Review of The Magic Kingdom by Stanley Elkin
The Magic Kingdom is bound to arouse mixed feelings from many readers. If you approach it as a playground for linguistic experimentation, it succeeds in entertaining.
From most other perspectives, I felt, it failed to compel me. The forceful writing Elkin is known for is here in evidence, but the scenario makes for a long, dull ride.
Beginning with a shamefully incompetent, off-putting, regurgitative, slapdash, silly, irrelevant, pathetic, and harrowingly awkward Introduction by Rick Moody, I was immediately put on guard. I’d read Elkin’s book Living End. My opinion of that work plummeted as the page count increased. He seemed, at the time, an inconsistent writer with major talent, who might start a book well, only to go off his rocker midway, as if flipping up his middle finger at the reader who had the gall to enjoy what he had been doing while sane, so he could glory in his own insanity. This novel marks out its course after a short, unrealistic episode, assuming layers of importance and grandeur after the shaggy dog story of its beginning. This is a journalistic look at dying children, but it becomes a grotesque display of exploitive descriptions. It might have been deep, meaningful or heartbreaking. In a sense it is, but you have look past the fireworks. Elkin calls attention to every garish flaw in our troupe of unfortunately doomed children. Not only are they physically appalling when reduced to mere carnival spectacles, but they prove to be morally bankrupt, as if in result of their unfair lot in life. Elkin has no restraint when it comes to casting the black light over his characters’ stained sheets. We are given such details as never vacate the mind of unsuspecting readers till their dying day.
As with other Elkins, humor abounds, but the wit can be mean, in my opinion. Most good satirists give up their compunctions, hang ups, and filters, and delight in exposing the worst blemishes of our nature without batting an eye. I would have appreciated all of the care and delicate nuance that went into the massive, page-sprawling paragraphs of description if I had bought in to the other thin aspects on offer. It lacked exploration, where it might have benefited from tension, emotional investment was wanting, as I perused with a sigh all of the infantile fixations going on within the text. Am I supposed to be impressed that he can shock and awe with his verbose humor, autopsying the characters who might have provided backbone or humanity to his vacuous novel? I get that a potty-mouthed Mickey Mouse figure is bound to crack a few grins in the audience, but what about the rest of the conversations? The personalities of many of the players are touched on here and there, loathe to initiate any attachment, sympathy or comfort. The youngsters are as libidinous as their guide, and in groups only elevate the haphazard enterprise’s goofy futility. I was much saddened by the novel. Not because I contemplated all of the meaningful questions Elkin posits, but because he limited his book to the least amusing observations of a very bright creator.
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