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Reading Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: “The Condominium”

“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.

You can read my thoughts about the collection’s first novella HERE, and my thoughts on the second, HERE.

Next month, we’ll be reading Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. So stay tuned!

19 thoughts on “Reading Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures: “The Condominium”

  1. I just finished this one, John, and found myself moved by the ending after snorting with laughter several times over the course of reading (long prior to the final scene, mind you). I think the comparison with Buzzati is an intriguing starting point, although the differences between the stories highlight for me what is most powerful about Elkin’s work overall, which is to say that Marta’s fall in the story is wrought as magical realism, meaning that as she is falling we experience the fall as allegory all the way down, connecting everything that she passes as opportunity bypassed, seconds as years, etc. With Elkin in spite of the implausibility of the thought-burst I am very much with Preminger as a character, and I feel the onrush of the ground, the mortality not so much allegorical as palpable, imminent. Elkin sets us up for it masterfully by, for instance, having the woman who he “saves” earlier in the pool recounting how her own life flash before her eyes–“[D]id you see your wedding night?” as some weisenheimer (to surrender to the book’s vernacular) puts it.

    And this brings me to the larger point, which is that Elkin coolly walks the precarious tightrope between linguistic carnival and ordinary character with whom we can empathize. By no means does Elkin hold back–elsewhere, for instance, he riffs on how Preminger is like a Rip van Winkle in reverse, where nothing outwardly has shifted (“How did he know the name of the President, and why didn’t television frighten him?”). In another riff he describes the names of the callers while he sits shivah, “contrived in a strange incest from the small businesses and manufactories…There was a Wil-Marg (belts)….” His mourner’s bench is “like something left behind after a child’s log cabin has been struck,” or “misunderstood, like a Balkan mannerism…” In short, Elkin riots with the language, but I never lose Preminger the character, his mortality, his desperation, his alienation.

    In this sense, I was reminded most of Lipsyte’s The Ask, for which I hadn’t found any precedent prior to reading this. Now I can hear Lipsyte in these sentences or vice-versa, their spirit and their anatomy:

    How impressed he’d been at apothecary measures of all strangers’ bravery, little guys’ puny resistances, Denmark’s treatment of its Jews, his father’s sideburns–all that judo of the spirit.”

    Can you hear it? Is it just me?

    Other great falls in literature (in case anyone is at this very moment pulling together a syllabus on that very theme: Steven Millhauser’s “Alice, Falling” (rabbithole redux), Italo Calvino’s “The Form of Space” (falling in the frictionless void), possibly Catcher in the Rye (titular metaphor), Heidegger in Being and Time on fallenness, the Old Testament, Camus’s The Fall, DeLillo’s Falling Man, Hamlet (“…what a falling-off was there”), Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder they Come.”

    1. Thanks, Tim, for your list of other “falls in literature.” While reading Elkin’s novella, I’d thought, indirectly, of DeLillo’s Falling Man, too, and also Tom Junod’s “The Falling Man,” his somewhat controversial nonfiction piece in Esquire. And, I think that the so-called fall of man might be a subtext throughout “The Condominium”; and Preminger’s fall might be a literalization of a fall from grace.

      Good call on Calvino’s story from Cosmicomics. That first paragraph is great:

      To fall in the void as I fell: none of you knows what that means. For you, to fall means to plunge perhaps from the twenty-sixth floor of a skyscraper: to fall headlong, grope in the air a moment, and then the Earth is immediately there, and you get a big bump. But I’m talking about the time when there wasn’t any Earth underneath or anything else solid, not even a celestial body in the distance capable of attracting you into its orbit. You simply fell, indefinitely, for an indefinite length of time. I went down into the void, to the almost absolute bottom conceivable, and once there I saw that the extreme limit must have been much, much further below, very remote, and I went on falling, to reach it. Since there were no reference points, I had no idea whether my fall was fast or slow. Now that I think about it, there weren’t even any proofs that I was really falling; perhaps I had always remained immobile in the same place, or I was moving in an upward direction; since there was no above or below these were only nominal questions and so I might just as well go on thinking I was falling, as I was naturally led to think.

      A big chunk of the opening pages of Finnegans Wake is devoted to the circumstances of the eponymic hero drunkenly falling off a ladder, the event itself borrowed from an old Irish vaudeville song. And we mustn’t forget Humpty Dumpty, who also had a great fall.

      I definitely agree with you about how Elkin “coolly walks the precarious tightrope between linguistic carnival and ordinary character with whom we can empathize.” While a “linguistic carnival” would probably be enough for me, it is also great to see this kind of virtuosic command of rhetorical play balanced with, or perhaps even used in service to, so-called character development.

      That’s an excellent Lipsyte sentence, containing a wonderful inventory, spun out with a verve familiar to readers of Elkin. I’d imagine Elkin, though, spinning this out into a long and unapologetically “indulgent” paragraph.

      1. Thanks, John–Good call on Mr. Dumpty, who I thought of belatedly, though of course Jimmy Cliff’s chorus depends on him, and maybe then we can stretch matters to include Robert Penn Warren with All the King’s Men?

        By the way, just to be clear, that quote is Elkin’s (pg. 257)–but I heard Lipsyte in it, though I don’t disagree that it is a Lipsyte sentence too, which is to say that I can’t unhear the pre-echo of Lipsyte in it, just as I won’t be able to ignore the Elkin in Lipsyte henceforth. And indeed it is part of a spun-out paragraph.

