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Reading Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: “The Making of Ashenden”

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.)

10 thoughts on “Reading Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: “The Making of Ashenden”

  1. More splendid work, John, & you’re pretty courageous yourself, going directly to the foreplay with the bear.

    I can’t help but notice that this time you left H. James pretty much out of your post, other than citing Elkin’s own fondness for that writer. Yet one thing I’d add here is that “Asheden” strikes me as one of Elkin’s most Jamesian tales. Rarely did he liberate his characters from the burdens of making ends meet. In THE FRANCHISER the financial windfall follows a period of strain & then gets risked in the hotel business, & even when Elkin sent his man to Hell, in “The Conventional Wisdom” (from THE LIVING END), he first puts the poor damned fool through the struggle to keep a liquor store afloat.

    The job, nine times out of ten, is a great spur to Elkin’s imagination. As he said in interview more than once, he loved shoptalk. But Asheden has no shoptalk. Thanks to his copyright on “Close Cover Before Striking,” he never has to worry much about money. He’s as free, that is, as one of the businessmen too big to fail in James.

    Yet where does this freedom lead our man, in Elkin? To a subtle Italian countess? Far from it, in this masterful novella, & yet the language hollers, the imagination candles, as richly as ever.

    1. Thanks, John.

      You know, having taken a brief (I hope) detour from my reading all of James’s novels (after reading The Golden Bowl, I backtracked and read the first eight novels in chronological order), I’ve become increasingly wary of facile comparisons to James. Elkin definitely shares some stylistic affinities with James, as evinced in his sprawling sentential convolutions, lapidary descriptions, deep investigations of consciousness, etc. (but even here, I have to note that even within the similarities there are so many differences, and this isn’t even addressing their respective works’ vast difference in tone: diction, style, and opinion; and in mood: the atmosphere evoked by the setting, and by how the characters interact with that setting and with each other); and while I thought, intermittently, about James, Gass, Rabelais, Faulkner, and Caponegro (and other arguably “baroque” stylists) while I was reading Elkin, I was more often thinking about Elkin, a signal, I think, of his singularity. Nobody comes out of nowhere, of course, but some, like Elkin, seemingly do, or, rather, fool you, albeit temporarily, into thinking they do.

  2. How funny that you would mention one of my favorite obscure novels, The Bear Comes Home, in the same piece where you describe an author likening his sentences to jazz, without mentioning the most striking feature of Zabor’s novel — nevermind the affecting sex scene with the bear person — which is its astonishingly jazz-like descriptions of the process of jazz improvisation! And I’m not even much of a jazz fan. Perhaps if you didn’t read it aloud to someone, as I happened to do, it’s just possible you might not have noticed the jazz prose? (I wish I could post an excerpt, but it would probably take me hours to find it.)

    I’m no great judge of prose, and it’s been some years since I read it as well, so I won’t try to rate its quality, but I remember the story and the experience of reading it with great fondness, except that I think there was a section of maybe 50-100 pages where I remember thinking it got awfully wordy and rambled on for a time. Anyway, it’s exciting just to encounter someone else who’s read it.

    Tell me, won’t you, that you do remember the jazz prose?

    1. Well, Neo, I was comparing similar events, although in Elkin’s novella it is a man (the protagonist) having sex with a female bear, and in Zabor’s novel it was a male bear ((the protagonist) having sex with a woman.

      I do remember enjoying, at the time, Zabor’s descriptions of the Bear’s saxophone practice routines, and the descriptions of his and his bandmates’ performances as well. Again, it’s been years since I read it, so I can’t say anything about the quality of its prose (I confess that I cringe at the phrase “jazz prose.” I’m a massive fan of both Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, two artists the Bear in Zabor’s novel adored and, I believe, modeled his own aesthetic after. Wasn’t there a scene with a bird that, the Bear thinks, chirps a Monk motif? Also, I seem to recall Zabor’s having been a musician as well, a drummer, maybe.

      Hearing about fifty to a hundred pages of wordiness and rambling makes me want to return to the book, seeking out those pages with relish.

      1. I hope you do. I’d enjoy seeing whatever you have to say about it. This has prompted me to pick up my copy of Zabor and remember more about what a treat it was. The conversation between the bear and the “Needn’t” bird near the end is a delight.

        I’m curious about that cringe. Was it just the use of “jazz” in a non-standard part of speech? Or my comparing dried ink to vibrant, dynamic music? Something else? I meant the phrase to suggest that not only were his descriptions of jazz beautifully evocative, but the actual form of the descriptions was imbued with the sorts of artful riffs and detours and suspension of resolution that are the stuff of jazz. (I’ve rarely found the last single sentence of a book so heartily satisfying, like a song ending in a simple, long-awaited resolution.) For an example, see the section of several pages starting here: http://bit.ly/gPYMny.

