This hasn’t been a good year, by any reckoning, for the epic, fantastical strains—absurdism, fable, surrealism—in American fiction. The late John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, John Barth’s Sabbatical, Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace, Kurt Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick: violently dissimilar in other respects, they all suggest the fatigue (or uneasiness) that dogs most recent attempts to reach beyond life-sized storytelling. Even the year’s most energetic exercise in the fanciful, D. Keith Mano’s Take Five, was tenuously grounded (and largely ignored). And, in these two novels by writers whose work has often embraced the not-quite-real with purpose and authority, the leaps to metaphor and macrocosm seem half-hearted, arbitrary, sending up central images that don’t earn their keep. “The Names” (a cult) is the weakest notion in The Names, Don DeLillo’s stately yet fractured meditation on terrorism, semantics, and Americans abroad; George Mills (an Everyman) is the weakest character in George Mills, Stanley Elkin’s lavish yet unsatisfying anything-goes-in variety show.
Elkin, of course, has been twitted in the past for his laissez-faire approach to plot. The Dick Gibson Show was a loosely spinning radio dial, The Franchiser a wayward bus-and-truck tour; even The Living End, austere and potent in its pared-down triptych format, each sequence more a canto or a chamber-music movement than a would-be chapter, didn’t quite shrug off the scent of failed narrative. Yet if Elkin’s best novels flounder and lurch, they also burn at their centers—with fierce, desolate visions (of life as a cosmic one-liner, of the fast-fed American landscape) that demand imaginative, larger-than-life incarnations. The tilt toward pop-epic, toward fable, seems an imperative, not a whim. When radio-man Dick Gibson or franchiser Ben Flesh wanders his picaresque way into the surreal, the wildest episode can be tuned to that central metaphor—especially since Elkin sweats to get the texture of the way-it-really-is (a Holiday Inn, a DJ’s spiel) exactly right. Best of all, Elkin at his least earthbound has also tended to be Elkin at his most comically, verbally inspired: if it takes a ghost or two, as in the middle section of The Living End, to bring together the lyrical and vaudevillian halves of Elkin’s unruly talent for a rare harmonious triumph, then his impulse toward the mythical is surely cause for celebration.
George Mills is certainly mythical—and mythic—enough. He is “God’s blue collar worker,” history’s “Horseshit Man,” first seen as a stableboy to a “sissy sir” on the First Crusade, later seen as a hapless spy for England’s George IV, but mostly seen as middle-aged George Mills of present-day St. Louis: a blue-collar man like “Greatest Grandfather Mills,” he works for a slumlord (removing the possessions of the evicted) and feels the burden of those “thousand top-heavy lean years of his second-fiddle fate.” (He also, for good measure, and with no apparent justification, announces that he’s born again, “saved.”)
But while Elkin wallpapered Ben Flesh and Dick Gibson into the dense reality of franchises and radio shows before giving those unlikely heroes an epic twirl, here he’s content to proclaim the George Mills legacy, improvise a few riffs on the second-fiddle theme (lovely riffs, some of them), and use George as his blue-collar worker: an all-purpose, chameleonlike character who moves through all of the novel’s disorderly rooms without illuminating any of them. As for the actual textures of blue-collar life, Elkins seems oddly uninterested. George of St. Louis wears a mood-ring; he occasionally, erratically says “ain’t.” (He also says, “Choirs of asyncopatic, amatory, affricative, low-woodwind drone.”) For the most part, however, he’s anything but a convincingly quintessential man of the lunchpail and timeclock—especially when compared, for instance, to Bill Griffith’s spare, exact closeups of similarly occupied employees (grubbing for smalltime slum entrepreneurs) in the recent Time for Frankie Coolin.
Furthermore, if Elkin doesn’t ground the George Mills conceit in the most vivid contemporary particulars, he also doesn’t hesitate to marble the blue-collar imagery with a smattering of other myth material: the George Millses talk in tongues; they never sire daughters (an exception, George’s sister, is stillborn). And though George tells his wife Louise that the essence of George-Mills-dom is “We’ve always been respectable and always been poor,” the most hilariously stirring moment in the family history—George’s father audaciously begs food from a chain gang in 1930s Florida—comes out of some roguish, highly unrespectable, non-blue-collar tradition. In fact, the entire George Mills conception, so lacking in the urgency needed to hold this sprawling novel together, almost makes more sense—and surely generates more emotional heat—if read not as a blue-collar epic but as an oblique Jewish one. After all, George Mills, wandering through the centuries with his fated subordinate status, sees “himself in the myth victim’s delicious position.” It wouldn’t be the first such side step for Elkin, a Jewish novelist who usually avoids putting explicitly Jewish characters at the center of his fiction.
