The Rest of the Novel

Stanley Elkin





For conveying ideas, novels are among the least functional and most decorative of the blunt instruments. (Could this be a universal truth, some starry, operative mathematical principle? Most stars are decorative too, of course, their function merely to peg the universe in place like studs in upholstery, servicing the elegancies, strumming its physics like a man with a blue guitar, fleshing all the centripetals and centrifugals, stringing the planets like beads, some beautiful pump of placement, arranging night, moving the planetary furniture, and fixing the astronomical data, but less useful, finally, in the sense that a handful more here or a dollop less there could make as much of a never mind as corks or rhythm, less useful, finally, than mail or ice cream.) And if, a few times in a way, novels like Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast or Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath come along to legislate, or raise a consciousness or two, or rouse a rabble, to make, I mean, what history or the papers call a difference, why that’s decorative, too, I think, a lip service the system, touching the bases like a superstitious braille, pays art—like, oh, the claims made a few years back for the “We Are the World” folks when it was really the Catholic Relief Services already on site during the Ethiopian famine that did the heavy lifting.

Well it’s not the novelist’s fault. Not that they don’t deserve some of the blame, leaking encouragement like someone paying out line to fish, some of your have-cake-and-eat-its like a little miracle of the loaves. And there are still a few big mouths who stake claims for the ameliorative shamanism of—hark! this is interesting: not the book so much as the writer—the practice of fiction—the loyal, Nutso Art Jerk Groupie, like some devoted cultist, the last Deadhead, say, worrying like holy beads the shoelace on his wrist he thinks is a bracelet making confrontation with an Elvis Presley impersonator.

Isn’t it pretty to think so, though? To take oneself as seriously as one’s readers sometimes do? To believe, if only briefly, and if only by the light off the gloss of the brittlest mood swing, in the justice or even the palpability of one’s cause, to Don Quixote principle, any principle, and raise to the level of purpose what in the final analysis is only what given egos, fashionably or not, fashion or no, frozen in mere season’s hipped au courantness, perceive as beauty.

Because aesthetics is the only subject matter, because style is, and all calls are judgment calls. Because ideas are even scarcer 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.

Because ain’t, when you come right down, the rest of the novel like the rest of the novel, as all detective stories are like all other detective stories, dick-fic a piece of the mother-lode main? Not just who done it but how it’s done, how it’s always done, the who-done-it as orthodox and ritualized as positions in ballet in which, like the do-re-mes, all music has its source, from Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe. Almost as if a detective’s relentless, endless questions along the stations of his investigation, the forced march of his focused, inquisitive rhetoric, were the natural music of the world, or as if such men were tone deaf to intrusion, to all the hectoring socratics of their quest. And the hell this plays with character, all the battering-rammed intent of obsession, the armored callus of the soul, the boring tyrannicals of personality. To say nothing at all of the other played-upon players in the game, their passified, invaded lives and suspect, squirmed evasions. Form, I mean, creates cliché. It horses stereotype. Think of Mr. Falk’s Columbo and you have almost encyclopedically the finite limits of the genre—only his rumpled raincoat and his smarmy awe and merely partially put-on turnip-truck airs and naïves, only the feigned clutter of his personal human laundry, only that final question delivered at the door and springing, it would seem, from the goldened-over grove of his slapped and mythic forehead a studied idosyncratics all he has for character, shtick in lieu of life and charm and will, tic in lieu of depth, as if Hercule and Holmes and Dalgleish and Marple were really, give or take an eccentricity, ultimately the same invulnerable party, their very invulnerability almost a product not so much of their slick sleuthfulness as of their authority, the fascist bent of their being, and their recyclability as characters, their cloned and clannish serial essence, not even the motives of the criminals changing—love-greed or cash-greed—only always the victims and cases, sometimes the weapons. In it, amateurs or not, professionally, which is to say objectively, which is to say marginally, indifferent and blind as Justice herself, with no more rooting interest in who did what to whom than, ideally, the jury impaneled to determine the guilt or innocence of the party arrested. In it professionally. So standing outside the loop of the novel itself. Which is, of course, no place for any proper protagonist to stand at all. Their invulnerability protected, too, not just by the almost apostolic authority of their badged office but crazily, by, well, profit motive, so that sometimes even after their authors age and sicken and die, their characters live on, doomed like ghosts to sequel their lives, their impersonate lives assuranced, too, by the genre in which they ask their bruising, devastating questions, questions that, in real life, would earn, at least for the amateurs and busybodies, the private eyes and mercenaries, blows, bullets, all the wrenching, gut-kicked pile-on of a cornered rage; even the Mike Hammers, Sam Spades (colored into character by first-person rhetoric), and laconic dirtied Harrys a sort of race of stunt men finally, their asses covered by camera angle, so that for all the knocks they take to the head, for all their stand-in saviorhood, they are guaranteed survivability, too, as though the life/death arrangements of their furious, spurious danger were only a kind of faked sportsmanship, like taking fish with a net, say, or shooting game from out the window of an airplane.

