by Stanley Elkin (Dutton: $15.95; 300 pp.)
The West has devoted itself to vanquishing or distracting so many kinds of Fate--plagues, mass starvation, childbirth mortality, human sacrifice--that it tends not to notice that Fate is not eliminated but transformed. Our Promethean projects have pretty well trampled up the metaphysical space that used to hold Fate, and we have nowhere appropriate to lodge the new versions that persist in cropping up.
Eddy Bale is a battered, nervy Englishman whose son has died in a storm of nationwide condolence and donations after 11 widely publicized operations. "May I please die now?" are virtually his last words. So, when Eddy decides to do something about other wretchedly incurable children, his notion is to raise money not for more treatment but to send them to Disney World. Fun will be their cenotaph.
To kick off the campaign, he has an audience with the Queen. She receives him in the family room, where serf and peasant are set out on an unfinished Scrabble game. The Queen gives him a check for 50 pounds. He may show it to other potential donors, and when he has raised the money he needs--he does, of course--he is to return it to her. The Royal Family does not stay rich by thoughtless munificence.
And so, in a lavish burst of pain and wit, Stanley Elkin begins his latest novel, "The Magic Kingdom." It is the story of a weird and touching pilgrimage: seven dreadfully afflicted children and five adults with inner afflictions of their own, spending a week at the contemporary equivalent of a shrine, "a Lourdes in reverse."
There is Janet, whose congenital heart flaws have turned her blue, a color she thinks of as a sign of beauty as well as mortality. There is Ben, misshapen and with a monstrously distended liver and a fighting energy and courage. There is Noah, whose bones break serially from cancer, and who uses his pocket money for endless tiny shopping sprees; and Tony, dying from leukemia.
Lydia wears a wedding ring so people will think she is a pregnant child-delinquent instead of host to a huge abdominal tumor. Charles has an aging disease that gives him the appearance and querulousness of a 70-year-old invalid. Rena, dying from cystic fibrosis, is a swamp of rheumy discharges that she staunches with an enormous bagful of handkerchiefs.
Their days at Disney World are irony--what do we have to offer the doomed?--and Elkin's gallows wit makes full use of it. But it is no cheap shot he is after. The central, endlessly painful and endlessly astonishing strength of his book is its depiction of seven spirits whose afflictions are not simply deformities but horizons as well. They are infinitely variable, unpredictable and alive.
One has hysterics on one of the rides and has to be rescued. One sneaks into a chaperon's room to spy on her undressing. Others go off on their own to do some gingerly sightseeing. Disney World distracts them for a while, but, soon, everything else pales beside their obsession with discovering a hotel room that one of the adults has secretly rented for privacy. That is precisely what each of the children long for: a place to be themselves and not freaks.
The theme of individuality flowers gradually. Colin, the homosexual male nurse, arranges for them to sunbathe for an hour on a small island in one of the lagoons. Boys on one side, girls on the other; too far for their nudity to reveal deformity, close enough for it to reveal a brief sunny intimation of sex.
Colin, with his own quirks, is their good shepherd. He takes them to a Disney World parade, but early, so that what they focus on is not the parade but the spectators.
It is a climactic passage. There are the middle-aged tourists with their sagging stomachs, dyed hair, wattles, wrinkles and wens. "Many's the nosh-up gone down that cake-hole," Tony says of a fat woman. "Many's the porky pots of tram-stopper scoff and thundering stodge through that podge's gob." The language is typical of Elkin's verbal exuberance and larger-than-life speech.
Colin's purpose becomes clear. "She's had a bad day," Janet says of the fat woman. "Coo! Who ain't?" Rena says, crying. "Which of us, hey? Which of them?" Earlier, one of them had said: "We are the children who die," but now Colin amends this:
"I tell you, that's you in a few years, never mind those three-score-and-ten you thought was your birthright. All that soured flesh, all those bitched and bollixed bodies. You see. You see what you thought you were missing?"
Elkin possesses a compassion that thunders. He is an extremist, a writer without silences, a pyramider. His depiction of the children's afflictions is so graphic and carried to such an imaginative length, that frequently, it is on the edges of the unbearable.
Sometimes, it crosses the edges. His style can be laborious. Trying to present inner emotional processes, it writhes and turns upon itself, relying upon italicized words that aim to convey a special intensity of feeling but eventually convey numbness.
But in its wit, its ferocity and its imaginative sympathy, "The Magic Kingdom" is another remarkable work of a remarkable writer. It is too loud at times, but we carry the noise away, as a camel carries off surplus water, and in the succeeding days, the noise becomes a troubling music.