Stanley Elkin reviews Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show (kinda sorta)

[Ed. note: I finished Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show a few days ago. I read The Dick Gibson Show immediately after finishing Elkin’s 1976 novel The Franchiser. I want to write something about these novels, which seem of a piece to me, but I also wanted to get a bit more context first, and the most basic of internet searches led me to Elkin’s 1974 interview in The Paris Review with Thomas LeClair.

What follows are selections from the interview in which Elkin kinda sorta analyzes The Dick Gibson Show, providing what I take to be a Very Good and Fascinating Review of the novel.

Look, I went to school for reading books, I learned about the goddamn intentional fallacy and la mort de l’auteur and all that jazz, and I know that the author isn’t supposed to be the goddamn authority on his own work, I know that what follows isn’t a proper review—but I don’t care. I like it.

My assumption is it’s likely that anyone interested enough in a review of The Dick Gibson Show has probably already read Elkin’s Paris Review interview, and would probably prefer, like, something new on the novel. Which I’ll attempt down the line. But for now: Elkin on Elkin—]


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INTERVIEWER: I have some questions now about themes or ideas I find in much of your fiction. You have Dick Gibson say, “The point of life was the possibility it always held out for the exceptional.” The heroes in your novels have a tremendous need to be exceptional, to transcend others, to quarrel with the facts of physical existence. Is this a convention—which we’ve just been talking about—or something very basic to your whole view of life?

ELKIN: It is something very basic to my view of life, but in the case of that character it becomes the initial trauma which sets him going. It becomes his priority. Dick Gibson goes on to say that he had believed that the great life was the life of cliché. When I started to write the book, I did not know that was what the book was going to be about, but indeed that is precisely what the book gets to be about as I learned what Dick Gibson’s life meant. Consider the last few pages of the book:

What had his own life been, his interminable apprenticeship which he saw now he could never end? And everyone blameless as himself, everyone doing his best but maddened at last, all, all zealous, all with explanations ready at hand and serving an ideal of truth or beauty or health or grace. Everyone—everyone. It did no good to change policy or fiddle with format. The world pressed in. It opened your windows. All one could hope for was to find his scapegoat . . .

Now, everything that follows this is a cliché:

to wait for him, lurking in alleys, pressed flat against walls, crouched behind doors while the key jiggles in the lock, taking all the melodramatic postures of revenge. To be there in closets when the enemy comes for his hat, or to surprise him with guns in swivel chairs, your legs dapperly crossed when you turn to face him, to pin him down on hillsides or pounce on him from trees as he rides by, to meet him on the roofs of trains roaring on trestles, or leap at him while he stops at red lights, to struggle with him on the smooth faces of cliffs…

and so on. The theme of the novel is that the exceptional life—the only great life—is the trite life. It is something that I believe. It is not something that I am willing to risk bodily injury to myself in order to bring to pass, but to have affairs, to go to Europe, to live the dramatic clichés, all the stuff of which movies are made, would be the great life.

INTERVIEWER: But what if one were aware that they were clichés? Isn’t that what causes so much despair in contemporary fiction—that characters can’t live a life of clichés?

ELKIN: Dick Gibson is aware that they are clichés. What sets him off—what first inspires this notion in him—is his court-martial when he appears before the general and says that he’s taken a burr out of the general’s paw—something that happens in a fairy tale. When Dick realizes what has happened to him, he begins to weep, thinking, oh boy, I’ve got it made—I’m going to have enemies, I’m going to be lonely, I’m going to suffer. That is the theme of that book.

INTERVIEWER: Do the characters in your novels, then, have rather conventional notions of what exceptional is?

ELKIN: Yes, I think so.