Because the rest of the novel is like the rest of the novel. The bottled myths and all the archetypes and by-the-numbers forms, fixed as kitchen-dutied molds, shaped as sealed, airtight paradigms, all the directed, incremental givens of a genre like the marked trails, posted milliaries and pointers of a trapped geography. Like the unvarying inevitables of the We-go-theres or They-come-heres of our refractive, strictly social, science fiction. Because the rest of the novel really is like the rest of the novel. Not just the high noonery of endgame ballet in the showdown of a Western fiction or the jaunty round of cumulative recruitment in a book for children, the abuilding ragtag of their conjoined—tin man or not, scarecrow or not, wimpywuss lion or not—kiddy crusades with their always stepped-up, accelerating degree-of-difficulty of the problem at hand, exactly as if, exposed, writ small, the basic dynamic of fiction was a sort of compounding stress level (it is, it is), some taut, tauter, tautest, uptaut crescendo of din and skirmish growing and exploding like a bolero from the lull of apparent quiescence to the ripsnorting reality of a disturbed perturbation that lurks just fractions of fractions beneath the papered-over calm of surface, as if (it is, it is) fiction’s other dynamic was strictly religious—all difficulty (all, I mean, plot) cautionary, purposeful pain (because the Book of Job is the only book), God testing men’s waters, as if this is the day the Lord has made in order to break your bones, in order to cheat you and mug you and play you for a fool and leave you for dead bleeding in the street (or why are the table stakes of dramatic prose such high ones, why are antes elevated above the systolics and diastolics of merely ordinary and routine, acceptably parametered risk? or why wouldn’t fiction be pure success story, fused, conflated victories, not even victories, givens, givens of being, man in his picnic-lunch, wicker-basket condition, in his reaping one of a tenfold incoming of cast, rewarded bread, pleased men in the high-flying, bust-button peacock mode of their svelte and gifted grace, the character of characters untested, untried, untrialed, taken for granted, and given, along with the proceeds of the broken bank and everything else, the benefit of the doubt?), validating their hearts like a parking voucher stamped at the dentist’s, hearing the song they sing for their supper, as though men’s only real mode were the snap-quiz and tasked one? As if, further, we must learn at the beginning—it’s still storybooks we’re talking about here—what we will certainly know at the end—that there ain’t no free lunch in story, that it comes charged with challenges to a protagonist’s grace and honor and heroism and the laying of one’s ass on the line, qualities decorative and ornamental as the pretties on a Christmas tree.

