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The Living End by Stanley Elkin
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Apr 10, 2009

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Read from August 16 to 21, 2012

I had high expectations for “The Living End” – Elkin is a writer whose name I hear now and again in good contexts, and whose stories I’d enjoyed in the past, and the novel (or triptych, if you prefer the cover’s diagnosis) was on NPR’s desert island books thing a few years back, with a convincing essay about its greatness prompting me to pick up a copy.

So I was a little let down when I read it. It’s not bad, in any way, but it isn’t great, either. The premise – a Hieronymus Bosch-like trip through three experiences of heaven and hell – is fine, but not forehead-smackingly good, and the satirical stuff is only really funny if you’re truly desperate to laugh at the irreligious. That is to say, I would have absolutely loved its blasphemy as a teenager.

That’s its main problem – it’s trying very hard to be funny, and it’s never fun to spend time with someone who has decided he’s funnier than he really is. The NPR endorsement convinced me I’d be rolling on the floor, bothering the hell out of fellow commuters as I read, but it didn’t work. The humor is too connected to its own sense of outrageousness – can you believe he really said that? (yes, I can) – and if you’re not shocked by the content, it’s not going to be terribly funny. So there are a lot of well-crafted sentences making not particularly surprising jibes at religion, at least to this cynic.

However, this is not a bad book – in fact, it has a very interesting idea at its center, one that is repeated a few times: Everything is true. This is a discovery made by one of the poor souls who populate this world, and the exploration of this idea, that everything you could possibly think of is true, is actually quite interesting. And, in a novel about the afterlife, this “everything is true” idea encompasses quite a lot.

It would also be silly not to say something about the language Elkin uses here – his jokes may fall flat from time to time, and he may not be blowing my mind the way he thought he was, but the poetic quality that many of the passages take on is quite something. Another comparison to Bosch may be in order – beautifully rendered grotesqueries abound.

So “The Living End” didn’t jump to the top of my stack of favorite books, but it did have some interesting aspects to recommend itself. If nothing else, that a book can have its jokes falling flat and still manage to make for a good read is quite an accomplishment, though not necessarily one to be proud about.
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08/16/2012 page 40
08/17/2012 page 40
28.0% "80"
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