Dick can’t stand anybody’s obsession but his own, which is largely the plight of myself and yourself, probably, and everybody. He’s opened a Pandora’s box when he opens his microphones to the people out there. When they find the platform that the Gibson format provides, they just get nuttier and nuttier and wilder and wilder, and this genuinely arouses whatever minimal social consciousness Dick Gibson has. The paradox of the novel is that the enemy that Gibson had been looking for all his life is that audience. The audience is the enemy. Dick builds up in his mind this Behr-Bleibtreau character. That Behr-Bleibtreau is his enemy. That’s baloney paranoia. The enemy is the amorphous public that he is trying to appeal to, that he’s trying to make love to with his voice. Dick Gibson is a bodiless being. He is his voice. That’s why the major scene in the novel is the struggle for Gibson’s voice.

INTERVIEWER: Who is Behr-Bleibtreau? There is a suggestiveness to his name that I can’t articulate.

ELKIN: Neither can I. I used to know a guy named—Bleibtreau. Hyphenating the name made it more sinister than just Bleibtreau itself. You know, you could almost put Count in front of it.

INTERVIEWER: s that why Dick thinks that Behr-Bleibtreau is the enemy—because there is this suggestion of cliché?

ELKIN: That’s right. Behr-Bleibtreau is a charlatan—that’s what he is. He has this theory of the will that is alluded to in the second section of the novel. And he is a hypnotist, exactly the kind of guy who Gibson sees as out to get him. Of course Behr-Bleibtreau isn’t out to get him. When Gibson thinks it is Behr-Bleibtreau calling him from Cincinnati, it isn’t. It’s just Gibson’s own paranoia that creates the conditions for Behr-Bleibtreauism.

INTERVIEWER: Is radio in the novel an index to social change, perhaps the devaluation of language?

ELKIN: That was not my intention. I could make a case that once upon a time there were scripts, a platform and an audience out in front of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, that radio then was a kind of art form and now it is an artless form in which you get self-promoters and people with theories about curing cancer by swallowing mosquitoes or something. Language, since it is occurring spontaneously rather than thought out, is devalued. But actually, in real life, modern radio talk shows are much more interesting than The Jack Benny Program ever was because you are getting the shoptalk of personality.

INTERVIEWER: Dick is a professional word man, and by the end he is reduced nearly to silence. Is this your “literature of exhaustion” that Barth talks about, a comment on the futility of language…

ELKIN: No. Certainly not.

INTERVIEWER: He does say less and less as the novel moves along.

ELKIN: Right. And the other people say more and more. That is intentional. But Dick makes an effort to get his program back from the sufferers. He starts hanging up on people. Then he gets the biggest charlatan—Nixon—at the end. Wasn’t I clever to invent Nixon before Nixon did?

INTERVIEWER: In bringing together so many stories and storytellers, did you have a thematic unity in mind?

ELKIN: I had in mind, as a matter of fact, The Canterbury Tales, particularly in that second section where the journey to dawn is the journey to Canterbury. Although there are no particular parallels, when I was sending out sections of the novel to magazines, I would call the sections “The Druggist’s Tale” and so on. There is that choral effect of the pilgrims to Canterbury.

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Reading/Have Read/Should Write About

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From bottom to top:

I had to go hunt through the house for the trio of Hildafolk comics by Luke Pearson because my kids keep swapping them around. We’ve read them a bunch of times now and they are very good and sweet and charming and you can get them from NobrowHilda is going to be a Netflix series, by the way, which I told my kids and they were psyched. (They ten went on Netflix and looked for it. I had to explain production schedules).

W.D. Clarke’s White Mythology (which may or may not take its title from Derrida’s essay of the same name) is actually two novellas, Skinner Boxed and Love’s Alchemy. I finished the first novella before July 4th; Skinner Boxed is about psychiatrist Dr. Ed, who juggles a bunch of maguffins including a detached (and missing) wife, a returned bastard son, and a clinical anti-depressant trial. The novella begins with epigrams from Gravity’s Rainbow and A Christmas Carol, the latter of which it (somewhat perhaps ironically) follows. I finished the second novella Love’s Alchemy yesterday. Its tone is not as zany as that of Skinner Boxed, but both stories require the reader to put together seemingly disconnected events for the plot to “resolve” (if resolve is the right word). Good stuff.