Because McLuhan was right, and not only is the medium the message, the genre is, too. Clear as crystal, right as rain, plain as the nose. That showdown on that Western street beneath the windows of the town’s only hotel, hard by its single livery stable, across the street from its major saloon, next to its sole drygoods store, near its newspaper, its telegrapher’s shack, its jail and bank and assay office, the stop for its stage, within, I mean, spiritual spitting distance, holy public earshot, of that tumbleweed agora where the final agon happens, the wooden mall in the wooden town where fated push comes to inevitable shove, no mere convention of the Western, or of the mere Western, or even of literature itself, but the rules it must play by, no just obligatory nod in expectation’s direction but, orthodox as the preliminary bow of Sumos, say, primary in story as red and blue and yellow are in spectrum—mythic in some bespoke, locked-in sense of the term, a ritual of chemistry, of physics, of some highest math. Just as, to face each other in that final showdown, you do not send boys—unless they are designated, apostolic boys—to do a man’s work but must send to the confrontation only the major antagonists themselves—the Good Guy from Heaven, the Shyster from Hell. Almost—it’s a law, solid as gravity, certain as celestial navigation; you can set your watch by its movements, its rigorous quartz and atomic timing—as if you can tell how much is left to tell in a story by who’s still alive—fiction as chess piece; the loyal opposition and villain’s higher henchmen versus the hero’s faceless allies on up through his intimates and trusted sidekicks. No mere sidekick, however skilled or brave, has ever shot it out with the major bad guy and lived to tell the tale. Because there’d be no tale to tell, you see, because a tale is about its principals or it’s about nothing. Fiction isn’t always a class act, but it’s always about class, its cast, like every classed society, fixed and ranked as playing cards, prissy with privilege, prerogative; fettered by precept and precedent, all those inside-the-lines moves prescribed as the knight’s broken waltz on a chessboard, the pawn’s slow snail’s pace or the swift rush of the bishop’s blindsiding diagonals, the queen’s graceful free-form and king’s hobbled freedom, each player fixed on its marked-star mark. Story in its essence nothing more than role being faithful to its nature, following some programmed itinerary toward redemption.

So of course the novel is religious. Even the romance, even nurse novels. With their watertight, ark-worthy hand-in-hands and two-by-twos. With their mutual soul-lotto like discovered treasure, their plighted troths and holy I-love-yous. Because if marriages are made in heaven like VCRs in Japan, where do you think novels are made? Why, in heaven, too, of course, or why would anyone have had to make up the term anti-hero for some character who does not fit the template or cut the compulsory figures of all those literarily fit, virtuous, gorgeous, ball-in-their-court, take-charge boys and girls of conventional story—all those timeless, reliable doers and thinkers and carpenters of the plumb and the true—all those righteous Republicans and fiscal moralists of the world’s literature? Because all books are the Book of Job, high moral tests and tasks set in fairy tales, encoded as clues from the sibyls, all their tricky, forked-tongue talk, land-mined and unforgiving as golf greens, as steeplechase and game board and obstacle course. It’s a winner-take-all world, fiction is, and if you lose it’s because of your tragic flaw, as in any other blame-the-victim teleology. Story is just just desserts is all. I told you—religious, man in the crucible like jack in the box.

All right, there are exceptions. Don’t call me on this because I could never bring myself actually to read the stuff, but it’s my guess that a lot of Eastern European literature, this sort of magic surrealism, a fiction forced so far underground it takes on the look of the chaos of middle earth itself, was an exception. I use my tenses advisedly. What with perestroika, the winds of change and blown smoke of political alteration, Polish, East German, Bulgaric, and otherwheres, such crypto-soliptic tales will turn round soon enough, if they haven’t already, and climb up from and out of their almost geological layers of allegory and emblematic symbolicals and into the tried and possibly truer, if still tainted, air breathed by the rest of us, and we shall have once again Eastern European romances, bedtime stories, Westerns—there’s a thought—the East European Western—science fiction, the perestroika’d detective story, glasnosted nurse novels. And there shall be no exceptions, all fiction about the oppressor’s velvet, Mexican-bandit charm and anxiety’s obligatory peptic toxins, or husbands mistaking their wives for their dinners, the house pet leasing new quarters for its master, metamorphosed back into recognizable shape like the acceptably pinched crown of a hat or the properly punched pocket of a baseball mitt.

