“I must remark that I have a most particular art of nettling people without seeming to intend it. I seldom make use of it, but have found it very useful”, wrote James Boswell in his journal on February 8, 1763. Surviving accounts portray him as a whippersnapper: “Surely I am a man of Genius. I deserve to be taken notice of”, he said on February 7. How this feisty Scot who moved to London to have his fame framed on the façade of posterity was going to achieve his goal perhaps he didn’t know yet. Then on May 16 he was hanging out with fate at Tom Davies’ bookshop when Dr. Samuel Johnson walked in right on cue to start act two of Boswell’s improbable plan to attach his name to the firmament of fame: why not erect a monument to the most famous Englishman of his time? Fate threw him a sideways glance, suppressed a giggle and went on checking the shelves for the latest Thomas Gray. But with the gumption of a serial killer, for the next thirty years Boswell stalked, befriended, insinuated himself, interviewed, cajoled and cadged with callous precision whoever could show him a private letter sent by Johnson, tell him a personal anecdote involving him, until he ruled supreme in his sheikdom of Johnsoniana. There are stories of our highflyer patiently ingratiating himself with strangers, groveling at their intimacy, and then never talking to them again once he had plundered them for their atom of info. All that enterprise came to fruition in 1791 under the name of Life of Johnson, the reason anyone cares still about James Boswell.
He also provided a far-out epigraph for Nabokov’s Pale Fire. And speaking of ‘60s North-American fiction…
I’ve now read four Stanley Elkin novels, in the following order: The Dick Gibson Show, The Franchiser, The Magic Kingdom, and Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964). I don’t know why Elkin chose James Boswell as the name of his first novel’s protagonist; it may even be distorting to try to see significance in it; the too loose links were forged in roundabout ways. Elkin’s Boswell quotes Johnson at least once and keeps his own journal, but lacks the self-awareness to point out the strangeness of having a famous biographer’s name.
The two Boswells only superficially overlap in their ambitions. The first wanted to be famous, a time-honored motivation, but especially powerful in the 18th century when man was liberating himself from the religious teachings of humility and effacement. It was a time of boundless optimism, propelled by the ton of new reasons Newton had given people to think they could master the universe. This Boswell had missed the so-called Augustan Age by twenty years, but its spirit lived on as free trade and the emerging bourgeois class made man think he could achieve fame and fortune by his own effort. The previous Augustan Age, during the Roman Empire, was marked by poets working under the patronage of rich Gaius Maecenas. But the English Augustan Age saw the demise of maecenas and patrons and the ascent of professional writers who depended on a growing public. At Tom Davies’ bookshop he only had to look at the novels of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, Lawrence Sterne, bestsellers that had rewarded their authors’ diligence.
The second Boswell’s reeling from the pushback. He’s not an impresario of immortality, has no plans for posterity. He doesn’t think a book’s the ticket, even he keeps a journal; he lives in the age of entertainment, it’s not like anyone cares about books anymore. By 1964 they were even writing elegies and epitaphs to the novel. Plus everyone had dipped and dabbled in existentialist philosophy and taken from it mostly that life is meaningless. With posterity put to pasture, you could at best emulate the heroes of the age, celebrities, and be life span famous. He thinks like his early counterpart that hobnobbing with the famous can keep death at the door, but he’s wised up and knows that such contacts won’t grant him a reprieve from the law of forgetting. Until then, there are worse ways of killing time than collecting celebrities; not their memorabilia or autographs of signed photos, but their presence; seeking their company like Poe’s man of the crowd who refuses to be alone but is the epitome of loneliness.
Ever since I’ve started paying attention to postwar North-American fiction, Stanley Elkin has been crucial in showing me what a clumsy term “postmodernism” is when applied to a broad array of fiction with the intention of showing how radically different it is from the preceding era. More and more I marvel at the inadvertent wisdom of Eugene McNamara’s 1962 essay “The Post-Modern American Novel”, whose tactfully bland and neutral definition means a bunch of disparate novels with nothing in common save coming after a chimera called “modernism”. Not content with this, later scholars have tried to pin down lots of particularities on postmodernist fiction, which creates problems when they try to bound a coherent canon with them. According to the textbook, Elkin’s a postmodernist, for some reason. So far and unlike Nabokov and Sorrentino and Sukenick I haven’t found him interested in metafiction and self-reflexivity (he was actually vocally against it); he didn’t light out to the territories of fantasy and allegory like Barth, Vonnegut, Coover, Reed and Pynchon; the borderline incomprehensible surrealism of Barthelme didn’t tempt him. He wasn’t even that much of a modernist, if by that we mean stream of consciousness and nonlinearity. Instead his continuum moved toward post-Portnoy’s Complaint Philip Roth and back to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Saul Bellow, a raucous, comical, hysterical picaro of the everyday-social-realist variety. This lineage is seldom mentioned alongside the usual pomo suspects, I suppose because it produced too many bestsellers, and one of the myths of postmodernism is that it got no love from a middlebrow public. “If Pynchon enjoys a bit of popularity, we get suspicious. If Vonnegut scores, we go home worried”, Gass once wrote in a piece celebrating postmodernism, “Birthday Boys”, and I fear he wasn’t joking. In Elkin’s case, the public really didn’t grant him the commercial success he craved, but I think that had nothing to do with the way he wrote or what he wrote about.
Elkin has also dispelled my uncomplicated view of American novelists fighting back against French existentialism. As I blogged recently, Nabokov loathed Sartre and as late as Lolita he was taking pot shots at existentialism; I think he mounted one barrier to its expansion, when in Europe the novel was turning ascetically existentialist. Barth, before his breakthrough picaro, The Sot-Weed Factor, wrote a pair of novels parodying the philosophy of Camus and Sartre, The Floating Opera and The End of the Road. I think it can be shown that around this time American fiction formed itself consciously or not against French existentialism. But other novelists were very forthcoming in their dalliance with France. Paul West, actually an Englishman but jumped the pond in the ‘60s, before he came out as a novelist he was studying figures like Camus and Sartre plus André Malraux and Simone de Beauvoir in an essay called The Fossils of Piety: Literary Humanism in Decline (1959), a subtitle pregnant with his reading of Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, a polemic against traditional humanism. For West at the age of seventeen it was of paramount importance to his maturation: “He understands. He knows what I want to do. From an early age I knew I wanted to get out of the mining village of my youth and had intimations from reading of different ways of living...” It wasn’t until I read his Sheer Fiction volumes, assortments of reviews and essays, that I realized how often the names of Sartre, Malraux, Camus and Genet popped up to steer him in matters of literary taste and intellectual outlook. Curiously, this affinity happened mainly when he was revieing the novels of others, not when he was writing his own, fortunately. His books have none of the defects I attribute to European existentialist novels, namely spare style, retreat from and contempt for the mundane, personalities paralyzed by ennui, humorless cynicism. For him, being a lad from a small village, existentialism was less a recipe for fiction-making than a method to think about personal freedom.