  3. Hi all,

    It’s really great to see such a colorful discussion of Elkin’s work! And here I was, thinking I was his only reader. Well, even if he may be ignored or forgotten at universities and even if he’s undiscovered or unsung by many writers today, I’m so glad that we’ve got a small band of appreciators here.

    A couple quick comments. With regard to Leslie Epstein’s criticism that Elkin’s book lack order, coherence and cause, I wholly agree with John M. that that’s a tendentious view. I wonder if that’s part of the a reason Elkin has been largely ignored: critics approach his work with such utterly conventional ideas about what a novel “should” be—the “correct” amounts of order, coherence and cause, for example—that when they’re faced with original, unique, idiosyncratic work that veers away from their expectations, they resist it and misunderstand it.

    I don’t have the exact quote handy, but Elkin himself addressed such critics around the time of George Mills when he said something like, “My novel is whatever I decide to put into it.”

    John M. and Greg – with regard to your comments in the previous post on The Bailbondsman, Elkin certainly could have been describing his own ear in that passage from The Condominium, just as he could have been describing his descriptive powers on the very first page of The Bailbondsman: “Because I know everybody I have had dealings with, their names and faces, their heights and weights, each identifying characteristic, every wart and all pimples, perfect pitch for human shape and their voices in my head like catchy tunes. What a witness I would make, a police artist’s dream with my eye for detail…. I have by heart the wrinkles on his trousers and know the condition of his heels like a butcher his fillets. Everything. The roller coaster of his flies when he sits, where his hands get dirty, which teeth need attention, the sunsets on his fingernails. Everything.”

    I suppose it’s worth noting that Elkin endows all of his characters with his own powers of perception, his own thrilling verbal and linguistic energies. John M., with stories so strongly authored, with language deployed so unconventionally and unpredictably, I have the same experience of looking for the writer behind the curtain. The more generic and conventional (stylistically and formally) the work is, the more “invisible” the writer becomes.

    Speaking of these vital linguistic energies, in The Condominium, it seems that with Preminger Elkin draws a connection between loss of verbal potency and death: “His velocity shoved the words back into his mouth, the air that forced itself into his lungs canceling his breath….” He can’t manage sentences, only words, then not even words, then…. Words are indeed the material writers work in, and for Elkin, language counted for everything.

    1. Hey, Jon.

      If it’s any consolation (and I’d guess that it isn’t, and that if it is, it probably won’t add to much, although that’s probably me enacting what they would call a projection), but I often feel like I’m the only reader reading what I’m reading, that reading, oddly enough, maybe even paradoxically enough, making me feel less alone, less alone than I’d feel coming to learn that I am not alone reading what I’m reading.

      I do think many, if not all, critics come to whatever they’re criticizing with a delimiting lens, frame, or whatever name for the perhaps inevitable blinders that they wear while reading and interpreting. That said, this inevitable limitation doesn’t absolve them from their lack of thinking outside of their respective boxes, especially when those boxes have long been exposed, punctured, torn down, or whatever.

      And I definitely agree that “Elkin endows all of his characters with his own powers of perception, his own thrilling verbal and linguistic energies,” but I’d add that every author endows their characters with his or her own powers of perception, his or her own verbal and linguistic energies, to varying degrees, and to varying degrees of success; and that, for me, the author is never invisible, and that when I encounter poorly executed writing, or simply bland and conventional writing, the kind of writing many people would consider “invisible,” I look for the writer even more, and usually find him or wanting.

      That’s a lovely quote from “The Condominium,” especially that bit about fingernails’ lunulae, what Elkin’s calling sunsets, and I enjoyed your thoughts about Preminger. Look out for more of my thoughts about the story soon.

  4. John, I just picked up the treasure that is Searches and Seizures, and along with a couple of friends read aloud the first half of The Making of Ashenden. This is masterful work where Elkin, without making any comparisons to other writers (it’s tempting, really tempting to put him in with Donal…nevermind) establishes such a pompous, forthright, wealthier-than-thou narrator with such force as to create a gladness in my heart. While his prose from The Bailbondsman at times reminds me of the obsessively mathematical object worship of Robb..(scratch that), the narrator in Ashenden shifts full blown into this charismatic, aristocratic gunslinger. The Don Juan who claims he is not — “I try to be charming to all the women, the flawed as well as the unflawed”, for whom everything is honor, the gentlemen of the world, the connoisseur of upper class doubles etiquette:

    “I maintain a fund for which I use for the abortions of girls other men have gotten into trouble; if the young lady prefers, I have a heart to heart with the young man.”

    The narrator takes etiquette to its logical absurd end — a kind of glossolalia in action, justified through Elkin’s superb lens of sardonic heroism. What a read, my man! Reminds me at times of Ba…oh, forget it. It reminds me of nothing. As Frank Zappa once said of three mentally challenged high school garage band superstars, The Shaggs: “It brings my mind to a complete halt.”

    1. Hey, David. Nice to know that you picked up the book, too. And I’m envious of your reading aloud with a group of friends. And, thanks for your buoyant response to Elkin’s word riot.

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