Because the reasonable and recognizable is where it’s finally at, and the rest of the novel is like the rest of the novel. There are genres to spare, genres to stock all the remainder bins—“has bins,” they’re called—that ever were. Pornography riding a ribbon of critical theory, obeying, like all books always, the felt—I mean felt in terms of the known, of natural order, some uninstructed sense of right rhythm, of what goes where, and when; I mean felt in terms of what feels right—laws of the literary—that what begins sedately and quietly enough with, say, a couple holding hands will climax in some spectacle of outrageous sky’s-the-limit orgy of almost Busby Berkeley proportion, as choreographed as battle, as all Barnum’d and Bailey’d three-ring’d, combination lust, as if progression and complication were basic tropes—they are, they are—of the novel—art as a sort of intimate geometry, tricky as the lacy tracery of a snowflake. Even the softer excitements—prize fight, floor show, for example. For who would think to put on the preliminaries after the main event, or have Sinatra open for the lounge act? For evolution is the very type of fiction and Man comes on only after the worms and chickens, and man’s imagination and genius only after man’s elbows and toenails. It is, the novel, like evolution, a process, a progress. You don’t get to the Emerald City until you can say “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore,” and you don’t get to go back to Kansas until you’ve been to Oz. A force of nature blows you sky high, and magic—three times you click the heels of your ruby slippers together and three times you recite “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home”—sets you gently back down where both you and the novel began. (Story in its essence nothing more than role being faithful to its nature, I said. The reasonable and recognizable being where it’s at, I went on. Yes, and didn’t Dorothy have those slippers with her all along? Aren’t they just standard ordinary issue to anyone from under the rainbow? So that the furniture you use up in a fiction is only the furniture you’re furnished. Nothing up your sleeve unless you put it there in the first place?)

But surely the rest of the novel is more than the sum of its genres and subgenres? Well, it is and it isn’t.

From time to time, when I was seven or eight years old, I had a chance to stay home from school and live the high life, this on the evidence of a slightly elevated temperature, the merit of a marginally swollen gland. It was a sort of willed, maybe even willful, hypochondria that did no real harm and drew no real blood but just sufficiently rasped my throat or, in certain acrobatic positions, ached my head to keep me, if not exactly honest, then at least within the fudged and fuzzy range of a judgment-call credibility, my mom’s hung jury, tie-to-the-house, that would not, back in those old polio-fraught days, take on either the risk or responsibility of sending an only child out into the first- or second-grade world when a day or two in quarters might provide if not the cure then perhaps the prevention (a limited, voluntary quarantine back then being a kind of quasi, self-imposed exile, part stylite, part masque-of-the-red-death). In any event, there I would be, still in my pj’s and all cozed out in the apartment by the grace of having pled my iffy fifthy. All dressed down and nowhere to go and, all comic books read and all radio serials heard, nothing to do.

Except, of course, there were always the dining room chairs. Because there would come a time, often in the late afternoon or the early postprandial, during that part of the day at any rate when my fraction of a degree of fever had broken—“the crisis,” I believe, was the official medical term we used in those days—and the idea of school, while still not attractive, had, on the scale of things to which I refer, abated upward—at least recesswise, at least assemblywise. (I’ve always been a sucker for a good assembly, or even not such a good one, and enjoyed them even on those occasions when they were called by the principal—there was no public address then, no Big Sister, whose voice boomed out at you, like a pilot’s on an airplane, from the very walls—for the purpose of reaming out at one time in one place an entire grammar school for the infraction of some rule—certain hooligans didn’t obey the patrol boys; those among us raised in barns had chewed gum in class; there was talking in the halls.) This was a time of day conducive to the development of bedsores, to ennui, to, I mean, getting the hell out of bed to begin one’s recuperation, to start the blood up again, to play, I mean, with all the toys of one’s stuffed and blunted imagination, to have kick in, I mean, without ever having to leave home, some out-of-doors, out-of-body experience. To seek, I mean, after all the hard work of filling the minutes, quarter hours, and hours of that wasted, drowsy day, some crisper, more brisk sense of life.

