Wednesday, 8 April 2009
Stanley Elkin and Dick Gibson
Stanley Elkin seems to be one of those American writers who never quite registered on the radar on this side of the Atlantic. I remember dipping into him back in the 70s or 80s, but what I found I only very sketchily recall - I think I was perhaps too young for him, as when I first read Bellow. Recently, though, some mention of him on, I think, this blog or this blog - or very possibly both - piqued my interest again and I determined to have another look at Elkin. By way of the indispensable AbeBooks, I tracked down The Dick Gibson Show, in a paperback edition from the 80s, and began to read. I was hooked from the first paragraph, and read on in something like amazement. Elkin is, among other things, an absolute master of the spiel - once he gets going, he has you, there's no resisting, he sweeps you along on his torrent of words. Rather than a man writing a novel, he sounds and feels like a man talking to you, urgently, hilariously, endlessly inventively, twisting and turning the language, keeping it alive, always keeping you with him - but never in the oppressive way of a man standing on your toes and talking into your face; he is far too subtle and witty for that. The Dick Gibson Show is ostensibly the story of a radio man - a DJ travelling from station to station across America and through the decades from the Depression years to the 60s, the perpetual outsider, adpating himself to circumstances and to whatever events seek him out, then moving on. The novel is a world made of voices - Dick's own proetan pan-American voice, and those of the people he encounters, in the flesh and over the airwaves. Most of the tale is told in the form of transcripts of radio programmes and of Dick's other spiels. Along the way, Elkin creates a rich cast of comic (and sometimes desperately sad) characters, many of whom make one brief appearance and then are gone, but a few of whom recur towards the end. His profligacy - with language as well as characters - his generosity and energy and inventiveness are quite astonishing. Of course The Dick Gibson Show is loosely structured - as with Bellow, the structure is hardly the point - but it is anchored by certain set pieces, notably the extraordinary talk show in which each guest in turn, under the malign influence of a visiting 'psychiatrist', gives an intimate account of a shameful, lust-fuelled incident in their life, then falls unstirrably silent. There's also an unexpected change of scene, representing Dick Gibson's war years in Mauritius (of all places), where a fantastical tale involving dodos and the Japanese army unfolds. Yes, it is unpreditable too, wholly - and unlike anything else I've read - and very funny, laugh aloud funny, and lewd and bursting with life. I'm very glad to have made Elkin's acquaintance again,and I'll definitely be reading more - when I've got my breath back from The Dick Gibson Show.