Whether taken at face value or turned inside out, however, the George Mills fantasy doesn’t pay off: launched without any apparent passion (except a yen for narrative grandeur, perhaps), it can’t—unlike the metaphors in other Elkin fictions—act as a reference point, a tuning fork. (And, with long digressions into astral projection and Ottoman history, this is a novel sorely in need of a tuning fork.) It doesn’t even give rise to the choicest burlesques here. One of the world’s great dialect musicians, Elkin hardly needs a fantasy framework to lift off into conversational dazzle. George Mills’s most mundane occupation, for instance, the removal of dispossessed tenants’ furniture, leads to dashiki-ed, beret-topped Bob—an “official dispatcher for the revolution” who objects to the Mills trucking operation: ” ‘Oh oh,’ Bob moaned, ‘I look in here and I like to cry for the furnitures of my peoples…. And look these scrawny, itty bitty pads. Fuckin’ Kleenex. What kind of candy ass protection these give the furnitures of my peoples?”‘ By contrast, the more fanciful George Mills adventures aren’t liberated but locked into a single joke—anachronism. George Mills the First may get a laugh by telling some wild Cossacks that “killing isn’t nice,” but by the time George Mills the Forty-third pays interminable homage to both Bob Hope (the pretending-to-be-a-eunuch-in-a-harem-routine) and Mel Brooks (unlikely accents in period costume), the leap to fable has led merely to cartoon tedium.
Only in one seemingly minor (yet possibly crucial) respect, in fact, do Elkin’s reachings for the absurd, the epic, work for him this time. They allow him, now and again, to creep up lightly on the most daunting realities, to fold them into the novel’s madcap chaos almost off-handedly, to manage a sort of poetic black comedy that might not withstand the pressures of a more straightforward narrative. “It’s not so bad to die,” says Mrs. Judith Glazer, who is indeed dying, of cancer in a Mexican laetrile clinic, with versatile dogsbody George Mills as her bedside attendant. After all, says Judith, “You can never get four people to agree on a restaurant.” And, thanks to all that context-jarring George Mills folderol, thanks too to glimmers of the surreal on every side (including a local Mexican con man/priest/semiologist), Judith’s deathbed ironies neither settle down into comfy comedy-drama nor do they clank with (obliquely, equally sentimental) gallows humor. Instead they float—as do the similarly unlikely words of her funeral oration, a clinical report delivered, at mad Judith’s own posthumous request, by her psychiatrist: “She was afraid of weather. Autumn nearly killed her.”
Yet the strongest set piece in George Mills owes nothing to the novel’s disarming, disorienting balloon-trip effect, which does enable Elkin (here, as in previous books) to glide by the grotesque pathos of death and illness with an unnerving dip, a lamentational wink. Only fifteen pages long, placed where many a weary reader might miss it, in the pre-finale lull along about page 470, there is a story—told by a “clearly second-string” academic named Cornell Messenger, whose friendship with the late Judith Glazer has led him to Meals-on-Wheels volunteer work (Judith, a mischief-maker to the end, persuaded Messenger to take over her route) and to George Mills. Messenger has a son, Harve: “Fourteen years old and he doesn’t get the point of damned knock-knock jokes!” Harve also can’t read, not even a menu, as becomes agonizingly obvious when Messenger takes the boy on a forced-togetherness trip along the Franchiser-like highways of Kentucky and Tennessee. And Messenger’s tiny, raging paternal shame is the novel’s most genuinely epic item—one that takes fire when the dialogue and details are permitted to be nakedly realistic, surviving Elkin’s attempts to loop Harve’s particular second-rateness into his feckless grand design. Indeed, Messenger nearly sabotages the story’s lingering ache by finishing it off with a thematic dithyramb: “I’m crying for the confidence, all that Special Olympics confidence, all that short-range, small-time, short-change, small-scale, short-lived, short-shrift, small-potato, small-beer fucking confidence. I’m weeping for the confidence.”
For some Elkin admirers, of course, such rhetorical flourishes are in themselves reason enough to welcome (or at least forgive) the fabulistic free-for-all here. Unquestionably, the malleability of both George-Mills-the-character and George-Mills-the-concept makes possible an unprecedented torrent of bravura Elkin language: sentence-fragment festivals, Faulkneresque run-ons, swarming parentheses, lyricized commonplaces, slanged-up spiritualities. Here, for instance, is Messenger’s reaction to selling a twelve-year-old short story to the movies:
“How do you like that?” Messenger said. “How do you like the way things work out? How do you like this idyll vision, this epithalamion style? How do you like it the game ain’t over till the last man is out? How do you like it you can dig for balm? That there’s balm and joy mines, great fucking mother lodes of bower and elysian amenity? How do you like deus ex machina? How do you like it every cloud has a silver lining? What do you make of God’s pastoral heart? How do you like it there’s pots of gold at the end of rainbows and you can’t keep a good man down? How do you like it ships comes in, and life is just a bowl of cherries? How do you like it it isn’t raining rain you know, it’s raining violets? What do you make of it every time I hear a newborn baby cry or see the sky then I know why I believe?
