Monday, July 13, 2009

The Conventional Wisdom – Stanley Elkin

Stanley Elkin May 11, 1930 – May 31, 1995

Half way through the Best American Short Stories 1978, I find my favorite.

A story that will remain with me forever.


A task that an author strives to fulfill is to take the reader to places they have never been. Both in this physical and pushing further, they take us into our own soul and force us to explore it. If our soul is in our heart, it is torn from it, if it is in our mind, it is wrapped further into it.

Furthermore, one job may be to uncover what frightens us.

What frightens many of us? Hell. Why? Because we- do -not -want –to- go- there.

Of course if we believe that Hell exists.

But what if we don’t believe. Can the author still provide a story that will frighten us in such a way that we question ourselves to our very core?

An author that can do all of this and more is nothing short of incredible.

I am going through a period in my life where I am struggling with my beliefs. Religion, society etc. I’m questioning it all.

Then again, shouldn’t we all...all the time? This is due largely to what I read and listen to through lectures. Where am I in this world? Where will I be in a year, 10 years, 20 years...tomorrow? Will I live to see tomorrow? What will happen to me if I fail to live past tomorrow? What will my life have been? Where will it go?

So, Elkin in this story, presents me with visions of Hell, descriptions that are painted so well through words that I think they are some of the most frightening I have read. I think it is the classic way he paints Hell that makes it the most frightening. I think he has found my secret definition of Hell, and illustrated it for me. It’s quite unsettling.

Elkin draws me into the story by giving his characters a humanity that we can relate to. That we can see in our bathroom mirror.

The main character is then forced into situations that we can find ourselves in, and, based on my above sentences, one of those situations is Hell.

I told my wife about reading this story and as I usually do, I failed to convey the strength of what was written.

“-it was to go mad, but there was no madness in Hell- the terrific vocabulary of the damned, their poet’s knack for rightly naming everything which was the fail-safe of reason – and he could find peace nowhere.”

Shit, bowels, spit, blisters, fire, blood, pus’s all there and in the right order.

Online bonus content can be found on the Paris Review website. A full PDF of an interview with the author. –It’s wonderful.

Look forward to hearing more about Elkin as he is the volume editor for BASS 1980.

10 out of 10

1 comment:

  1. The Conventional Wisdom is, to me, mostly a comical satire. :)