“The Condominium,” the third and final novella in Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures, features another rather garrulous “hero,” this time Marshall Preminger, a thirty-seven-year-old virgin, who describes himself as “ripe for conventional, even classical, introspection, a cliché of a man” (294), a man who, upon the unexpected death of his father, inherits a condominium, which he rather witheringly describes (in what is later described as a lecture he was preparing, but what I think as a kind of last will and testament) as follows:
“At first one thought it was a metal alloy, or perhaps a new element. Maybe it was used to fashion industrial diamonds. There were those who thought it had to do with big business, international stuff—combines, cartels. Others thought it was a sort of prophylactic. It was strange that the very people who would later become most intimate with the term should at first have had so vague a notion of what it meant. Only after doctors tell him does the patient know the name of his disease. Condominium. (Kon’-də-min’-ē-əm.)” (195)
Preminger proceeds with an imagined history of these dwellings, more rant than fact, as hilarious as it is faux-erudite and simply nutty.
One of my favorite moments in the novella is when Preminger, who, through a series of comic reversals in the story, becomes a lifeguard for Harris Towers (of which his condominium is a part), and can now suddenly hear everything, every bit of dialogue, like a god, or like William Gaddis: “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” (286). What follows, appropriately enough, is a zigzagging zaniness.
Call it schadenfreude, but my favorite part of the book is when Preminger, after discovering the circumstances of his father’s death, and after reflecting on his own life, realizes how empty and meaningless that life has, in fact, sadly been:
Unhappiness. Unhappiness was his only trauma, his single symptom. Misery as fixed and settled as his overbite, as incapable of being altered as of making parallel lines meet in a painting by staring at them (295).
These reflections precipitate his own demise, the reflection a search that leads to a seizure, a taking of his own life:
He stepped out onto the balcony. He saw the skyline, the lighted windows that ran across the horizon like a message, like signal fires of the abandoned on those desert isles of his hypotheses, like bonfires on mountain tops for the search planes to see. He saw all the warehouses, office buildings, hotels and apartments. He saw the houses and condominiums, service flats, bed-sitters, kips and billets. He saw barracks and bunkers and chambers in university and wards in hospitals, saw all places where being lodged, those visible and those invisible—rooms underground, basements, shelters, code and map rooms, vast silos beneath the desert and under the badlands, Sweden’s civil defenses, the booths in tunnels where officers stood watching the traffic, the cars in those tunnels, the passengers snug in their moving envelopes of space, subway trains and staterooms beneath the water line—saw the cabins of jets and two-seaters and the berths in trains, their club cars and coaches, the locked toilets on buses and the vans of trucks, the wide ledge behind the driver where the helper snuggles. There were palaces and theaters, arenas in the open air, auditoriums where people sat listening to orchestras, stalls and dress circles and private boxes and the gods. There were pits where technicians recorded those performances and prompter’s boxes in theaters where a man, crouching, followed what the actors were saying, his fingers moving along the lines of script as if it was in Braille. There were caves. There were mud huts and huts of straw and the hogans of Navahos, all the earth’s vulgate architecture, its mounds and warrens, Rio’s high favellas and Hong Kong’s sea level houseboats. There were cellblocks in prisons and the tiger cages of solitary. The world was mitered, walls and floors and ceilings, angled as the universe and astronomy, jointed as men.
There were balconies like this one he stood on, with railings like this one. He raised one leg over and now the other. Intestate, sitting there for a moment perfectly balanced, he pushed off gently and began his fall (303-304).
Preminger, this supposed cliché of a man, reminds me of Rilke’s Malte here, in the ironical sense of someone who sees himself as a failure because of his inability to see, yet who sees with such crystalline clarity, Preminger having a god’s sight, an omnispective power reverse engineering from industrial blight to humanity’s earliest dwellings. Following this is Preminger’s list reducing dwellings to their quintessence:
As he plunged he addressed the condominium, quoting from the lecture he had been preparing. “From what incipit, fundamental gene of nakedness,” he gasped, “came, laboring like a lung, insistent as the logical sequences of a heartbeat, the body’s syllogisms, this demand for rind and integument and pelt?” But it was too difficult. His velocity shoveled the words back into his mouth, the air that forced itself into his lungs canceling his breath. All he could manage at last, with great effort, the greatest he had ever made, were individual words.
“Cage,” he shouted. “Net,” he screamed. “Pit, sheath, vesicle, trap,” he roared above gravity. “Cell, cubicle, crib and creel.” He tried to expel the air that suffused him, billowing his body like a flag. “Nest,” he yelled, “carton, can.” His descent pulled the wind, igniting it like a fire storm. “Jakes,” he squealed, “maw!” But it was too much. He could open his mouth but couldn’t close it. So in the split seconds he had left to think the last. And the hole, he thought, the hole I’m going to make when I hit that ground (304)!
The final two paragraphs remind me of Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl,” which I once described as a very short story about a “girl who commits suicide from the top of posh skyscraper full of apartments and offices. Time is suspended as she falls. As she falls, people examine, comment, and question her from windows. By the time she reaches the ground she has aged, extraordinarily, and is now an old woman.” The details of Preminger’s fall, while not as implausible as those of Buzzati’s falling girl, are still unlikely, considering that his heart would have probably stopped long before he hit bottom, preventing such clarity of mind; but it makes sense for a hero of Elkin’s to end his life in the midst of constructing an inventory.
Next month, we’ll be reading Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. So stay tuned!
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.