I Like __ A Lot
I like Stanley Elkin’s ‘The Magic Kingdom’ a lot
Originally this was going to be a post about my admiration for Stanley Elkin. But seeing in that I’ve read only 2 out of his 10 novels and 1 of his several collections, many of which had been rather heard to come by until thankfully Dalkey Archive made them available en masse. Many of the books are massive in their gait (small font, long graphs, big page counts) and therefore something that I will maybe move to one at a time over the years, unless I get really wrapped up in him again at some point and launch on.
Anyhow, the book of Elkin’s that has slayed me and stayed with me since then is ‘The Magic Kingdom.’
The premise of this book alone I think is enough to get most people interested, as it truly is one of the more wild and meaty premises I think I’ve ever heard: basically, ‘The Magic Kingdom’ is the story of a man whose son becomes terminally ill. In his reeling, he decides to petition the Queen of England to pay for him to take a large group of terminally ill children to Disney World as a sort of ‘last romp.’ The book, then, follows him and what becomes a rather colorful and bonkers set of sick kids in their ‘field trip’ as it were to the land of Mickey.
More after the break:::
As fantastic as the premise is, it’s the ideas and the language they are delivered in that make this book incredible. I’ve never been a fan of the book or story where you can clearly see the author had a ‘great idea!’ and then the rest of the work is them spelling out what they need to say and ‘getting weird!’ to bring that idea to fruition. Instead, Elkin is just a megabadass of the sentence, and it is in the sentences and the minor executions of scene and voice that this book really comes alive. The trip to Disney World becomes more just a panorama for fireworks. Though there is a narrative arc, it is not dependent on itself necessarily and more is just about having fun with the set up, making some of the weirdest and most fun scenes I can remember in any book.
Some things you run up on in this book: a gay-curious male nurse named Colin Bible, a guy building a Holocaust exhibit out of wax, hilarious and often perverted kids with strange sicknesses in a Disney World backdrop, this sentence: “Since then she has not so much as kissed a man and kept herself equable by frequent and furious bolts of masturbation, each time wondering what unkempt, dreadful, sickened soups she stirred with her finger.”
While I’m quoting, I couldn’t help but notice one certain passage as like a more British and less-syllabic Gary Lutz, though ‘The Magic Kingdom’ came out originally in 1985: “Colin Bible lurked–lurked was the word for it–in the health club of the Contemporary Resort Hotel. He loitered by the urinals, skulked near the stalls, slunk along the washstands, and insinuated himself at the electric hand-dry machines. He looked, he supposed, like a madman, like someone, all dignity drained, in throes, the rapturous fits of a not entirely undivided abandon, as if, by avoiding eye contact, he preserved some last-minute, merely technical remnant of sanity.”
This book is also important for its use of dream in the story. You always hear people talking about how dreams shouldn’t be in fiction, how they never serve a purpose except for some kind of Freudian blahblah, but there’s a dream sequence early on in the book had by the father on the plane so masterfully done that even those that argue against dreams in fiction have admitted how well it works (I think this comes up in Rick Moody’s intro to the Dalkey rerelease, though the version I have is older). The dream is broken up and messy with the kids and him in some strange jungle: it’s really great, I can’t explain very well I think.
There’s a ton here in ‘The Magic Kingdom,’ and maybe what I like best about it is how well it combines the surreal and ridiculous with the human, excellent sentences with real storytelling, and just plain fun with ideas and language. It would have been easy for someone to write a heady, death rattle of a book about dying children (and believe me, there’s a lot of black humor all throughout this: descriptions of the childrens’ sores, the mother’s sour womb, etc.), but in Elkin’s hands, and with such light and strange and humor, it takes the book to a whole other level. The kids, in their sickness are hilarious, weird and ready for trouble, and they find quite enough of it among both each other and the Magic Kingdom itself: so much fun strange that I can pretty much guarantee you will never forget this book.
If you haven’t yet taken advantage of the Dalkey Archive holiday sale, which ends in 3 days, they have this book and at least 10 others by Elkin ready for your perusal.