Tuesday, January 06, 2009

`The Familiar Hearts of Strangers'

Early in Stanley Elkin’s 1976 novel The Franchiser, Ben Flesh visits his godfather, Julius Finsberg, in a swanky hospital suite in New York City. The old man, who made his fortune as a theatrical costumer, is dying. He lies in an oxygen tent: “Ben could hear the frightful crinkle of his respiration. He sounded as if he were on fire.” Next comes one of Elkin’s great set pieces, an extended riff on the wonders of existence and the cosmic odds against ever becoming one’s self. It’s a prelude to Finsberg telling the unsuspecting Flesh of his inheritance. He’s a foul-mouthed Lear in the ICU:

“`How crowded is the universe,’ his godfather said and moved the plasma arm vaguely. `How stuffed to bursting with its cargo of crap. Consider, Ben. You could have been a pencil or the metal band that holds the eraser to the wood, the wire of lead that runs through it. The black N in `Number 2’ stamped along one of its six sides. Or one of its six sides. Or the thin paint on another. You might have been a vowel on a typewriter or a number on a telephone dial or a consonant in books. There are thousands of languages, millions of typewriters, billions of books. You might have been the oxygen I breathe or the air stirred by this sentence. It is a miracle that one is not one of these things, a miracle that one is not a thing at all, that one is animal rather than mineral or vegetable, and a higher animal rather than a lower.”

And so on, gloriously, hilariously. I read Elkin’s novels as they were published, starting with his third, The Dick Gibson Show, in 1971, through Mr. Ted Bliss, which came out the year Elkin died, 1995. My timing was perfect for watching the flowering of a great writer’s career. I feel gratitude for the chance to have shared a time and place with Elkin, Nabokov, Saul Bellow, William Maxwell, Philip Roth and some of the other writers Andrew Seal will not be reading in 2009: “I would like to resolve to read no novels or poetry by white American men for the next year.”

Renunciation of earthly pleasure is admirable – good for the soul, as they used to say -- though its effectiveness as a goad to humility is probably compromised by so public an announcement. I wish Andrew well, though I will be unable to follow his example. Call me hedonistic but I’m weak and rather attached to my modest, old-fashioned pleasures. In my lexicon, literature without pleasure is a self-canceling proposition.

Because art doesn’t recognize the efficacy of affirmative action, neither do I. Not once have I entered a bookstore or library and said, “I want to read a book by a Congolese writer.” The only African writer on the shelves of my home library is St. Augustine. I have said, if one can actually be said to say such things, “I want to read a novel set in Africa,” and proceeded to read Heart of Darkness and Naipaul’s great A Bend in the River (neither a White American Male). David Myers is more analytically and polemically gifted than I, blessed with the rare, recessive trait of logical argument. In this case he speaks for me:

“What you are matters nothing in literature. It is how you write that makes all—and I do mean all—the difference.”

I started this post with The Franchiser because I’m rereading it and because Elkin (Jewish American Male) is a useful example of a writer whose style makes all the difference. A potted précis of The Franchiser would go something like this: With his inheritance (the prime interest rate – 1.45 percent – for 1950) Ben Flesh buys franchises like Howard Johnson’s and Fred Astaire dance studios and…Forget it. It’s beside the point. You can reduce Joyce Carol Oates’ 327th novel to a nugget of plot, render soap from its fat, and you’re not missing much. But Elkin is “word-besotted” (borrowed from Cynthia Ozick, JAF), even more than his friend William Gass (WAM), but immensely funnier. Literature is the part you can’t distill into a Cliff-Notes essence. Reduce this from Finsberg’s monologue:

“It’s incredible really. Amazing. Who could believe it? You weren’t aborted, you didn’t end up in a scum bag. You survived the infant mortality stuff. You made it past measles, polio, mumps. You outwitted whooping cough, typhoid, VD….And even without parents you’ve got clothes, shelter, sex, what to eat – you know, the drives, the hydramatics of being, four on the floor and more where they came from. Yes, and you get the point of jokes and have a favorite movie and maybe even the room where you stay is done up in your best color. My God, lad, you’re a fucking celebration!”

It can’t be done. This is a surfeit of metaphor, a hemorrhage of metaphor, a fucking celebration of metaphor, and Andrew will miss it and a thousand other delights. Imagination trumps politics every time. Let’s give a woman, Ozick in “Metaphor and Memory,” the last word:

“Through metaphor, the past has the capacity to imagine us, and we it. Through metaphorical concentration, doctors can imagine what it is to be their patients. Those who have no pain can imagine those who suffer. Those at the center can imagine what it is to be outside. The strong can imagine the weak. Illuminated lives can imagine the dark. Poets in their twilight can imagine the borders of stellar fire. We strangers can imagine the familiar hearts of strangers.”


fran manushkin said...

I used to read Stanley Elkin every morning and had the chance to tell this to Elkin after a reading he gave in New York. His reponse to my telling him I read him each morning was, "Before peeing or after?"
Whenever I need lift, I read any page of his incredibly alive prose.

D. G. Myers said...

By the time I got to Washington University to study under him, Stanley Elkin was confined to a wheelchair by M.S. At the end of the first semester, he and his wife Joan came to my apartment for dinner. I had organized an English department softball game; he mentioned it; in an awkward 22-year-old’s attempt to ignore his “disability,” I told him that he should join the game. He gestured toward his wheelchair. “What am I supposed to do?” he growled. “You could be the designated hitter,” I stuttered. “I couldn’t designated hit the ball,” he said.