So I’m at my dining room table, under it, examining the latchwork there, the minimal, limited machinery whose pulled levers permitted the insertion of additional leaves to accommodate company and special occasion, or heighten those lazy Wednesday and Tuesday afternoons of which I speak. This dining room table, this reddish runway, this wooden playground, this long, manipulate mahogany toy. And I’m under it, lost in its carved, ball-and-claw stump forest, supine on the queer, colored grasses of the fantastic, alien landscape of the dark Oriental like a mechanic beneath a car, all the juices of possibility running now, loose, amok even, alerted by some programmed tropism for snug adventure. When I come out it’s to arrange, rearrange, the dining room chairs, not just, in our small and, at least in Chicago, practically relationless family, the three for ordinary meals, but pulling away from the walls, too, and from beside our breakfront, the additional unused (at least for dinner parties or anything more specially occasioned than a poker game) five.

Lining them up into an eight-seated spaceship or, alternating the configuration, into a comet like a comma, riding my frozen, bunched celestials, yippee-yiyo-kaiyay, like The Cowboy from Furthest North. Did I say there were broom handles poking through the fret of the back of the lead chair? There were broom handles poking through the fret of the back of the lead chair. These were the spaceship’s controls, the comet’s accelerator lever, the joystick for its brakes. Or did I tell you that blankets hung along the positioned chairbacks like a sort of space laundry, or lined the seats like flying carpet? Did I mention the neatly folded blanket in the commander’s cabin at the front of the comet? The bars of soap I dropped on enemy planets? My flashlight and extra batteries? The toolbox for emergency repairs? The purred, back-of-the-throat noises of warp speed, the whishes and whooshes of intergalactic steering? The folded Illinois road map by which I negotiated the universe? My just cause? The cookies and milk, raisins and oranges stashed away in the sky furniture?

Because if ever there was an essential trope or basic dynamic of fiction, this is surely it. And if the rest of the novel is like the rest of the novel, its truly essential trope and basic dynamic is certainly this—action and respite, tension and release. All rat-a-tat-tat, take-this-you-guys, one minute, all cookies and milk the next. Story, I mean, life and death followed by remission, by all contented suck-thumb abeyance, gravity defied, the dining room chairs made up into high-contingency machines that don’t skimp on the cookies and milk. (Or why are there candy counters in movie theaters? Or why do we watch TV and plays in the dark?) Story finally—consider the exhalated endings of novels, their sense, happy or otherwise, of frozen ever-afterness—something to go to sleep by—death’s mood music.

So what will the rest of the novel be like in the next century? Blunt instruments don’t change their shape. It will be, the detective stories and romances and sci-fi and adventure yarns and all the novel’s subgenres, like it has been in this one, like it was since it began. As conditions change it will fine-tune itself, for the novel, in order to escape being dated, has always, in a race it’s doomed to lose, been forced to run with the world. (Consider, for example, John le Carré tinkering his themes in The Russia House because the cold war has ended. That book is a novel in a petri dish, a specimen of spy fiction in transition.) But history is dated, too, of course. As is the world. As are fashions and customs and belief systems. As is myth and the various versions of God, and if any received wisdom was ever closer to a lie it’s that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Things often change, but nothing, I think, nothing ever, remains the same. Each generation, even, I should think, each individual, if he would live on comfortable terms with his times, is forced to play catch-up. To keep learning, if only about what’s been discarded. Which is why, finally, the only proper study of Story is not Man but men, and the novel’s only legitimate genre is the unparametered masterpiece. I mean, I mean, that all the other stuff I’ve been talking about, the detective’s Q-and-A rhetoric, the showdown, and all the subgenres I haven’t even mentioned—the war novel, the political novel, the ghost story, novels that take readers backstage to dramatize processes they’ve never seen, and all the infinite rung and wrung-out changes of novels that are about ideas or specifically about anything at all except themselves, are only novels. They do not breathe, they will not live. They are mere topics, they are only opportunities. They aim to please. What I’m talking about is harder. It is always the hard history of singular human beings, and, until it’s written, you’ll not see anything like it.


Stanley Elkin (1930-1995) was an award-winning novelist, storywriter, and essayist. He lived in St. Louis, MO.