So there I was, just inside the Beltway, watching some popular movie the other day. When you’re writing a novel, there’s a lot to be said for watching movies from the same genre, and besides, the heroine was pretty. Anyway, at one point, the protagonist is about to be indicted. He’s not sure what to do, and he’s standing at an intersection here in town. It’s really more of a crossroads, and he stops at the corner. He has no idea which way to go.
His lawyer is in one of our glass office buildings, a few stories up, and sees him standing there. So the lawyer takes out his cell phone, and calls the guy. And he says, “Trust me on this one, I’ve seen a lot of these cases. No matter what happens from now on, you will never be the person you were before. You need to give all that up. You need to figure out who you’re going to be from now on. It’s just a problem you need to solve.” The scriptwriter must have been a fan of Stanley Elkin.
I only met Elkin once, back in the mid-80’s, and even then only for a few days. I was teaching at the Université de Nice. Our classrooms looked out over the Mediterranean, but we thought of it at the time as a kind of hardship post, cut off from the rest of the world by language and an uncrossable ocean. The philosophy department was a nest of Hegelians, although there was one kind old guy devoted to Bergson. In the Modern Letters department, Sartre was too contemporary to touch. But there was an American poetry expert, an authority on Williams, who had brought me there. And there was Maurice Couturier, who knew all the best American fiction writers: Barthelme, Coover, Elkin, Major, Gass, Baldwin. They came parading through, receiving honorary degrees, giving talks and seminars, drinking Champagne and sunning on the beach.
With Elkin, I remember a cane. Even then, he got around with difficulty. I’d heard he could be, well, difficult, but my personal recollection is that he was nothing but gracious, kind, and generous to a very young poet. Of course, that was all a while back, and I’m pretty sure that what he said has blended in my mind with his interviews, his talks, his work. Nabokov could get his memory to speak, and he could be pretty certain about what it said, but then his characters were galley slaves. Mine have minds of their own, they go running off into a confusion of tangled threads, and I’m sure my memories are just as tangled.
I was expected to ask the lead questions after a reading or a lecture, and I tried to keep them as broad as possible, to give the visitor a chance to go in any desired direction. I would have asked about the nature of fiction. And perhaps he said something like this:
Imagine you’re some minor official here in town. Maybe you’re the Minister of Culture for the arrondissement, and Mardi Gras is coming. You have to decide a number of things. What route should the parade take? Which boulevards need to be blocked off, not just for the parade, but for the spectators? Should you invite dancers from Venice or Brazil? Does a local float go first, is there some lycée that has a musical ensemble you can use? How many members does it have?
In many ways, these are mathematical problems that need solutions. And there are rituals, almost like algorithms, that need to be taken into account. The city you have to work with is like an irregular grid, almost a maze. So you’ve got the grid, the participants, the rituals. It’s not that different from being a rabbi in charge of a cemetery. The plots are the grid, the participants change, the rituals stay pretty constant.
And the characters act within this framework. And what are their actions? They’re really transactions. A kind of buying and selling, constantly. There has to be transactional value for everyone involved, at every moment. Every character wants to maximize value, wants to feel whatever was sold was at the highest price, what was bought was bought cheaply. For each one, the self had precedence, and the self wanted a good return. It all boils down to persuasion and mathematics. Plot is a mathematical problem.
But it gets played out through language. Mathematicians traffic in formulas, but for writers of fiction, it’s the physics of personality, the physics of obsession. Mathematicians solve for X, where X is the mystical variable. But what if X is known, and instead the subsequent clauses are not? What if X is a MacGuffin, a kind of dangerous supplement, meaningless on its own? What if the MacGuffin is the focus of the characters’ obsession? If it’s a given, how would the formula play out, within the confines of a grid and through the variations of the rituals? If their desires, their obsessions, are as completely irrational as, say, modern physics, what would the transactions look like?
Well, they might look like a Stanley Elkin novel. We could get lost in the language. I think he said the language was the only thing that mattered. The language, and the jokes. The character muttering under his breath, pointless and powerless. Think of a reveler at that Mardi Gras. He can’t decide where the parade is going, or on its order. He doesn’t even get to decide where to stand. Does he think the dancing girls should be wearing ostrich feathers instead of emu plumes, that the swordfighters should be using epées instead of rapiers? It doesn’t matter, there’s nothing he can do, he’s stuck on the sidewalk, an accidental placement. He mutters his powerless joke, which would be devastating to the Minister of Culture, only the Minister of Culture can’t hear it. He’s somewhere else.
The last I saw of Elkin was at the airport in Nice. We’d already said our goodbyes, and then we ran into each other there. He was flying home, I guess to Washington University, and I was flying to Paris to do a poetry reading. I was distressed, and feeling powerless, out of control. The poems were being translated into French and Arabic. I was used to that, but I was also used to reading a whole poem, and then having the French read, and then the Arabic. But the organizer had decreed that I would read a single line, then the line would be read in the other languages, then I’d read the next line. My appeals had fallen on deaf ears, as if I were that guy on the sidewalk, muttering about the choices of the Minister of Culture. I was so young that every new transaction seemed critical to me, and I was worried about questions of value, so worried that the overthrown ritual became a kind of MacGuffin. I told him about it, while we were waiting for our planes. I won’t reveal his words, they were meant privately. I know he has a reputation for having been irascible, even brutal. But I will tell you that reputation was undercut by his kindness when no-one else was looking, by a gentle generosity which struck me so profoundly it may be the only thing I can dependably remember from those few days. I think of him warmly even now, separated by those years, and by an uncrossable ocean.
W.F. Lantry worked with Derek in Boston and Don in Houston, Jacqueline in Nice and Carolyn in San Diego. Now he works on his own in Washington, DC. His website is: http://wflantry.com/