Elkin also began his career when divulgation of the French existentialist novel was peaking. Albert Camus had received the Nobel Prize in 1957 and died three years later. Boswell came out the year Sartre refused the Nobel Prize. It was so popular that poor invalids who still had the disease of posterity in them, like Alberto Moravia, were actively claiming that, whoa there!, actually I was the first one to write an existentialist novel, way before Sartre. The cheap knockoffs had started coming out strong: Ernesto Sábato reasoned that his Outsider could just as well go by the name of The Tunnel. Brazil was represented by Clarice Lispector’s humbug mysticism. In Spain in the ‘60s one Manuel García Viñó was defending his novela metafísica, metaphysical novel, although the nomenclature didn’t fool anyone. In Portugal, there was Vergílio Ferreira.
Elkin once told Tom LeClair: “Like most people of my generation, I fell in love with the philosophy of existentialism.” As for Camus, “I think he’s a wonderful writer. I ate his books up alive in the better restaurants.” But he rejected the idea that he was “a thinker”. What instigated his novels “was the occupation.” He grabbed a job – radio show host, bail bondsman, franchiser – turned it upside down and shook out of it its particularities. For him, character didn’t descend from a philosophical outlook on high, but grew from the streets to speech and self.
However, as the existentialist novel triumphed outside France, France itself had abandoned it. Younger novelists who loosely formed a group called the nouveau roman rejected it. In a way, they were restoring what Jean Paulhan before the war had called “Terror”: the pursuit of so original, refined, rarefied a style that it detached the novel from all familiarity and finally humanity. The Terror manifests itself in suspicion, scorn, avoidance of what reeks of common, vulgar experience, so it attacks the novel’s classical elements of psychology, plot, character. In its advanced stage it even heaps scorn upon language itself and the belief in the power of communication, so that silence becomes the only congruous position.
Sartre, who mentioned Paulhan in his What is Literature? and was worried about the Terror, wanted to redirect fiction back to humanity. But the cultural environment in postwar France wasn’t responsive since it had inherited a bleak prospect. Society was divided after the Vichy betrayal, people were living amidst debris, the empire was falling apart, the metropolis was being rebuilt and the country’s status in the world had been eclipsed by the USA. The mental clime was drenched in despair, anomie, apathy, which fostered a cynical, anguished, gloomy attitude, although as Nausea attests the war wasn’t a crucial factor. So even as Sartre was reputedly trying to rehumanize the novel, he had in mind a bleak, apathetic, indifferent humanity. Furthermore, he had misgivings about style. Since Descartes and Pascal the French have prided themselves on having the world’s most rational and orderly grammar, perfect for clear thinking.
Astonishingly enough, other nations agreed. Writing in The First Half of the Seventeenth Century (1906), one Herbert John Clifford Grierson remarked that although 17th-century England had “naturally begot a rich and strong but varied prose”, “To a uniform and perfect medium, like that which Balzac, Descartes, and Pascal evolved in France, it did not attain.” The feeling of inferiority European languages felt in relation to French well into the 20th century is one of those episodes in the history of ideas that urgently needs its historian; I’d gobble it up! This has nothing to do with language itself – French didn’t stop Rabelais from breaking every rule of “good style” that his countrymen would uphold for the next 400 years. They simply invented a tradition and almost self-consciously decided one day to rebrand themselves as guardians of clarity; instead of realizing that it had been a willful decision, they convinced themselves they were constrained by the language itself, a living being with will and wants that pulled their pens across the page. Of course, were such nonsense true, the “Terror” couldn’t have existed in the first place since the self-regulating idiom would have blocked it. It could only be processed as a misstep in France’s intellectual history. Anyway, the French were trapped in this myth. Whether existentialists or terrorists, French fiction was in the hands of writers who disliked language and style, the conventional novel and the everyday life which gave it sustenance. It’s this mixture that makes reading the “wonderful writer” Camus for me a painful feat.
Boswell has enough trappings of existentialist gloom to make it look like it belongs in this club. There are the obligatory references to suicide, the supreme existentialist action since it means taking control over life and death, and how much the French fetishized Dostoyevsky’s Kirillov because of it. But Boswell loves life too much: “I don’t understand suicide”, he confesses instead of committing one. (When existentialism was at its height in Portugal during the ‘60s, there wasn’t a so-called avant-garde writer who didn’t include a suicide in anything he wrote; it’s especially hilarious if you read ten of them in a row – I did that, it's actually a miserbale misspending of time…) Then there’s Boswell’s emotional insulation, an outsider amongst men, who describes impregnating the mother of his child as “the body I had shot my death into.” Not only because she dies during childbirth, but making a baby implies adding more death to the world, exposing the folly and futility of keeping the species going. This reminds me of Todd Andrews in The Floating Opera treating others as “anthropoids”, as if he were a species apart.
From the first sentence, Boswell has death on his brain: “Everybody dies, everybody. Sure, and there’s neither heaven nor hell. Parker says hell is six inches below the ground and heaven four above the head. So we walk between, never quite managing to touch either, but reassured anyway because heaven is by two inches the closer. That Parker!”
The comedy notwithstanding, Elkin is no stranger to serious observations about our mortality:
“I see now what is bad about death. Its most terrible aspect is that it is cumulative – nails that do not grow, eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear, flesh that does not feel, brain that cannot think, blood that will not flow. It is like being strangled. I think of a small boy’s panic when a companion ducks his head under the water and holds it there. Of course death makes one insensible, but surely there must be, at the moment of death itself, just this sense of impotence – only greater, much greater, and more terrible. One cannot will the simplest thing, to bend a finger, roll the eyes. There is something horrible in such nullification, to have no more significance than a grain of sand; once having mattered, to count for nothing through eternity.”
“No one believes in death”, says Boswell. It is a central tenet of existentialism that people squander their lives as zombies because they don’t take responsibility for their lives. To live fully, man must embrace his mortality, foreground it in his center of decisions; only thus can he make the most of every instant; by accepting that you won’t last forever, you’ll free yourself to live as you want instead of wasting it and regretting it later when it's too late.
Elkin gives a hat tip to the French by starting his novel where theirs tend to end, in The Outsider’s case the cell of a murdered waiting for his execution. Or for that matter Paul West’s Alley Jeggers, where a murderer is locked up in a hospital after raping a corpse. Sabáto’s Juan Pablo Castel narrates from a cell after killing a woman. Boswell remembers reading as kid in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat about Braddock, a murder who could easily be Meursault. “Braddock, waiting in the deathhouse, told Edward Renfrue, the reporter, ‘When they pull that switch, they’ll be pulling it on the whole world. Nobody will outlive me. Nobody The warden. The President. You. My girlfriends. Nobody. Everybody dies when I die.’ He could believe in a fantastic short circuit that would end the world, but not in his own mortality.”