But, while Elkin was (or managed to appear) driven to verbal fireworks by visions in The Dick Gibson Show, The Franchiser, and (especially) The Living End, in George Mills he seems driven by language itself, by his ferocious gift for it—to create an expandable, comfortably baggy, and only incidentally fantastical package. “It suddenly occurred to me that I was a novelist, that anything I say is a part of this novel is a part of this novel,” Elkin said of George Mills in a recent interview with William Gass.* The tone is take-charge; the rhythm of the book, however, is a kind of glorious surrender—with imagination and rhetoric triumphant, feeling and form (those oddly persistent comrades-in-arms) in retreat, and the good name of fable an unmourned casualty.
For Don DeLillo, too, the most convincing moves into the surreal have seemed to spring from necessity rather than whim. The violent, tainted face of Sixties-and-after America, the lurid emptiness of modern urban life: DeLillo responds to these with such intense loathing and despair that his inventions—from the enigmatic football teams of End Zone to the nude story-teller and Hitler home movies of Running Dog—carry a whiff of danger, of fury kept just barely under control by a shift to metaphor. The resulting imagery can sometimes be off-putting or self-defeatingly private; the cosmic perspective—with every personal dysfunction turned into a sociopolitical disease—can be schematic, even adolescent. But DeLillo’s across-the-board revulsion has also drummed up disturbing, shattered-windshield worlds, with virtually every fictional convention infected, twisted askew. Characters who slide between cartoon and clinical report, bad-dream plots, switchblade-carved prose, and disjointed talk: in a novel like Players, all these elements, equally (just slightly) unmoored from reality, spin around each other like particles in solution, bouncing off a central alienation that DeLillo is too clever (or too angry) to take on directly.
In The Names, however, DeLillo is suddenly, eloquently, almost lumberingly direct—about the dynamics of alienation, about the corruption of the American personality. Instead of pawnlike, flyaway characters lost in a jigsaw nightmare, here is James Axton, a full-time narrator-hero prone to measured pronouncements and near-Jamesian introspection. An American in Athens, working for a shadowy company that sells “political risk insurance” to corporations with foreign holdings, Axton may have an exotic trope of a job, but he has the most conventional of modern domestic crises: a communication problem with his estranged wife Kathryn, a late-blooming archaeologist who’s now on a dig, with their precocious young son, on a desolate Aegean island.
Axton recalls the disintegration of the relationship: when Kathryn started learning Greek, “Every day made her more certain of my various failings. I compiled a mental list, which I often recited aloud to her…. The oral delivery was a devotional exercise, an attempt to understand through repetition.” Similarly, in his subsequent mild attempts at reconciliation, the role of conversation is made crucial. Indeed, throughout this novel the paradoxical nature of language—as a barrier, as a way to “bridge the lonely distances”—becomes DeLillo’s often-elegant vehicle for exploring Axton’s alienation. The theme is spelled out in textbook-bold: “Could reality be phonetic, a matter of gutturals and dentals?”
Equally straightforward, and considerably more effective, is DeLillo’s slide-show portrait of the American expatriate subculture that Axton edgily inhabits—those “business people in transit, growing old in planes and airports,” thriving on the “humor of personal humiliation.” Again, language is the sinuous motif: the ethnocentricity of English-speakers abroad, the fear and distortion that arise from Axton’s limited Greek vocabulary, his faulty pronunciation, his concierge-phobia. (“In time I began to lie. I would tell him I was going to a place that had a name I could easily pronounce.”) The novel’s casual references to its international time frame—Iran and terrorism, 1979-1980—are sufficient to suggest global ramifications. An unsurprising revelation about Axton’s accidental CIA connections (after which he’ll ascend the Acropolis at last and hear “one language after another”) puts yet another thematic lid on.
For perhaps the first time, then, DeLillo has no apparent trouble making himself clear, pinning his vision down, through thoroughly traditional means. Yet he also fabricates a central plot that’s closer to symbolic fable than to realistic storytelling; and this time the imaginative leap registers almost as an exasperating footnote, a leftover extra layer. Led on first by an archaeologist (his wife’s mentor), later by a documentary film maker, Axton follows a blatantly implausible trail of cult murders from Peloponnesia to Jordan to India. What is this cult? Why do its unlikely killer members match up victims’ initials with place names, cutting the initials into the blades of the murder weapons? Why have the world’s semanticists turned so vicious? The answer, little more than another variation on DeLillo/Axton’s philosophical drift, hardly justifies the side step into borderline fantasy: “These killings mock us. They mock our need to structure and classify, to build a system against the terror in our souls.”
DeLillo, in fact, doesn’t seem to need cults and spies and nude storytellers any more: Axton could have made his transformation—and might have made a more persuasive one—without the trek across an alien genre. And DeLillo’s prose, though too often put in the service of Axton’s magisterial ruminations, responds as securely to the fullness of intimate observation and psychology as it once did to the cool disjunctions of surrealism. This may not be DeLillo’s farewell to CIA agents, mock-thrillers, and metaphoric violence; it may be merely a failed attempt to expand and explicate the old formulas. But there’s more than a hint of a Prospero-like valediction here, and more than a hint that fantasy’s loss could be realism’s gain.
December 16, 1982