I've been reading Stanley Elkin again - this time, The Franchiser, which had been in my sights for a while. Published in 1976, five years after The Dick Gibson Show and nine years before The Magic Kingdom, The Franchiser is the story of Ben Flesh, buyer of franchises - or rather The Franchiser is Ben Flesh, Ben Flesh's mighty edifice of words, his tumultuous, all-embracing, unstoppable spiel. His backstory gets told early on - by Flesh, of course, to a hitch-hiker: how his godfather, who was his tailor father's business partner, went on to become extremely wealthy after the partnership broke up and, feeling somehow responsible for Ben, left him on his death the precious gift of access to capital at prime rate, with the full co-operation of his benefactor's family of, ahem, 14 children, all multiple births (here Elkin's taste for grotesquerie finds ample expression - each of the 14 has his/her own bizarre and improbable medical condition. And there's more...).
With this helpful start, Flesh devotes his life to buying franchises - the franchises that make (or made) America look like America, link Anytown to Everytown: Holiday Inn and Howard Johnson's, Dairy Queen and Mister Softee, McDonald's and Colonel Sanders', Fred Astaire Dance Studios, Cinema I and II... Flesh's life is spent entirely in hotels and in his car as he criss-crosses the country from one franchise to the next. And all the time he talks - the spiel goes on and on, projecting his dreams and visions, his ecstatic love of the teeming abundance and variety of life, of material things, of America, of the endless possibilities... Along the way he meets a range of Elkinesque characters - including a Colonel Sanders who isn't - and maintains his various relationships with his various 'godcousins'. And along the way he also finds himself suffering the onset of Multiple Sclerosis and a series of deaths - events that force him to face realities that even his inexhaustible spiel cannot for ever keep at bay... Or can it?
As ever, Elkin treads the fine line between comedy and tragedy here, but he remains a defiantly, exuberantly, inexhaustibly comic writer - like Joyce (as classified in Hugh Kenner's The Stoical Comedians) a 'comedian of the Inventory', in The Franchiser quite literally so. He is a 'putter-in', not a 'taker-out'. As he recalls in his Paris Review interview: 'My editor at Random House, Joe Fox, used to tell me: "Stanley, less is more."... I had to fight him tooth and nail in the better restaurants to maintain excess, because I don't believe that less is more. I believe that more is more.' Well, in his case it is. The Franchiser is an endlessly inventive, funny, touching and hugely readable novel by a writer who surely deserves to be remembered and read - and enjoyed.