One of America’s most acclaimed twentieth-century writers, novelist Stanley Elkin lived and wrote with multiple sclerosis for 30 years. In 17 award-winning books, he developed a virtuoso prose style and a hilarious, provocative, humane “comedy of affliction” in American life that reflected his adage: “The Book of Job is the only book.”
An early work, The Franchiser, published in 1976, employs paralysis as an ironic metaphor. Business visionary Ben Flesh hopes to “democratize” American wealth by spreading bright, identical franchises—Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Mister Softee—to the country’s underdeveloped corners. But “Flesh fails”—the entrepreneur is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his limbs grow dully indistinguishable (like franchises), and so MS turns Flesh into “Mister Softee”—a living parody of his plan to enrich America by homogenizing it.
In a 1993 novella, “Her Sense of Timing,” Elkin makes provocative dark comedy from the frustrations of dependent illness: A wheelchair-bound college professor’s wife leaves him suddenly, just before guests are to arrive for their annual faculty party. The plot pays ironic tribute to Elkin’s wife, who faithfully assisted him throughout his illness.
In The Magic Kingdom, from 1985, seven terminally ill children go on a last hurrah “dream holiday” to Disney World. The compelling, messy reality of sick children’s lives collides with the clean, efficient unreality of the Disney cartoon world. By turns hyperrealistic, fantastic, comic, and serious, the novel celebrates the shabby-but-wondrous condition of all embodied lives.
Elkin also wrote numerous Faulkner-styled essays about how art helps us prevail in the face of life’s—and the body’s—injustices: “As the old saying should go, as long as you’ve got your health you’ve got your naivete. I lost the one, I lost the other, and maybe that’s what led me toward revenge—a writer’s revenge, anyway, the revenge, I mean, of style.”
William Gass, novelist and critic, wrote that among Elkin’s achievements was “to disable disabilities by finding their use.”
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