        1. Oh, I guess I misread your lead-in to the Elkin sentence. Sorry!

          You might know this already, but Lipsyte has expressed his love for Elkin, and considers him a strong influence on him as a writer, pointing to “A Poetics for Bullies” as especially important to him.

            1. I’d heard it from the horse’s mouth, as they say, at an event paying tribute to Elkin, which I talk about here:

              And here’s Lipsyte talking about Elkin’s The Living End:

              I think the source of his humor, as is the case of all deep humor, was his acknowledgment of our shared curse, our consciousness of sickness and death, but nobody really plumbed the experience of having a body quite like Elkin, or celebrated its degradations so beautifully. Because there is a lot of joy there. And a great part of the joy is that though we are just meat we can still joke and sing about that fact. We have language, thought. I guess this is what Western philosophy wrestled with all those years, but Elkin distills the condition in a uniquely funny and poetic manner.

  2. Tim has said most of what I’d have added — in particular my congratulations on another thoughtful read, John.

    As for Memorable Literary Falls, Tim O’Brien features a good long, strange one about halfway through GOING AFTER CACCIATO, & John Barth’s “Bellorophoniad,” the final third of CHIMERA, reaches its climax during a tremendous fall from the stars to earth.

    As for the third piece in SEARCHES & SEIZURES, perhaps it’s worth pointing out that, for Elkin’s man, when he’s tired of *things,* in all their commerce & avoirdupois, he’s tired of life.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks, John. And thanks for your list of literary falls. (I can’t get enough of them, so keep ’em coming folks!)

      Yes, commerce and its concomitant weight. It’s a wonder more of us aren’t using balcony railings as diving boards.

  3. I just recalled some other falls. There’s Septimus’s in Mrs. Dalloway:

    He did not want to die. Life was good. The sun hot. Only human beings—what did they want? Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door. “I’ll give it you!” he cried, and flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.

    And there’s that scene in The Recognitions where a woman jumps out a window (any help locating the passage would be appreciated).

    1. Ah–the opening pages of The Satanic Verses. One of the great free-falls…

      Also, Richard Ford’s “Abyss.”

      I’m about ready to seriously consider proposing a class in this.

      1. The Satanic Verses, yes, of course! (“Is birth always a fall?”) I should have thought of that, considering the fall that likely inspired it: Lucifer’s fall from grace, cast down from heaven along with all those other angels.

  4. Speaking of lists, after “The Bailbondsman,” I thought we needed a list of works whose narration changes significantly for part of the book. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K begins in third and switches to a first person accountant from a supporting character, then back to third.

  5. I loved this whole thread. thanks, John for the great and close reading – and as someone who once took a class in pratfalls and other physical comedy, and can (well, used to be able to) slip on a banana peel with the best of ’em, I appreciate the humor as well as the serious in the literal and symbolic fall–and love this discussion.

    1. Thanks, Amber. Pratfalls are definitely an artform in itself. I’d searched for some of Chevy Chase’s famous SNL falls, without any luck. Oh well.

  6. I really love “The Condominium.” I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, if not the funniest. All three of the novellas are masterpieces in their own way, but for me, this one has a character many more people can relate to, or “see one’s self in” as the tawdry phrase goes.

    John has highlighted the end, but I want to put out there that this story is filled with humor, overfilled really. Though the ending is it’s own animal, many parts are uproarious, including the wake scene (210-221) where the officials from the Condo interrogate Marshall in front of his father’s coffin as they bemoan their Jewish heritage in the face of God’s striking down of one of their own:

    “Why did you make the chosen people so frail, oh God, give them Achilles heels in their chromosomes, set them up as patsies for cholesterol and Buerger’s disease, hit them bad circulation and a sweet tooth for lox? You could have made us hard blond goyim, but no, not You.” (215)

    Also, the “Brilliant” conversation from 274-277, where Marshall argues with some residents about why they describe a family member as “brilliant.”

    Also lovely is Elkin’s veiled criticism of Roth and Portnoy’s Complaint, as Evelyn writes about it’s weaknesses, as well as the quality of Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge and Catch-22, the first good, the later a piece of goo (yes, Stanley/Evelyn, you were fully right on there!).

    Also of note, for it’s despair (and one of the main set-ups for the suicide) is the lynchpin in the middle, the “Despair” passage from 251-257, where Marshall travels around Chicago, going to the rich neighborhoods and observing and feeling awful, feeling hatred.

    “He understood how unhappy he was–understood, that is, that it was no mood. He did not discount other people’s unhappiness. There were those who lost limbs, whose health failed, who couldn’t make it at today’s prices, those whose loved ones died, who would never get what they wanted and who wanted it more for exactly that reason, those whose reputations were stripped away, those who had done great crimes and knew they’d slipped up, that even now the net was tightening.” (and the rest of that paragraph of p.256)

    Also the “Mad” paragraph on p.302, where the repititions of ‘mad’ in the character’s head throughout his reading the letter of Evelyn crescendo in a paragraph of questioning how he is exactly mad (this is reight before he goes to the balcony).

    I looked in the Twayne’s Author Series book, by Daugherty on Searches and Seizures and “The Condominium” is given one three-inch paragraph of write-up, whereas “The Bailbondsman” gets four pages. We must change the story’s life.

    Didn’t Daugherty say that he was writing a script for Altman? Jesus Christ almighty. Reading these three novellas, I feel those two, were soul brothers. Their vision of America and the absurdities.

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