But Boswell’s cell is spiritual, which nevertheless gives him a lot of leeway. Elkin was impervious to the two French handicaps of stasis and plainness. Boswell crackles with comical vitality from start to finish. Acting takes precedence over agonizing. Whereas Nausea and The Outsider seem to exist mostly inside chattering heads, Boswell is what he does. And what he does it to interact with people. Existentialist protagonists stand apart as a form of ascetic cleansing to attain a higher level of perception: “Except me. Boswell. I believe in it. I believe in everything. My metaphysics is people, the living and the dead.” As he puts it, he’s a “men man”. Even this simple play on words shows why Elkin had little in common with the suicide pack. He was too energetic to be grounded by solipsistic reflection.
It’s no wonder then that whereas the plot in Nausea, The Outsider and even The Tunnel is uncomplicated and barren with events (and to boot said novels are short), Elkin took to the loose, open-ended structure of the picaro, then undergoing a revival in American fiction, as Bellow, Barth, Pynchon and Sukenick exemplify. He favored movement, change of vistas, crowded situations, the occasion for people to talk, verbal skirmishes. Many pages of Boswell are filled with dialogue, and although the prose hasn’t yet reached the high-octane oratory of later novels, Elkin was already working on his mastery of language.
Collecting celebrities is the plan Boswell has devised to give meaning to his life, to lift him up above the merely functional zombie hordes:
“I’m different. I remember I must die. It explains everything. People who do not know me well – people who don’t keep files on me, as I do on them (5 by 9 cards with the person’s name and dates and a brief identifying phrase) – think my interest in them is faked, self-interested, that I’m a social climber on the make for everybody. The truth is I’ve a sort of chronic infidelity. It’s not that I have a disappointment threshold lower than most, or a higher hope. It’s just what I said: congenital infidelity. I am not a lover but I am like one. I am a strategist, an arranger, a schemer, but there is nothing sinister about me, nothing sinister even about my plans.”
Another important difference: Boswell won’t end up like a murder, an occupational hazard when you apply for the role of existentialist novel protagonist; instead he nonchalantly swears loyalty to the grand American tradition of confidence-man, of whom Melville is patron saint. There’s another nuance: “It’s as though I had devoted my life to arranging surprise parties, and, indeed, there is something celebrational in many of my contacts.”
Celebration is one of the attributes that set Elkin apart from the morose existentialists. Morbid introspection is their default behavior. Sartre’s pedagogical Nausea was intended as a vessel to carry his teachings to the masses. We follow Antoine Roquentin in his journey to awareness, which peaks when he experiences oneness with a tree down to its roots. But where Sartre was setting us up for the epiphany, Elkin shows life after the epiphany has taken root in the mind. In his answer, it turns out that after that watershed moment of the spirit you stick to living as before; there’s no rational reason to assume that collecting celebrities is a good way of solving your existential crisis. I think Elkin was on to something. Although equipped with the philosophy that finally tore the veil of illusion and taught us all to live authentically, such insight into mortality didn’t encourage Camus, Malraux, Sartre to adopt unusual, eccentric, odd or extravagant lifestyles for members of a Western democracy. Sartre lived the life of a public intellectual, like so many before him, including I guess a few who went at it inauthentically. Malraux made it to minister of Culture, not exactly Maldoror material. In Portugal, Vergílio Ferreira kept writing the same tedious novel about for thirty years about man’s need to live authentically, to come to terms to death, to not less the precious miracle of life go wasted, etc. His diaries are intensely pregnant with the belief in the power of existentialism to wake us up. But instead of taking to extreme sports or abandoning all his earthly possessions and go on the road, Vergílio led a reclusive life as a respectable high school teacher. Like millions before and after him. So much for life-changing insight into la condition humaine.
For those eggheads, existentialism was primarily a mental bibelot, not a call to action. What sets Elkin apart from them is that tricky adjective: celebrational. Postwar American novelists, even when they were writing about grim stuff, found life exuberant and worth communicating in vivid, ornate prose. More importantly, Elkin found the detritus of mass culture deeply alluring. Boswell eavesdrops on psychiatrists’ offices, rabbi advice, intellectual parties, campus conferences. Because Boswell is a free-floating picaro without much of a purpose, he can be squeezed into any situation Elkin wants, including a brief trip to an Asian country in the middle of a revolution. Elkin indeed embraces and celebrates what the multifaceted, anarchic world throws at him. Even if it’s just moonshine, he makes it shine.
At the heart of this smorgasbord of sensations is Boswell’s awareness of his loneliness: “Who has been in my neighborhood, who has tasted my meat? I have. I have. Who keep’s Boswell’s file? Boswell does. I do.” However, Elkin entwines standard existentialist loneliness with mass culture. The problem isn’t so much connecting; when you read Nausea or The Outsider, the impression is that the protagonists are already mentally messed up before page one, they fail at meaningful relationships because they were made to suck at it. Before Meursault learned “Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know” he was clearly off his rockers already. But Elkin suggests that modern society operates by replacing meaningful relationships with faceless relationships that flash by. The language Boswell uses often comes steeped in business jargon: “The problem, of course, and somehow I had lost sight of it, was not to meet any particular great man – that could always be done – but to make a reliable contact.” To make reliable contact is what politicians do in office before going into the private sector. Contacts are fleeting, pragmatic business relations. It has nothing to do with friendship or love.
A consumer’s society like America is dedicated to treat people as numbers and clients: “But who keeps Boswell’s file? Persons in institutional relationships to me? Government agencies? Department stores? Junk mailers? My book clubs? What do they know – a name, an address, a vague notion of my income? I at least have seen most of the people in my files, have been in their neighborhoods, have taste the cuts of their meats.” Elkin and his contemporaries didn’t step back from the tides of tackiness but plunged headlong into them. They couldn’t escape them anyway unless they pretended they lived on another planet. The result gave us William Gaddis’ Wall Street novel, J R. Writing a few years before the 1973 inflation rise that made President Nixon officially put an end to the gold standard, Sukenick wrote in Up: “long ago I figured out the key to the American economy. There’s no such thing as money. There’s only credit.”
