How crowded is the universe (Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser)

“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. You could have been a dot on a die in a child’s Monopoly set. There are twenty-one dots on each die, forty-two in a pair. Good God, Ben, think of all the dice in the world. End to end they’d stretch to the sun. Then there are the rich, the blooded with their red heritage like a thoroughbred’s silks. You might have been a stitch in those silks, a stitch in any of the trillions of vestments, pennants, gloves, blankets, and flags that have existed till now. Let me ask you something. How many people live? Consider the size of their wardrobe over the years. A button you could be, a pocket in pants, a figure on print.

“—I was discussing the rich. There are many wealthy. More than you think. I’m not just talking beneficiaries either, next of kin, in-laws, distant cousins, the King’s mishpocheh, the Emperor’s. But the rich man himself, the wage earner, the founder. Fly in an airplane in a straight line across one state. You couldn’t count the mansions or limousines, you couldn’t count the swimming pools. So many, Ben. You’re not one of them, and not one of the family, and still you exist. I am talking the long shot of existence, the odds no gambler in the world would take, that you would ever come to life as a person, a boy called Ben Flesh.

From Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser. After a few false starts, I finally got into the rhythm and voices in this strange and very funny novel of Ben Flesh, who “patrolled America” as, well, a franchiser. It was when Ben’s (fairy)godfather goes on a rant about the, uh, miracle of existence that I fell for the novel.

3 thoughts on “How crowded is the universe (Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser)”

  1. Became enamoured of Elkin fairly early in my serious reading life with GEORGE MILLS. Satire is seldom recognized, strangely, even in contemporary novels influenced by Elkin. Satire is accused of being sloppiness and unfriendliness on the part of the author.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point…I think a lot of it has to do with tone and command of tone. That’s why Vonnegut’s satire is so accessible, especially to younger readers—the tone is, for lack of a better term, *obvious* in its satire. But younger readers are often unequipped with the life experiences to assimilate the contexts for satire.

      Like

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