“Some kind of close-up magic”: Celebrating Stanley Elkin’s “Pieces of Soap”

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Stanley Elkin in the early 90s, near the first edition publication of Pieces of Soap (1992)

Celebrating the Tin House Re-Release of Pieces of Soap,

a book of essays by Stanley Elkin

 

November 29th, 2016 marks the Tinhouse re-release of Pieces of Soap, a book of essays by Stanley Elkin. The book derives its title from Elkin’s personal soap bar collection (measuring over 5,000 “pieces of soap,”) a collection which represents–in Elkin’s words–a symbolic way to stave off death, “anal greed,” and a memorial to his traveling salesman father who often pilfered soap bars from hotels.

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An early book flap copy for first edition of Pieces of Soap, edited by Elkin at the height of his struggle with multiple sclerosis.

Elkin lacked no confidence in the importance of this book as an exemplar of his work, as his copy editing for the first edition book flap demonstrates. In his strained handwriting, Elkin recommends that “Stanley Elkin is one of a handful of great American living writers, acclaimed among the ranks of Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Cynthia Ozick, Philip Roth, and other literary luminaries of his generation” be changed to simply read, “Stanley Elkin is one of the great American writers.” In Pieces of Soap–as in all his books–Stanley Elkin stands alone.

In keeping with Elkin’s strengths, Pieces of Soap covers a wide range of experiences, from the physical strain of his struggles with multiple sclerosis to the emotional strain of his childhood memories. Elkin’s tone is as fluid as his subjects, carried by the singular language and caustic wit for which he was so notorious. As Sam Lipsyte writes in the introduction for Pieces of Soap–describing his personal reading of Elkin–“Reading his books, you realized how lazy most writing is, how instead of just skating in circles on the rinky-dink ice of dull utterance, you could try to put life into every line, to see every clause as an opportunity for some kind of close-up magic, a pigeon of felt actuality bursting from your fist.”

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Copy of Elkin’s 1987 speech “What’s In A Name?” originally delivered as a Elizabeth and Stewart Credence Memorial Lecture at Brown University, published in Pieces of Soap

Lipsyte’s introduction also discusses a 1987 speech by Elkin that he attended at Brown University. Ever the provocateur, Elkin followed a simple declaration–“My name is Stanley” with an alarming deconstruction of “Stanleys” as a whole: “Could you be mugged by a Stanley? Could a Stanley rape you? Tops, I might molest your kid, but you’d never know it…” Lipsyte writes, “what followed…was a long paragraph about what somebody named Stanley might do to your child, a riff more funny, disturbing, and poetic than any three steps of the tongue down the palette, any humdrum life light or loin fires. The piece soon veered away from first-person molester hypotheticals, but not before words like “fork” and “grimes” and “bespittled” had lodged new resonances in my noggin.” Of course, that very speech–in all its conflicting satirical resonances–became a part of Elkin’s collection.

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Elkin’s copy from the original publication of “Pieces of Soap” in November, 1990.

The title piece which culminates Pieces of Soap is equally singular in its inventiveness and musicality. Here, Elkin takes the reader not by hand, but by the “elbow,” leading them toward his incredible accumulation: pieces of soap, great piles of pieces, a lifetime of paper-wrapped fragments in baskets of “lanyard laced…wickery woodwork…indoors-outdoors texture…[of] jungly splinter.” You can sense Elkin grinning while writing, while knowing just “what I was going to say. Because your chance-in-a-lifetime, one-in-a-million-opportunities don’t come up every blue moon or cold day in hell…”

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For more Stanley Elkin materials, visit the Modern Literature Collection‘s digital archive at http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/mlc50/stanley-elkin.

About the author

Meghan Lamb currently lives with her husband in St. Louis, where she is a fiction MFA candidate with the Washington University Writing Program and a Graduate Assistant with the Modern Literature Collection. She is the author of Silk Flowers (Birds of Lace) and Sacramento (Solar Luxuriance).