Whereas French philosophers-cum-novelists approached loneliness from a lofty fashionable philosophical conclusion, Elkin studied it anthropologically, as the outcome of a given societal organization. In Boswell’s world people don’t know each other intimately; they have contacts instead of friends; they seem sustained by familiar faces, but it’s only the far-off faces of the famous seen on television: average people wish to meet them because they exude fantasies of power, success, money. They don’t want to develop relationships with them, but occupy their lives. And it’s easy to meet celebrities in society of spectacle that encourages everyone to become a showman performing nonstop for an imaginary audience: “In a way I have never been sure who my first celebrity really was. It depends, as do most things, upon what one is willing to count. I can remember, for example, going to radio programs to see the announcers, men in shirtsleeves, their watches handsome on their wrists.” First he haunts fairs, circuses and carnivals filled with freaks: “For the time being I made do with the crank, the exotic, with people who, self-scarred by characters which were forever too much for them, were perpetual butts and trailed their shameful fame like cans tied to dogs.” He also finds them at television studios. He visits radio stations to see stars “before airtime”.
Boswell’s parents are dead, évidement. He has a son but hasn’t been part of his life; the mother died in childbirth and the child went to live with the grandparents. He’s grow up with death:
“That kind of childhood gives a kid a pretty solid taste in funerals, but not much else. Of course, a real knowledge of funerals is no small thing. In a way, it qualifies one for life. It gives one, too, a certain sense of transience. Maybe that helps to explain my fascination with famous men. The famous are not transients at all, and this is odd. They spend so much time being guests one might think there would be something impermanent about them, but it’s not so. Of course they die, but I don’t mean that. Everybody dies. And all this wailing about Ozymandias is a pile of crap. They remember his name, yes? They get it right in the papers, no?”
He lives with one Uncle Myles only long enough to be kicked out for being a prick. Sort of friendless, he shacks up with Penner, a contact he met at the gym where he works his body into a hulking monstrosity. He stays with Penner also only long enough to behave like an unbearable moocher, because outsiders don’t care about rules. Before Uncle Myles kicks him out he tries to convince him of the merits of living an ordinary, orderly life:
“‘Physical strength is humiliating to a man,’ my uncle shouted. ‘Listen, do you know what distinguishes human beings from animals? Love? Law? Reason? The ability to walk upright? None of those things. None of them: Any lioness loves its cub. Every herd has rules. A fox has cunning. A horse can rear. No. Only one thing distinguishes men from beasts: respectability. I’m not talking about self-respect. That’s just ego. A cat has that. Respectability is grander. Do you know what it is? Do you? Respectability is the decision of the private man that the powers of this world are right. The decision of the private man to be one with those powers. Decency is nothing more than the condition that what he considers valuable, you consider valuable, I consider valuable.
‘There is a universal assumption, James, that man has intrinsic worth. He has. If he has worth then his products have worth. If he has worth then his products have worth. If his products have worth then they should be conserved. If they should be conserved then it is a privilege to have as many of those products as one can. I’ll go further. It is the duty of the private man to have those products. He must get all he can. Not to do so is waste. Waste is sin. If waste is sin, hoarding is virtue. Put money in your purse, Boswell. Put things on your shelves, in your closets, your banks, your vaults. How much close space is there in a circus trailer?’”
To make money Boswell puts his muscles at the service of swindles; his shtick is to case a couple that has parked a car to go inside a shop; meanwhile he lifts the car and drops its wheels in a snowbank; when they get stuck in it, he shows up and negotiates lifting the car on his own. He divides the world into hustlers and targets: “Really, it is remarkable how I continue to respect the very people I take advantage of.” His strength is not a con; his bulk makes him stand apart; he’s an outsider not only spiritually but physically. This also increases his contempt for others; after arm-wrestling four men at the same time and winning, he muses: “I hated them after all, my victims, because they could permit themselves to be my victims, because my victims were not great men, because my arm hurt. My arm went up easily, smoothly.”
Boswell isn’t given to conning others; we actually see him perform few cons for material gain; he’s more of a compulsive liar, he can’t help lying even when he doesn’t need to; he lies to get into parties, to meet important men, to get out of snaggles; but he also lies for the sheer joy of tricking others, the one-upmanship of it all. He’s also moved by the pleasure of proving his superiority:
“I rip through their campuses, smelling of streets and streetcars, smelling of the line at the check-out counter, of the supermarketplace, of the world. These people are no match for me. What do they know? They think Red China should be admitted to the UN. They believe in fairness, civics, rights – the closed shop, the Negro vote, the happy man. Utopians! Yet there is a deep democracy in me, too. It is the democracy of giving no man quarter.”
He attends a theologian’s lectures in Harvard Divinity School, just for the fun of disrupting the lecture. He constantly needs to be the center of attention, as you’d expect it in a society where showbiz logic has made visibility a virtue. Boswell’s a demonic being, causing mischievous even when no material gain is at stake. Whether a conman or a showman, the love of spectacle has become a second nature: “All right, a strong man is not a bank president, but if he’s on a stage there’s some distance at least.”
Deceit is usually his strategy to get in the company of celebrities. The first celebrity he meets is a strong man called The Great Sandusky, past his age, deflated, who shows him photos at the peak of his strength: “I looked still more closely at the pictures. I examined them like a detective looking for clues. That’s what I was, a detective.” The detective’s look is aseptic; Boswell cares more about the memorabilia he keeps forever than the celebrities whom he meets fleetingly.
Sartre saw existentialism as the therapy that teaches people to break free from the expected roles society imposes on them and to find authentic living. Elkin doesn’t disagree that the roles are imposed or that this laudable goal is attainable; but he does suggests that putting on a show, for all the spiritual emptiness it causes, is easier. Boswell’s career as a lowkey conman is briefly interrupted when he tries to find success in the wrestling industry: “We were like movie stars playing ourselves.” He joins this other world of spectacle in the “early days of the baroque wrestler”. His manager Bogolub convinces him to assume an alias, The Masked Playboy:
“Bogolub was pleased with his invention, and I began to have more and more dates on the West Coast. Once Bogolub explained to me that my masquerade was actually helping free enterprise and capitalism. There was far too much crap going around about the working classes, he said: if Americans were made to see how tough and down to earth a rich man’s son could be they would sit up and take notice and it would be good for business.”
Like Sartre’s waiter, Boswell too eagerly slides into this fiction and reaps its benefits: “So, gradually, the real Boswell began to fade, Long Live Boswell. I wrestled increasingly as ‘The Masked Playboy.’ In hick towns there were write-ups in the paper. I gave out interviews. I’d sit in my hotel room drinking expensive Scotch, a silken ascot around my neck, my legs crossed, staring democratically at the reporter across from me.” For a while he becomes a celebrity too: “Articles began to appear about me in the magazines. There was an editorial in Ring; my sort of ‘showmanship’ might proliferate, it warned, and bring about the further vulgarization of a once noble sport.” Elkin shows that triumph comes from make-believe: if you can keep your self out of your way, the crowd will love you for the spectacle, not for the sincerity.
