I was setting a nice pace to finish 50 books in 2018, and then I hit A Bad Man by Stanley Elkin. I finished it last night, after three weeks of extremely slow progress—reading twenty-some pages and falling asleep, setting a timer for two hours and abandoning ship after 40 minutes, meaning to polish it off on the weekend and doing any other chore I could find. At almost no point in this book was I reading for another purpose than to finish. As you might remember, we got to A Bad Man via William Gass’s endorsement in On Being Blue. That book is, among other things, a paean to stylistic maximalism. A Bad Man is certainly a work of high style, but I found it utterly unpleasant to read.
What happened? I used to love books like this, from Absalom, Absalom! to Carpenter’s Gothic—books of literary performance, where the important work happened at the sentence level and story was incidental, an occasion to interrogate the bounds of prose. Although Elkin is not as mandarin as Faulkner or Gaddis, A Bad Man is very much that kind of book. The point is to demonstrate how good at sentences Elkin is. Reading it made me realize how such demonstrations have come to enrage me.
The premise of a A Bad Man is that Leo Feldman, department store owner and natural salesman, has been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit—although he has done plenty of awful things he got away with—and sent to a Kafka-esque prison. There he is identified as an especially bad man and forced to endure humiliations, both under the warden’s inscrutable system of constantly changing rules, and at the hands of other convicts who somehow recognize him as worse than they are. Also, he has a homunculus in his chest. The dead fetus of his twin brother, who perished in utero, is positioned over his heart in such a way that a sharp blow to Feldman’s chest will kill him. To paraphrase Chekhov, if a homunculus appears in the chest cavity during the first act, it has to go off in the third.
Not that A Bad Man hews to a three-act structure.1 It has a structure, like all books, but this structure is not narrative. In the fiction workshop, we used to sometimes say to each other, as gently as we could, “That’s not a story; that’s a situation.” A Bad Man is a great situation. It’s Kafka-esque, and the long first chapter promises an extended metaphor on the Jewish diaspora. Feldman’s unnamed crime promises a fun lacuna, and his established guilt combined with his prowess at sales promises a rumination on the morality of consumer capitalism. I also spent the first 100 pages thinking this novel might be about fascism. But none of those promises was fulfilled.
Spoiler alert: Feldman does die in the end, exactly the way you expect, after a long and intermittently turgid trial scene.2 The Jewish diaspora thread gets dropped early, although it periodically comes up again throughout the book. It’s possible, in the first half, to read the mercurial warden as the God of the Old Testament and Feldman as the Jewish people. That reading falls apart, though, as the focus shifts to Feldman’s interpersonal betrayals in a series of intense, psychologically realistic flashbacks. You think that Elkin has gotten sick of Kafka-esque absurdism and switched to a redemption story midway through, but then the novel ends with no change in Feldman’s character. He dies defiant, insisting on the same self-deception he brought in.
Elkin sets up a lot of interesting points of departure, but he doesn’t go on any trips. He is in it for the sentences, and—like any talented stylist trying to preserve momentum without the benefit of a plot—he winds up writing hard. There are so many similes in this book—similes that are inventive and, at first, unexpected. Then they multiply so numerously as to become mundane and, finally, dreaded. Elkin averages more than one simile per sentence. Everything is like something else, so that his loving descriptions of Feldman’s wares, delightful at first, wind up cloying. You start to think about how many of them don’t make sense, how little Elkin’s unexpected connection between tubes of lipstick and nuclear warheads, for example, contributes to the reader’s understanding. There is so much figurative language in this book that it becomes an argument against figuration. A Bad Man is to fine writing as the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball: thrilling at first, but finally an object lesson in the limitations of virtuosity.
Is it funny? No, not really. I laughed once. A big part of the problem is that Feldman is the only developed character. The warden is interesting, but he is a deus ex machina more than a person. The other convicts step forward as needed to threaten Feldman or act as his stooges in crosstalk scenes, but then they fade into the miasma of non-Feldman personae again. This absence of developed characters rules out a whole category of humor; there can be no moments where we chuckle to ourselves and think, “that’s so Victman” or “that’s just like the warden,” because we don’t have a sense of how those people are. Neither can Feldman’s intentions bring about the opposite of what he intended, because he pursues no significant intentions other than to survive the prison. Like the author, he is doing time, looking for pleasure in the moment the same way Elkin looks for zingers in the individual sentences. As a result, A Bad Man is clever, witty, cynical, audacious—everything a joke can be when it doesn’t make you laugh.
It is, in short, better to think about than to read. It has a fun premise, and it manages to raise some interesting questions about the nature of evil. There’s a harrowing flashback between Feldman and his wife, and the story of his betrayal of Dedman is genuinely inventive and compelling. I found these scenes vivid and emotionally affecting in a way that called attention to the colorlessness of the rest of the novel. A Bad Man is a work of high postmodernism, and above all it serves as a compelling argument that style is a minor effect. I would have enjoyed Elkin’s prose much more were there even a rudimentary plot to pull me through. As it is, this novel is like a bare room with incredibly detailed wallpaper. You can lose yourself staring into the pattern for a few minutes, but ultimately you go stir-crazy.
I got so mad at literary fiction reading A Bad Man that we’re going to read a fantasy novel about a wizard next. I’m ten percent into A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, and I’m already more invested than I ever was in Elkin. I suspect we’ll be talking about it a lot sooner than three weeks from now.
50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next, we’re reading A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursule Le Guin. Join us!