I want to join with Rake's Progress (a blog that just keeps getting better, by the way), in recommending the latest issue of Harper's. In addition to Lance Esplund's excellent piece of art criticism (quoted in my previous post), there's a provocative essay by Richard N. Rosenfeld proposing that the U.S. Senate be abolished. But most of all I want to echo RP as well in calling attention to William Gass's essay on Stanley Elkin.
Gass provides a very good introduction both to The Living End, his essay's immediate subject, and to the nature of Elkin's work in general. He concludes with some reflection on the ultimate decline of his friend's health (the two were colleagues for many years at Washington University in St. Louis) that paradoxically explains a great deal about the overpowering energy and vitality of Elkin's fiction.
Although Elkin has been dead for less than a decade, it's my sense that already his work does need this kind of introduction for readers who did not follow his career while it was still ongoing. Elkin has many passionate admirers, but ultimately they probably comprise only a coterie. This is not enough for a writer as prodigious in his gifts as Elkin, whose books are of the kind that can make the act of reading a transcendent experience.
It's hard for me to avoid such superlatives when discussing Elkin's work. He's probably the postwar American writer I most admire, a writer who indeed shows us how prose can become poetry. But he's also damn entertaining. Probably no other writer (with the possible exception of Dickens) makes me laugh out loud so often (and so loudly) as Stanley Elkin. When trying to get across what Elkin has to offer, it's probably best just to quote him.
This is from The Franchiser, perhaps Elkin's greatest novel--although The Living End might indeed be a good book for those unacquainted with Elkin to pick up first. Here Ben Flesh, literally a "franchiser," is trying to explain why he'll need to shut down one of his businesses (an H & R Block office):
"Finish your case load. Take twice your commission. Triple. We're closing shop, we're going out of business, everything must go."
"I told Evelyn Wood the same. What, you think you're a special case? I told Evelyn Wood, I told her, 'Eve, there's trouble in Canada, in the forest. The weather's bad, the stands of trees are lying down. There's no wood in the woods, Wood. The pulp business is mushy. Where's the pulp to come from for the speed readers to read? They're reading so fast now they're reading us out of business. Publishing's in hot water. Magazines are folding, newspapers. (What, you never heard of folded newspapers?) If we want to keep up with the times we have to slow down, go back to the old ways. We have to teach them to move their lips.'"