This success is undone when Boswell faces a very authentic opponent, the personification of death on the ring, a wrestler known as The Grim Reaper. His real name is John Sallow, a legend. Sallow treats wrestling like an artist pursuing excellence; he cares nothing for fixed matches; he’s not putting on a show, he’s in the ring to best and beat his opponent to a pulp. “He wrestled so that he could demonstrate his cruelty, show it in public, with the peculiarly desperate pride of one displaying his cancerous testicles in a medical amphitheater.” So far Boswell had avoided fighting him, but being on his collision course undoes the fiction of the sport: “It was a relief the year before when I discovered I would not have to fight him. I could abide the clowns, good guys and bad guys alike, but to have to struggle with Sallow’s naked dignity, to have to believe that somehow the match really was of consequence, was something I was not eager to endure. I would have fought him if I’d had to (actually I had been scheduled to win), but not to have to was much simpler for me.”
Boswell is undermatched and gets trounced by Sallow. In the aftermath, he reflects that he could have continued to fight. “But I didn’t choose to”, a key act in Sartrean philosophy: you can always choose. But one of Boswell’s insights is the realization that we deceive ourselves about the meaningfulness of life via empowering maxims: “I thought of one of those phrases they use for the wars – to struggle in vain.” The human condition is inventing reasons to go on: “They were always praying that battle and injury and death were not in vain – as though anything purchased at some ultimate cost ought to be worth it. It was a well-meant prayer, even a wise one, but not practical. Life was economics. To be alive was to be a consumer. They made a profit on us always.” In the stranglehold of economics, meaning and making a living are the same thing. This segues into yet another popular imagery in American fiction from this era: the universe slowing down to a standstill. “I would not fight – ever again. It was stupid to struggle, stupider still to struggle in vain – and that’s all struggle ever amounted to in a universe like ours, in bodies like our own. From now on I would be the guest”, says Boswell. In the most sophisticated cases, this egocentric view that action is pointless because physics are against us got a boost from science: Pynchon called it entropy; Gaddis called it inherent vice. Whatever the metaphor, Boswell subscribes the view that in the long run nothing matters, but he adds the short-run economic concern of living comfortably in the meantime. While healing from Sallow’s beating, his proclivity of colleting famous men comes back and he starts to seriously conceive plans for opening The Club, a project to imbue his life with meaning:
“The things, I see, to be great, to sit the world like a prince on horseback, to send out the will like a tyrant his armies, with the warning not to come back empty-handed. I need what the tyrant needs. Like him, I need plunder and booty and tribute and empire and palace and slave. I need monuments and flags and drums and trumpets. I need my photograph enlarged a thousand times in the auditorium. I am not, however, a great man. I see that I will never have these things, that I must adjust to my life as I must to my death, and that finally the two adjustments are the same. But despite this, I will never do what others do. I will not write my life off or cut my losses. I will never treat with it as the man in the next room has been forced to treat with this. I see what happens to such men. Their cancers take away their histories. My cancer, when it comes, must not do that. When I am downed, when the latest drug proves useless, when the doctor, embarrassed, asks who is to be notified, when the morphine is no longer effective and pain builds on pain like one wave slapping another at the shore, when the high tide of low death is in, I must still have my history, and it must, somehow, matter!
I have conceived a plan. It is not clear in all its aspects yet, but I envisage a kind of club. It must include all the great men of my time, and I am to be the spirit behind it, mine the long table on the dais. If I cannot be great, then I can at least be a kind of Calypso. Heroes will sing in my caves, sit on my shores, seek sails on my illusory horizons.”
Since this is America, however, he needs money to make anything happen. His harebrained plan involves stalking William Lome, a rich businessman, to panhandle him for seed money or stock market tips to start entrepreneurial life. Boswell boldly pretends to be a bellboy at the hotel Lome is staying in order to introduce himself as a “live-wire”, a “go-getter” worthy of his sponsoring, but only manages to get himself arrested. “They took me away and questioned me for five hours. Eventually, I thought, they would have to let me go. All I had done, after all, was to lie to people, and there’s no law against that, is there?” Lome demonstrates why he’s rich and Boswell isn’t when he proposes to convince the hotel to drop the charges in return for Boswell signing a paper giving Lome ownership of slogans he made on the fly while posing as a bellboy: “In the Dallas Palace the Guest Doesn’t Even Carry a Grudge”; “In the Palace All Guests Are Kings”; “In Dallas in the Palace There’s no Room for Malice”. Lome sees a business opportunity in using them in his own hotels; he sees value in what Boswell gives up for free, and that’s why he remains a loser. He quickly regrets it but it’s too late: “You signed a paper. Always have them sign a paper – a man’s signature is his own worst enemy.”
The hotel is placated, Lome is happy. “Only I am not delighted. I have come to make my fortune and have instead added to the fortunes of others. That’s the role of most men, I suppose.” In the picaro, the rogue is always down on his luck; he can temporarily keep stave off hunger or get out of a tight spot, but no reversal of fortunes improves his condition.
Because Boswell is a first novel, I kept scouting the moment when the bona fide Elkin voice was fully audible without distortion. That moment happens when Lome enters the novel. William Lome is a pun on Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. But Lome isn’t a loser like Loman, he’s a lord of persuasion. Every future Elkin scaldabanco, whether he be Dick Gibson, Ben Flesh or Eddy Bale, will have something of Lome’s grandiose gob. Lome is the turning point because he poignantly shows that the world runs on rhetoric, something that Elkin himself believed in, at least insofar as his fictional worlds were concerned. He said in a 1975 interview:
“It's not so much a question of persuading an audience of the outlandish or unlikely, as of persuading them of the possibilities inherent in rhetoric. Rhetoric doesn't occur in life. It occurs in fiction. Fiction gives an opportunity for rhetoric to happen. It provides a stage where language can stand. It's what I admire in the fiction of other people and what I aspire to in my own fiction. I'd rather have a metaphor than a good cigar.”
Boswell pleads with Lome to give him sound investment tips:
“What looks good? Steel? Rails? I need money.” For Lome, however, no asset is as valuable as ingenuity: “It’s a mine. The world is a mine. It runs on the soundest of business principles. There’s a law in physics which states that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. I like the sound of that. If I were asked what I believe in, I’d say I believed in that. Think of it: nothing can be destroyed. Nothing. How many times can an automobile be sold and resold? Four? Five? And then that one last time to the scrap man. Only it’s not the last time”.
To be pedantic, the law actually originated in chemistry, since it was formulated by the French chemist Lavoisier. A few lines later he misattributes it to Newton. I don’t chalk these lapses up to Elkin since it’s a realistic example of how we often boost the authority of our speech with bits of info floating around us without fully assimilating it. Elkin does a good job of showing that successful people like Lome don’t have to be well-read or big on general culture. Today, Lome would be selling self-help manuals on how to developed the entrepreneurial self, pitiful pep talks that mix endearing homeliness with generous lashings of maxims from ancient philosophers, thinkers, scientists, inventors, businessmen, etc.
