Pieces of Soap by Stanley Elkin. Tin House Books. 416pp, $16.95.
There is an unfortunate shortage of grotesquerie in literary criticism. Prudish intellect has somehow muscled the burping body from the realm of books, as if we do not read and write, too, through the revelations and failures of our flesh. The grand critics have already assembled in holy raiment—Trilling, Wilson, Kermode, Ozick, Wood—to lay a white cloth over the roughly hewn table of literature, smoothing over its splinters, its sap. While of obvious merit, their collected work is, in itself, something like a history of manners: spotless, chaste, the well-planed beams of a gleaming critical edifice. This is not necessarily a knock against them (I read much of their work with admiration); call it rather a lingering desire for something supplementary, a meaner model, runny as an egg or rich as butter, words to stain lips and lapels, to pass gas (as Gass’s does), flippant, bloated, savage, overcooked but rarely overwrought: a criticism of both gut and guile. Such a mode would, of course, need its exemplar, its Falstaff, comingler of erudition and eructation. Such a mode, finally, needed only Stanley Elkin.
Though perhaps we should pluralize that to Elkins, his guises being both potent and plentiful: pomo pervert, stand-up comic, sword-swallower, scamp, glutton, scribe, and oracle (to name but a few). Pieces of Soap, then—the recent, exhaustive Elkin collection from Tin House—is a necessarily lurid and lurching thing, a foaming cauldron of culture, a kind of bacchanal in which the master of ceremonies is soused but never sentimental. Cutting a broad swath across thematic concerns—California, Schnitzler, the tuxedo, multiple sclerosis, the future of the novel—Elkin’s essays swerve gorgeously before he allows them to soar: in riffs, in rages, in tangents spinning out like silken thread to pile on the floor. With Elkin, the swerving is often the point—or, more precisely, the style, the shape-shifting dazzle in which seemingly anything—anything at all—is possible.
To those familiar with his fiction, this will hardly be news. In novels like George Mills, The Dick Gibson Show, and The Living End, Elkin made good on the mandate he once offered up during a radio interview: “Form perfect sentences and flesh these sentences out in high structures of imagination.” One could graft this just as easily upon his essays; indeed, after finishing this collection, there is the lingering sense that Elkin would have us refuse altogether the distinctions between the many forms of fiction (including the variety we refer to as non-). In essay after ingenious essay, aesthetic power is proffered as both the fuel and the function of literary endeavor, be it novel or obituary, review or poem:
Because aesthetics is the only subject matter, because style is, and all calls are judgment calls. Because ideas are even scarier than those fabled two or three stripped plots, those fabled three or four basic jokes, art a fugue ideal finally, the hen’s-teeth variations, genre revolving around itself, the spin-off, like a few chips of colored glass in a kaleidoscope.
Take his essay “Plot,” in which Elkin climbs inside the eponymous structure, taking on a familiar narrative in order to dissect, pathologize, root out the clichés from within. His Trojan Horse is the tale of a bank robber—“a meanish fellow in need of money, a man of no particular charm”—whose criminal choices lead to the deaths of at least two others. Without warning, almost mid-sentence, Elkin sets fire to the scaffolding, transitioning with nary a limp from storyteller to critic, positively gleeful in the ruins of what was so recently an honest-to-god story.
Every pile of debris, it seems, contains a lesson. Plot is “a condition almost of grammar itself,” a kind of magnet that “arranges life’s iron fillings into lovely patterns, into superb cat’s cradles of the sweetest geometry.” But the sinew, the bone beneath this arrangement is capital-c Character, “a brooding, critical, and concerned presence.” He offers up his own recent protagonist, the brutal if luckless robber, as an example of failed character. The problem is not that he’s a coward or a murdering thief but that he is careless, unconcerned, “cut loose from time, severed from space, divided inexcusably from his own best interests”—and thus fails to fully exist. Plot’s soul, then, is double, “what the character wants to happen and what he doesn’t want to happen,” a sum of disparate motives. Elkin closes with one of the collection’s many aphorisms that continue to dig into the mind long after the reading is finished, like a pebble in the foot’s tender flesh: “Plot must have its reasons. Indeed, it is its reasons.”
While it isn’t fair to say Pieces of Soap is didactic—the collection has way too much fun with itself to feel self-righteous or donnish in the slightest—Elkin nonetheless forcefully and passionately insists we rouse ourselves from readerly stupor. The book comprises something of an attack on formalism itself, a dismissal of the literary templates that “are mere topics,” aids to a somnolence which “aim[s] to please.” We are urged, mocked, cajoled into noticing the manic, repetitive dimensions of literature—a collection of traditions like tics, one long text with Tourrette’s—so that we may restore the novel to its proper place as the work of art best suited to confront the complexity of contemporary experience.
And of the depth and depravity of that experience Soap has much to say indeed. Not just a literary critic of prodigious gifts, Elkin is also a funny and surprisingly sensitive cultural commentator, an Emerson of the void whose encyclopedic concerns manifest as paeans, as agitations, as exquisite confessions of the first order. One pictures a great amorphous mind hovering over the heartland, a watery eye affixed to the vast keyhole of American culture. There is an apprehension here of the fabulous flab girdled round the national soul, the meta-material whose excess we mistake for transcendence: “This overkill is true, this surfeit and riot and profligate plenty are true. Right on the money our luxurious redundancy and gorged, de trop profusion.”
This particularly American “profusion” is the provenance of roughly half the book’s essays. Of particular note is “Acts of Scholarship,” a profound meditation on four different scholars as they “cut the universe up into pieces and take small bites.” In Elkin’s hands, these pursuits take on existential depths, becoming acts of loneliness, of absurdity, of dignity—scholarship as “an abeyant condition of time.” Similarly compelling is his geographical profile “An American in California,” a deep-dive into my home state that is as much about misguided obsession as it is what Sam Lipsyte calls “the celebrity-industrial complex” of the late 1980s: “California is not so much a place as an invention, a kind of aspiration, really, what imagination does to opportunity in a decent climate to make a benign and goofy nationalism.”
Like his astute theories on literary craft, these pieces are not easy. They do not elevate what others might call the human condition; there is no sanctity here, or not much, anyway. For this, I find myself unutterably grateful. Pieces of Soap, finally, is both offensive and an offensive, a singing, smoking onslaught against intellectual torpor, the muddy ruts of narrative, the seduction of cultural abandon. Dead these past twenty years, Elkin still outpaces much of literature, a figure firmly astride the dizzying heights of criticism. If he is unseen, one may intuit his presence from the gale of laughter and halitosis tumbling down the face of the mountain. Pieces of Soap is our shaky lift to the summit.
Dustin Illingworth writes about books and culture for the Los Angeles Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and a staff writer for Literary Hub.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Restless “I”: The Book Made of Forest by Jared Stanley "Seeing is merciful," writes Jared Stanley in the second poem in Book Made of Forest. But Stanley often seems at the mercy of his own vision; his eyes are restless, and it is this constant re-shifting of focus, bordering on ecstatic anxiety, that gives the book the inertia that keeps...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Dustin Illingworth