THE MAGIC KINGDOM by Stanley Elkin


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In The Living End, Elkin offered a caustic, hilarious, haunting triptych on the themes of mortality, life-after-death, and God's unabashed injustice. In one of the strongest episodes of the uneven George Mills, he made the process of dying--a terminally ill woman's journey to a Mexican laetrile clinic--into a raucous yet tender black-comedy. But, while the subject-matter here--seven terminally ill English children on an expedition to Disney World--might therefore seem both natural and promising, this is Elkin's weakest novel thus far, with strain and self-consciousness on constant display from beginning (that cumbersome title) to end (an embarrassing finale). The "dream holiday" expedition is the brain-child of Eddy Bale, whose own son Liam died--amid monstrous publicity--from a grisly childhood illness. Eddy raises the money from the British public, starting off with a very small loan from Elizabeth II. (Does she want the fifty quid back? "'Does the pope shit in the woods?' asked the Queen of England.") He chooses the staff for the trip: a manically anti-Semitic doctor; an ex-Royal nanny of warped sexuality; a gay male nurse; and quasi-nurse Mary Cottle, a scarred veteran of aborted loves and pregnancies who has turned exclusively to masturbation. Then the lucky kiddies are selected, ages eight to fifteen, each a pathetic (if unlovable) grotesque: blue-skinned, shrivelled up, deformed by tumors, or drenched in mucus, wheelchaired or crippled, silent or obnoxiously noisy--like Benny Maxine. ("I've got this yid disease. Gaucher's, it's called. I've got this big yid liver, this hulking hebe spleen. I've got this misshapen face and this big bloated belly.") And the trip, as you might expect, is more grim than glorious--though, while the adults pursue their dank/farcical obsessions, the children do find a few fleeting pleasures: spending money; skinny-dipping; spying on Miss Cottle's masturbation sessions; and watching the everyday grotesques--old people--parade by. (Says nurse Colin: "All that soured flesh, all those bitched and bollixed bodies. You see? You see what you thought you were missing?") Unfortunately, however, though the network of themes here--mortality, grotesquerie, existential injustice, the Holocaust--is full of potential, Elkin seems content to decorate a static, undeveloped tableau with verbal filigree: page-long sentences, six-page-long parenthetical remarks, vaudeville-dialogue, interior monologues, fantasy/dream sequences, pilings-up of words that sometimes recall Joyce Carol Oates in their lax, arbitrary excursions. Furthermore, few of these linguistic sideshows have the verve or comic assurance of prime Elkin--partly because they're often pretentious or heavyhanded, partly because the British characters can't benefit from Elkin's genius for American language (his UK dialects are competent at best), partly because Elkin never finds a clear viewpoint or comic tone for this mishmash of surrealism, farce, and bathos. (At the close, after one of the children dies while being harangued by Mickey Mouse, Eddy and Miss Cottle come together in a procreative, pseudo-Joycean porno-mating--defiantly determined to bring yet another grotesque into the world.) Unfunny and unaffecting, difficult yet unrewarding: a novel seemingly modeled on some of William Gass' most iffy precepts--demonstrating that sometimes language-for-it's-own-sake has the power to kill meaning, interest, and emotion.
Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 156478259X
Page count: 342pp
Publisher: Dutton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1985


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