For Lome, success depends on wits. Founding liberal economists like Adam Smith didn’t take marketing into account; for them man, whether seller or consumer, was ruled by rational self-interest. The consumer bought a product he needed because it was the best that fitted his needs. Nowadays, we know that people don’t buy things because they need them but because corporations invest billions every in year for marketing departments to invent wants. When the quality of manufactured good has been nearly levelled, the only thing distinguishing one product from another is the storytelling it comes wrapped in. Lome epitomizes an irrational capitalism that thrives not by giving people what they want but by instilling in them wants for junk. Lome gives Boswell a lesson – albeit not for free– on salesmanship: they go to a toy shop and he makes his apprentice pay for six packages of clay:
“I gave him the money and he handed me three packages of clay.
‘They’re fifteen cents each,’ I said.
‘I’m your supplier. I’m entitled to a profit.’
‘But I don’t want the clay.’
‘Of course you don’t. You want tips on the market, you want to ride in the country in taxicabs. Sell the clay.’
‘To a consumer. Find a consumer. There,’ he said, pointing to the street, ‘in the marketplace.’
We went out. ‘Well?’ Lome said.
‘This is ridiculous,’ I said. ‘What am I supposed to do?’
‘Sell it. Sell the clay.’
‘But I can’t.’
‘You haven’t tried. Try.’
I went up to a woman. ‘Do you want to buy some clay, ma’am?’ I asked.
She looked at me as if I were crazy, and I turned to Lome helplessly.
He crossed the street and I followed him. As we walked Lome began to open his packages of clay. Each package contained five strips of colored clay, each strip about an inch and a half wide and perhaps a quarter of an inch. ‘I like to work with clay,’ he said. ‘It’s a wonderful example of what I was saying before. Clay can neither be created nor destroyed.’”
Lome admires the guy who added color to clay. “Coloring it – that was a stroke of genius. Adding to it. Newton never said you couldn’t add to it. That’s just merchandising.” When competing brands are selling something as nondescript as clay, they gain an edge by prettifying it with clinquant paillon to make it more alluring on the supermarket shelf.
After Boswell’s attempt at selling clay to a passer-by fails, Lome starts hawking his goods in the middle of the street; a crowd quicky gathers, amused at first by a guy selling clay. He ignores their jeering and goes on singing the virtues of clay. Eventually he zooms in on a man, from whom he tries to get at least a nickel in spite of his protests that clay is “worthless”.
“Lome turned to the crowd. ‘This man has resistance. I like that in a man.’ He turned to the man suddenly and placed his hands on his lapels. ‘So you say it’s worthless, do you?’ he shouted. ‘Well, I breathed meaning into it! What’s that worth? How much meaning you got in your life, friend, you can afford to let even five cents’ worth go by without jumping at it? You’re suspicious, are you? You’re afraid if you give me the nickel I’ve taken you. Well, maybe I have. You get taken every day, pal. Renter! Tenant! Where’s the gas you bought? Where are the phone calls? the electric? the food? What have you got to show me for the money you’ve spent? Show me something. Show me! Receipts? You hold on to that clay, you hear me? It’s dirt cheap. Cheap dirt. Give me the nickel. Give it to me!”
“Hypnotized, the man dug into his pocket and handed Lome a nickel.” After this first sale, “Lome took up the clay from the newspaper and broke off pieces and handed them out as people forced their nickels on him.” In the end he makes a profit, whereas Boswell hasn’t sold a single piece. “With the great demand for clay? It’s a seller’s market, friend”, taunts Lome.
The entire passage is gorgeous. It’s a beautiful display of asphalia, what the dictionary calls “emphatic guaranteeing of what one is saying, as by assuring others, wagering about the truth of something”. It’s a sound economic principle that a thing’s value comes from people agreeing that it has value; but the seller must also act as if he believes in it. This isn’t just capitalism, the same principle applies in literature. Elkin’s interviewer in 1975 was impressed by the sentence “breathed meaning into it.” “In the spell of his words the clay becomes real estate. Is that phrase a key to your own notion of the function of rhetoric?” he asked. Elkin replied: “That's precisely my notion of its function. Rhetoric is there, not only to perform for us, to show its triples and barrel rolls, but to introduce significance into what otherwise may be untouched by significance.” For Elkin, the novelist is a hustler trying to persuade us that his words have value, and by association the things they point to. Elkin remained fond of Lome, recognizing his imprint on his future work. In a 1984 interview he was still awestruck by him (although either bad memory or a typo turned his surname into “Long”):
“In Boswell there's a character that I'm particularly fond of because he becomes a model for many of my characters, a man named William Long. Long can sell anything by imbuing it with meaning. He can take a pebble from the street and sell it to you for a dime because he gives that pebble meaning. It's not that he believes in the pebbles he sells, not that he believes in schlock.”
Although Boswell’s schooled by Lome, he had previously used language to effect change in reality. We can think of Boswell as a stand-in for the writer, I don’t mean Elkin himself, but any writer. Boswell has a quality indispensable to a writer, bold belief in himself; only so can he get into uninvited places, applying techniques to pretend he has friends in crowds of strangers: “I walked by the group slowly and gazed warmly into their faces. It is my trickiest maneuver; with it I try to make it appear that I am personally known to all the group save the individual I am immediately looking at. It requires the nerves and timing of an acrobat.” “In this world there are two kinds. Those who still bother to lie and those who don’t”, says Nate, one of the celebrities he meets.
Elkin solved the conundrum created by existentialism: if life is meaningless, man-made purpose can restore meaning to things. Several French novelists after Sartre saw an excuse to wallow in jadedness; Americans averted this in their own fiction because they believed that language could communicate and carry meaning. It’s not that the French weren’t formalists too; but they had inherited from the Terror the practice of emphasizing form at the expense of mundane humanity, whereas form for the Americans was a means of heightening perception of a world worth perceiving. The discrepancy had also nothing to do with bleakness versus uplift. The French weren’t bleak so much as indifferent, since by turning their gaze away from the world they had nothing upsetting to look at. They disagreed about what the novel should contain: Elkin’s rhetorical flamboyance didn’t float freely in an anti-septic ether, instead it was anchored to the everyday reality of salesmen and wrestlers, frivolous venues for the talents of Butor or Duras. Consider for instance self-help books.