I started the Howard translation of The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal. I’m in Chapter 3 right now. We’ll see how it goes this time. For now, I’ll continue to trust Italo Calvino. From his “Guide for New Readers of Stendhal’s Charterhouse:

…many young people will be smitten right from the opening pages, and will be instantly convinced that this has to be the best novel ever written, recognising it as the novel they had always wanted to read and which will act as the benchmark for all the other novels they will read in later life. (I’m talking particularly about the opening chapters; as you get into it, you will find that it is a different novel, or several novels each different from the other, all of which will require you to modify your involvement in the plot; whatever happens, the brilliance of the opening will continue to influence you.)

I finished Stanley Elkin’s The Franchiser and then the novel that chronologically preceded it (and arguably birthed it), The Dick Gibson Show. I need to write a whole Thing on these two novels, but I enjoyed them, and can’t believe it took me so long to read Elkin (although I’m glad I read Pynchon, Gaddis, and Gass first). I preferred the riffing polyglossia of TDGS a bit more than The Franchiser, which occasionally seemed to let its satire tip over into a kind of bathetic melancholy. Both novels diagnose an obsession of nostalgia (or, more directly: an obsession of obsession) that continues to grip America.

Yesterday I picked up Vladislav Vančura’s novel Marketa Lazarova, new in a sharp English translation by Carleton Bulkin from Twisted Spoon Press. Twisted Spoon had sent me the book a few weeks ago, and I’d meant to read it over the week of July Fourth but drank too many beers instead. Anyway, I picked it up yesterday and read the first two chapters (50 pages—the first third, that is) gripped in wonder and laughter, and a bit of happy shock even. A strange and often violent tale of multiple kidnappings and medieval intrigues, Marketa Lazarova reminds me of Le Morte D’Arthur, Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan (both in its evocations of brutality and in its marvelous poetic prose), Aleksei German’s film Hard to Be a God, Bergman’s film The Virgin Spring, Bolaño’s sweetly ironic narrators, and yes, hell, Game of Thrones. I’d rather be reading this book right now than writing about it in this silly blog post, actually. And no, I haven’t seen the František Vláčil film adaptation—yet.

Passionate extremists (From Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show)

He could not depend upon his listeners; he had no notion of them. They were as faceless to him as he to them. (They didn’t even have a voice.) His panels, his Special Guests were more real. As for his listeners, he guessed they were insomniacs, cabbies, enlisted men signed out on leave at midnight driving home on turnpikes, countermen in restaurants by highways, people in tollbooths. Or he saw them in bed—they lived in the dark—lumps under covers, profiles on pillows, their skulls beside the clock radio (the clock radio had done more to change programming than even TV) while the dialogue floated above their heads like balloon talk aloft in comic strips. Half asleep, they would not follow it too closely. No, he knew little about his listeners. They were not even mysterious; they were there, but distant as the Sioux.

He knew more about the passionate extremists who used his microphones in the groundless hope of stirring those sleepers, and winning over the keepers of the booths—the wild visionaries, opponents of fluoride, palmists, astrologers, the far right and far left and far center, the dianeticians, scientologists, beatniks, homosexuals from the Mattachine Society, the handwriting analysts, addicts, nudists, psychic phenomenologists, all those who believed in the Loch Ness Monster, the Abominable Snowman and the Communist Conspiracy; men beyond the beyond, black separatists who would take over Idaho and thrive by cornering the potato, pretenders to a half-dozen thrones, Krebiozonists, people from MENSA, health-food people, eaters of weed and soups of bark, cholesterolists, poly-unsaturationalists, treasure hunters, a woman who believed she held a valid Spanish land grant to all of downtown San Francisco, the Cassandras warning of poison in the white bread and cola and barbecued potato chip, conservationists jittery about the disappearing forests and the diminishing water table (and one man who claimed that the tides were a strain on the moon), would-be reformers of a dozen industries and institutions and a woman so fastidious about the separation of church and state that she would take the vote away from nuns and clergymen, capital punishers, atheists, people who wanted the abortion laws changed and a man who thought all surgery was a sin and ought to carry the same sentence as any other assault with a knife, housewives spooked by lax Food and Drug regulations, Maoists, Esperantoists, American Nazis, neo-Jaegerists, Reichians, juvenile delinquents, crionics buffs, anti-vivisectionists, witches, wizards, chief rabbis of no less than three of the twelve lost tribes of Israel, and a fellow who claimed he died the same year Columbus discovered America.

From Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show.

HIC SUNT DODOS! (From Stanley Elkin’s novel The Dick Gibson Show)

The report has come back. It’s official. HIC SUNT DODOS!

The dodo is an extinct species of ungainly, flightless bird of the genus Raphus or Didus. Its incubation ground and later its world was the island of Mauritius. It was closely related in habit and aspect to a smaller bird, the solitaire, also extinct but once indigenous to the island of Réunion. It has long been held by ornithologists that the dodo—both the dodo proper and the solitaire henceforward will be subsumed under the pseudo-generic term ‘dodo’—was related to the pigeon, but this is only an hypothesis since the bird has not been available for study since 1680, the year that the last known dodo died. Although the dodo was sent to European museums, no complete specimen exists, and today only the foot and leg of one specimen are preserved at Oxford. The representations one sees, even in the Mauritius Museum of Art itself, are merely restorations, little more than cunning dolls constructed on skeletal frames. Nevertheless, the skeletons, the scattered bones of which are to be found abundantly even today in the Mauritian fens and swamps, have been painstakingly reassembled by Mauritian dodo artisans—the best in the world—and give an accurate picture of what the bird was like.

He was large, slightly bigger than the American turkey whom he in no mean way resembles. In silhouette the dodo is not unlike a great scrunched question mark. For detail we may refer to the paintings from life that have been made of the bird, many of the best of which are still here in the Mauritius Museum of Art and Dodo Reconstruction. Most of the artists seem to be in agreement that the animal possessed an enormous blackish bill which, together with the huge horny hook in which it terminates, constituted the shepherd’s crook of the question mark. Its cheeks, partially bare, seem oddly weather- beaten and muscular, like the toothless cheeks of old men who have worked out in the open all their lives. Black except for some whitish plumage on his breast and tail and some yellowish white the tint of old piano keys on his tail, the dodo was somewhat formal in appearance, if a trifle stupid looking. This formal aspect is attributable also to his wing, foreshortened as a birth defect, which in repose flops out and down from his body like an unstarched pocket handkerchief.

Dodos are said to have inhabited the Mauritian forests—this is the style of information, of certain kinds of fact; I find it relaxing—and to have laid a single large white egg which they mounted high in a setting of piled grass. Hogs, brought in by the settlers, fed on the dodo eggs and on the dodo young, and in one or two generations the birds were extinct.

From Stanley Elkin’s 1971 novel The Dick Gibson Show.

Three Books

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The Dick Gibson Show by Stanley Elkin. 1983 trade paperback by E.P. Dutton/Obelisk. Cover design by Janet Halverson.

I finished Elkin’s The Franchiser this week and started this one this week.

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The Names by Don DeLillo. 1989 trade paperback by Vintage Contemporaries (God I love Vintage Contemporaries wonderful awful covers)God I love Vintage Contemporaries wonderful awful covers). COver design by Lorraine Louie employing an illustration by Marc Tauss.

I tried starting The Names after finishing The Franchiser, but took a pause…maybe I still have the bad taste of this recent DeLillo interview in my ears.

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The Feud by Thomas Berger. First edition hardback by Delacorte Press, 1983. Jacket design and illustration by Fred Marcellino.

A colleague gave me this a few years ago, and I love the cover; Marcellino’s actually been featured in these Three Books posts a few times now—he did covers for Pynchon and Russell Hoban that I adore.