STANLEY ELKIN'S The Magic Kingdom is a rich but macabre business, a novel -- a comic novel -- about the death of children. And it manages to slide this almost unendurably poignant subject along the whole razor's edge between realism and fantasy without once seeming to draw blood. Elkin's literary specialty always has been the American surreal, by which rather academic- sounding phrase I suppose I mean that Elkin writes novels in which dream characters park dream cars in real parking lots; in which we see dream dances, dream deaths in real American rec-rooms; in which literally real people -- the present queen of England is a favorite -- caper improbably in a magic kingdom of Elkin's creation. He is a fantasist of the here and now.
To thienterprise, Elkin brings an ear that is exceptionally sensitive to the music of our vast and -- to so many -- baffling language; a somewhat self-absorbed esthetic virtuosity; a wide vulgar streak; and a rather professorial, though happily usable, erudition. (His work is filled with persiflages of Joyce, Woolf, and other classroom greats of the high modern). Though Elkin's many novels almost invariably deal with popular culture, they unfortunately never have been particularly popular themselves. Why? I cannot say, though even that vulgar streak turns out to be quite refined in a sardonic -- some might say snotty -- way. No, Elkin is impressive, but he is not for everyone.
He is also strange, but even for Elkin this new novel is a strange performance. The central figures in Stanley Elkin's The Magic Kingdom are seven British children, each suffering from some horrific terminal disease. Galvanized by the death of his own small son, a character named Eddy Bale (as in baleful) arranges to cicerone this sad group of kids on a -- what is the phrase? -- "dream trip" to Disney World in Florida.
Now, it must be admitted that the deaths of seven sweet boys and girls may strike some, even many, as an unpromising subject for a comic novel. Well, to begin with, granting a fair number of real laughs in spite of it all, Elkin's mode is tragicomedy. Second, while I cannot recommend reading this novel while in any kind of hypochondriacal mood, the diseases in it don't feel particularly real. Elkin's dying bairns are only realish: their very names -- Tony Word, Lydia Conscience -- quickly betray them as ciphers -- allegorial ciphers? -- populating Elkin's Disney World Within. The magic kingdom in question is the imagination, and it is Stanley Elkin's very own, which is why he puts his own name -- as did the mighty Walt before him -- over the gates. In this novel, Elkin carries us to someplace like what Eliot called "death's dream kingdom," but in fact it's dream, not death, that actually rules there.
SO OUR true subject is sickness and dying in Elkin's imagination. The subject has not been frivolously chosen; many years ago, Elkin himself was discovered to suffer from multiple sclerosis, an incurable deteriorative disease. Elkin has the inside dope, all right, yet he seems to have found all his characters within. There is, for example, Benny Maxine, a nervy little cockney who each night dreams about high rolling in Monte Carlo, and who in his sleep mutters one of the novel's many poignant lines: "If you can't afford to lose, don't gamble." There is a male nurse named Colin Bible; there is little Janet Order, whom the hole in her heart has turned, from tip to toe, a cyanotic blue. Speaking of the American surreal, even Disney World is appropriated as Elkin's own kind of playground, though his remark that the park is steadily visited by real dying kids on "dream trips" -- a "reverse Lourdes," as he calls it -- has the ring of truth.
This appropriation of the mass-market magic kingdom for his own private one provides a theme long familiar in Elkin; the nefarious infiltration of mass culture into the private identity. At the murky end of this novel, we see a rough vision of a crude, carnival Mickey Mouse as angelo della morte. Another theme is childhood itself, since, healthy or moribund, childhood is the storyteller's age, and an ideal ground on which a grown-up can ponder the ultimate frustrations of life's first perfect promises. Then another theme -- I suppose the most important -- is Elkin's fine, furious, intensely ironic, late-modern meditation on that link between love and death that has for so long played so large a role in major lit. Eros. Thanatos. All that.
Truth to tell, Stanley Elkin's The Magic Kingdom strikes this reader as rather more, push come to shove, about Eros than Thanatos. It is more about ecstasy than extinction. The Elkin alter-ego Benny Maxine may be terminal with Gaucher's Disease, but he is a lively brat, scaring the wits out of his fellow kiddies with a ghost story about their impending death right before Mickey the angelo comes crashing into their motel, accompanied (appropriately) by Pluto.
Like Disney's own adorable dwarves, these seven little people seem to bask in the erotic glow of some notably resurrectable Snow White. They all are on the edge of puberty, and the best pages in the novel tell of them discovering passion's first glow. Only one of the kids really dies after Mickey's vile intrusion, and even she is blown away by the "high winds and gale-force bluster of love." There is more obsession with life in Elkin's kingdom than with the end. Elkin obviously viewed his imagination as an essentially redemptive instrument and his "magic" -- all irony and language -- is an effort to rise above the Mickey Mouse maxim of the Real, repeated in a dreary, moribund, squelching rhythm through the book: "Everything" -- even, presumably, the ultimate outrage -- "has a reasonable explanation."