A very lively strain of postwar American fiction knows it inhabits a post-Dale Carnegie world. Gaddis’ The Recognitions implacably skewered self-help books, an American specialty since Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help (1859). Lome is a walking advert for Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking: A Practical Guide to Mastering the Problems of Everyday Living (1952). The USA is a remarkable place: nowhere else could a guy called Bruce Barton make a bestseller out of The Man Nobody Knows (1924), a portrait of Jesus Christ as “the Founder of Modern Business” and “the world’s greatest business executive”. President George W. Bush allegedly once said, “The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur.” Even if this faux pas is apocryphal, there’s a kernel of truth to it: French novelist after Sartre didn’t bother to analyze how business shapes and encases human behavior. In my view, they were terrified of the modern world. When you sample ‘50s novels from several parts of the world, you redouble your admiration for Vonnegut’s bad taste in putting the Dresden bombing in a sci-fi comedy. If that’s not what novels were made for, besides producing awesome prose, I don’t see what’s their point. It is a remarkable phenomenon: the Americans were mapping out the modern world as it was being made: society of spectacle, the military-industrial complex, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, satellites, systems theory, paranoia, scientific apocalypse, conspiracy theories. The French weren’t hillbillies in the outskirts of modernity, they simply deliberately opted to turn their back on it. Robbe-Grillet, the novelist predicting the “roman futur”, the future novel in 1956, didn’t even pay attention to his times. In 1955, The Recognitions dealt with the self-help book industry, recreational drug-taking, psychiatry, selling out to corporations, the rise of duplicity in every walk of life, and the encroachment of mass advertising. In 1957, Robbe-Grillet put out Jealousy, a novel about that greatest of topics for 19th-century Frenchmen: the fear that maybe your wife is fucking someone else. Make way for the future novel!
An intellectual clique in France believed that existentialism taught us to get rid of old ideologies that encroached on freedom, religion being the main culprit. It’s dubious whether existentialism had anything to do with that: most of the battles for man’s freedom were won by the mid-19c thanks to science, liberalism and freed trade. But since French intellectuals have historically been laymen fighting the Church, they thought that once that obstacle was out of the way man would be free at last. Therefore, they didn’t predict that as the idea of God receded, the vacuum in the mind would be occupied by material satisfactions. Mind you, the French were once very good at conjugating business with human destiny, as Zola attests, but Sartre and his successors also waged war against the social realist novel, a war that had barely arrived in the USA when Elkin was starting out. His French contemporaries were still embroiled in skirmishes that ended a long time ago; Sartre in the 1930s still behaved as if the world hinged on philosophical arguments, like an 18c philosophe striking at theology. The Americans were faster at charting the transformation of society into a “mediacracy”. Boswell is rife with observations that ring true if we look at them from the standpoint that the media shape reality: “I have just thought of something. Perhaps cause and effect are somehow mixed up here. Perhaps we pick up our leaders as we pick up our actors – for their looks; perhaps the great are destined by nothing so much as their physical well-being; perhaps the world is all appearance. Is this the meaning of life? I may have stumbled onto something. I shall have to think about it.” Butor wouldn’t have stooped to a measly inference from everyday observation.
When we’re always putting on a role for an invisible camera, living authentically is not just hard but even undesirable: “Indeed, one cannot be miserable at all in a tuxedo. At least I can’t. The tuxedo is a uniform, like any other. Inside one, the wearer’s emotions are dictated by the game that is to played.” It turns out that people really are like Sartre’s allegorical waiter, too eager to step into his prescribed role, but instead of excoriating him in behalf of a nostalgic long-lost authenticity, what they reject is the role in question. Why play a mere waiter’s role when you can con your way into the upper strata of society pretending to be successful? “What is the gigolo? A manipulator, a liar, a thief, a cheat, a whore. But in a tuxedo!” Furthermore, in a media state if you want success you have to put on the show in perpetuity since people aren’t relationships, friends, intimates, but an audience trained to like and cheer for shows, “because all the world loves a prankster, a crasher.” This is prescient and precious insight.
Boswell’s performative behavior has been shaped by entertainment culture, but so has the emptiness he anxiously tries to fill out: “My strength was in solitude. In being a stranger in town, in lies, in indifference.” His tricks pay his bills and embolden his sense of superiority, but at the cost of separating him from his others, since his victims can’t nourish him with permanent contentment: “Too often I had read in books that such and such a person was unable to love. It always came out as if something was wrong with one of his organs – as though a kidney were functioning improperly or hand couldn’t clench into a fist. It was the cliché of our time. One heard it on buses. I was not incapable of love; no one is.” The novel argues otherwise, in his case anyway. Sartre was the source of this cliché: in the “Being-for-Others” section of Being and Nothingness, he cogently proves that love is impossible from an existentialist perspective since it can’t evade an intrinsic conflict between lover and loved: each lover tries to turn the other into an object, to force the other to conform, to be dedicated, to abandon freedom; but for one to succeed he must submit the other to an unbalanced power relation of master and slave, at which point the other’s love stops being willing and hence authentic. This conception was so popular after the war that it launched a flurry of novels devoted to enacting this emotional breakdown down to its despondent conclusion: with romantic love gone, characters abandoned themselves to meaningless dialogues, to apathy, to cynicism, to silences. Elkin pays lip service to this cliché when makes Boswell marry an Italian aristocrat: although it solves his problems of liquidity, the initially ebullient marriage gives way detachment, and soon he’s back devoting himself to The Club.
Comparing American fictionists to the Frenchmen after Sartre, the scale of their scope stands out for being so much smaller. They stopping thinking the world at large was their purview, as in the time of Balzac, Zola and even Proust. I’ve always finished novels by Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Simon, Butor with the conviction that they have transmitted nothing of their society. (This would hardly bother me if at least I’d gotten anything at all out of them, an outrageous plot, memorable characters, Mamet-precise dialogue, luscious prose. Leafing through a ream of blank pages wouldn’t have been more unproductive.)
Their Americans contemporaries tended to give their characters jobs related to power. In Robert Coover’s first novel, The Origin of the Brunists (1966) a man who survives a mine explosion becomes a religious cult leader, his powers augmented by mass media. Coover and Roth both turned Nixon into a character. (De Gaulle wasn’t novel-worthy.) In Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961), which is another American response to French existentialism, the protagonist Jack Bolling is a stockbroker – I can’t even remember what job Meursault has, if any, it’s not relevant since his characters don’t grow from concrete surroundings but from prepackaged philosophy. Bolling, like Boswell, has trouble forming lasting relations, so he goes to the movies, alone. Wall Street has always loomed large in American fiction, all the way back to “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, something that France got rid of as it renegued on realism in the 1930s.
