the taste of a pal’s bowel or a parent’s fats and privates (185).
Elkin doesn’t end there, of course, instead finally offering one of the most amazing spectacles I’ve ever encountered in literature, challenged only by a twenty-page, or so, account of sex between a saxophone-playing bear and a woman in Rafi Zabor’s A Bear Comes Home (it’s been years since I’ve read it, so I can’t be sure about the quality of that novel’s prose):
He entered her from the rear, and oddly he had never felt so male, so much the man, as when he was inside her. Their position reinforced this, the bear before him, stooped, gymnastically leaning forward as in the beginning of a handstand, and he behind as if he drove sled dogs. He might have been upright in a chariot, some Greek combination of man and bear exiled in stars for a broken rule. So good was it all that he did not even pause to wonder how he fit. He fit, that’s all. Whether swollen beyond ordinary length himself or adjusted to by some stretch-sock principle of bear cunt (like a ring in a dime store that snugs any finger), he fit. “He fit, he fit and that was it,” he crooned happily, and moved this way and that in the warm syrups of the beast, united with her, ecstatic, transcendent, not knowing where his cock left off and the bear began. Not deadened, however, not like a novocained presence of tongue in the mouth or the alien feel of a scar, in fact never so filled with sensation, every nerve in his body alive with delight, even his broken hand, even that, the nerves rearing, it seemed, hind-legged almost, revolting under their impossible burden of pleasure, vertiginous at the prospect of such orgasm, counseling Ashenden to back off, go slow, back off or the nerves would burst, a new lovely energy like love’s atoms split. And even before he came, he felt addicted, hooked; where would his next high come from, he wondered almost in despair, and how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, and what awfulness must follow such rising expectations? (186)
Ken Emerson, in the abovementioned article, recounts how Elkin read “The Making of Ashenden” at a monastery, his audience consisting “of students from the University of Kent…augmented by monks” and “teen-age girls on a weekend retreat”:
This was, Elkin recalls, in 1971 or 1972. Nothing he had read thus far from his novella “The Making of Ashenden,” at that time yet to be published, could have offended virgin ears. It begins innocently enough as a spoof of the idle and fatuously rich, a drawing-room, almost Noel Coward comedy. But the refreshments had interrupted Elkin just before he got to the rough stuff: a graphic description, at once obscene, lyrical and hilarious, of sexual intercourse between his twit protagonist and an extremely demanding Kamchatkan brown bear.
What was he to do? What else could he do but resume reading as his audience tried to digest the incongruous comestibles? When he reached the end, more than stomachs were rumbling. “I know why you wrote that story,” one girl protested. (Here Elkin, as he retells the tale, assumes a cockney accent.) “Because you’re the antichrist!” University students jumped to Elkin’s defense, a brawl nearly ensued, and the affronted monks not only refused payment for their fare but also canceled all future literary evenings.
Elkin is a courageous writer, a writer with not only a deft hand, but an unwavering eye, an eye that always strips away layers, a hand that adds layers in order to recount what has been seen.
(Note: I wrote about “The Bailbondsman,” the collection’s first novella HERE.)
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published 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, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.