The Americans had instead more in common with French thinkers. Boswell features an anthropologist called Perlmutter, who refuses to say “primitive societies”, opting instead for “Ur-societies”. He’s keen on distinctions like “raw” and “cooked”, suggesting that Elkin perhaps was directly or indirectly cognizant of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological ideas reported in The Raw and the Cooked (1964). Boswell says: “Every man his own anthropologist!” The Americans wrote about their own society as anthropologists, amused, elated, terrified, but always in wonder of its particulars. By contrast, the French departed from theirs: Robbe-Grillet was the most extreme case, claiming that the world itself had no meaning, no “profundity”, no psychology, no inner strata worth analyzing for motives or to systematize; there was only the bland surface apprehended by the eye, to be reported in objective, neutral, journalistic prose. Although the others weren’t objective realists like him, the introspective stream of consciousness of Sarraute and Butor, and the Proustian torrents of memories in Simon’s case, had the same effect of numbing anything outside the narrowtor’s pinched little mind. The everyday world suddenly became depopulated and disenchanted.
This retreat had been initiated by Sartre himself. At the time of his first fictions, Nausea and The Wall, didactic vehicles for transmitting his existentialist teachings, he was actively fighting the tradition of the social realist novel. He wasn’t yet a politically-minded public intellectual whom the Left looked up to. When he boisterously took up that role his novelistic activity ended, and in 1949 came out his last novel. Instead he increased his output of essays, articles, prefaces, pamphlets, public conferences. So France’s most important intellectual signaled that novels weren’t very important after all, and certainly not a viable instrument to analyze society with. There was a peaceful partition of purviews between novelists and thinkers: the novelists got to keep nothing at all to write about; and the thinkers got to write about everything else. Roland Barthes, for instance, became famous for his analysis of mass culture in Mythologies (1957), a curious hodgepodge of essays about low topics like fads, popular cinema and wrestling, topics with some overlap with Boswell’s. It’s as if the French fictionists offloaded this duty to thinkers, whereas the Americans felt nothing was forbidden. Elkin even claimed to be interest in “myth” in the sense Barthes had defined it, namely a narrative overseen by media, ideology under the guise of neutral mass culture. As Elkin said in a 1984 interview: “I don't think I am a comic writer. I have all kinds of large words for what I think I am. Lately I've come to think I write myth. Myth is not itself a large word, I admit, but it's a pretty healthy-sized concept.” Noting that “myths are usually about founders”, he reminded his character Ben Flesh, from The Franchiser, who travels across America buying and opening franchises, giving the country its current shape, thus transforming its imaginary. His character Dick Gibson “specifically says he wants to lead a mythic life. He goes out to experiment with some kind of low-frequency radio and ‘covers’ a non-existent war. His broadcast attracts the presence of the Japanese, and lots of people are killed. He does, in some way, lead a mythic life. As he says at the end of the book, he wants to lead a life as cliché.” In a sense, myth is cliché since it’s a cognitive structure that’s reduplicated from culture to culture with small variations, residing in our thoughts, unperceived. (McLuhan, who was fascinated with the way mass media has created our modern myths, wrote a book about archetypes and clichés.) Let’s not forget that Elkin was Joseph Campbell’s contemporary. Sukenick, Barth, Coover, Reed discussed their interest in myth. But whereas they, along with the silent Pynchon, allowed themselves to turn to fantasy, Elkin remained convinced that ordinary life was mythical enough.
Elkin shows Boswell as incapable of contentment and prone to sabotage his own happiness. Although he manages to get The Club open, on the inaugural ceremony he decides to boycott it. In the novel, one Dr. Lazaar invents “‘Yeaism’ and ‘Nayism,’ two systems of philosophical logic which, starting from identical promises, lead to exactly opposite conclusions.” Incoherence is natural to Boswell as it was to Todd Andrews, who gloats in The Floating Opera: “And this does, in a small way, reflect a philosophical position of mine, or at least a general practice, to wit: being just a little bit less than consistent in practically everything, so that any quick characterization of me, or general statement about me, will probably be untrue, or at least inadequate.” This approach to characterization owes something to French existentialism. In What is Literature?, Sartre defended that “if we wished to give an account of our age, we had to make the technique of the novel shift from Newtonian mechanics to generalized relativity; we had to people our books with minds that were half lucid and half overcast,” and the author “had to present creatures whose reality would be the tangled and contradictory tissue of each one's evaluations of all the other characters himself included and the evaluation by all the others of himself, and who could never decide from within whether the changes of their destinies came from their own efforts, from their own faults, or from the course of the universe.” Free characters, he advocated, meant freedom even from expectations and causal consequences; they had to behave unpredictably, erratically, for otherwise they’d belie their origin as puppets on strings. Such a character becomes a cipher: “Let every character be a trap, let the reader be caught in it, and let him be tossed from one consciousness to another as from one absolute and irremediable universe to another similarly absolute; let him be uncertain of the very uncertainty of the heroes, disturbed by their disturbance, flooded with their present, docile beneath the weight of their future, invested with their perceptions and feelings as by high insurmountable cliffs.”
It's perhaps not remarkable the extent to which Elkin assimilated these ways of thinking about characterization; what’s remarkable is that it didn’t blight vivacious characters with the anomie that mars post-Sartre French fiction. Although Boswell is constantly trying to implement schemes to delay death, he’s also come to realize that satisfaction is a kind of death itself, for achievement is stasis, as he reflects in a moment of triumph, the night The Club is to be inaugurated: “I know where I’m going. Nowhere I’m going! I made The Club. I know about creation. Everybody dies, et cetera. Well, not yet, not just yet. Rise and shine, I thought. Rise and shine, old slugabed of a self.” It’s no wonder then that as he watches from the sidewalk the arrival of celebrities, melded with the crowd looking to catch a glimpse of their favorite famous, instead of taking his rightful place he reverts to the consistent trait of inconsistency: “Hey,’ I called from the barricades. ‘Hey,’ I called across the wide street to the Secretary of State. ‘Hey, down with The Club. Down with The Club. Down with The Club!’” Whoever wants to say that Boswell symbolizes mankind can go ahead; I’m content with saying that he’s remarkable character and the moment to part ways with is not accepted without sorrow.
Whereas French existentialism hid homunculi under thick impastos of impotence, its Americans counterpart found a way of fusing its ideas of modern man’s incomplete, contradictory self with the sprightly wiliness of the old picaro. Boswell calls himself “the incarnate American-con-artist-adventurer-rustler-Mississippi-river-boat-gambler”. He’s that, yes, but he’s also a puissant throwback, a winning doer instead of a dour whiner, so possessed of old-fashioned initiative in the era of mumbling minds, introspective emotional cripples, and static contemplators, that he actually looks radically novel. I was thinking that it would require little effort to prove that in his propulsive vitality, in his manic movement, Boswell’s one of the forefathers of what James Wood once disparaged as “hysterical realism”. It was a dangerous trend originating seemingly out of nowhere, deeply dangerous to fiction, he warned. Alternatively, you could say it was business as usual for fiction; but Wood would prefer if the business of fiction went bust.