On the Opening of Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies”

By Tom Noyes

Featured Art: Boy with Pitcher By Édouard Manet

I’m Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants—and cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.

In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster writes about the necessity of “bouncing” the reader. At the beginning of a work of fiction, he suggests, the writer must win the reader’s attention in such an immediate, all-encompassing way that the reader has no choice but to forget herself and her “real life” circumstances in order to abide fully and uninterruptedly in the imagined world of the fiction. If the writer can’t bounce the reader from the one world to the other right quick, all is lost.

Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies” bounces me before I hit the first comma. I’m intrigued initially by the narrator’s name, and then by his confession—or is it a boast?—and by the time I reach the end of the first sentence, I feel simultaneously amused and disturbed, and I’ve been thoroughly, satisfactorily unsettled and consumed. While I sense in myself the beginnings of a sort of begrudging, even shameful admiration for the narrator—he’s loquacious and brash, and there’s  a sort of tough, urgent quality in his voice—this inclination  is tempered by a twinge of conscience reminding me of the empathetic kinship I know I should feel with his victims. So a morally-tinged cognitive dissonance is an aspect of Push’s (and Elkin’s) game. Part of the reason I have no choice but to keep reading is because I want to hear out Push—I want to find out what makes this guy tick—but perhaps more importantly, I want to find out about myself. I need to discover where my allegiances will ultimately lie. Maybe I can find out a bit more about what makes me tick. The bully or the bullied? The bully and the bullied? Neither nor? Seems important.

Even dealing with a writer like Elkin, who in 1974 told The Paris Review, “What I am really interested in after personality are not philosophic ideas or abstractions or patterns, but this superb opportunity for language to take place,” the experienced reader who’s looking ahead to the meat of “A Poetics for Bullies” knows that, plot-wise, one or more of the following scenarios will have to play out: one of Push’s victims will stand up to him in some unique way; or someone will respond to Push’s torment with patience, love and understanding; or, ironically, Push will somehow be bullied himself. The reader’s instincts are right, of course: all these plot-lines unfold in the story that follows, and, as a result, Push changes; or, at least, his sense of himself and his plight deepens; or his role and his place in the world is recontextualized in such a way as to make his life seem different.

In this way, Elkin’s story, specifically its inevitability, worries me from the get-go. I don’t want the plot to unfold because, even after only two sentences, I don’t think I want Push to evolve. I like the tension that informs his character, and I like the subversive, conflicted, poignant voice the tension produces. Dynamic character development? Resolution? Denouement? I can’t help hoping against hope that Push won’t succumb even though I know he and his story must, even though I know that, if he doesn’t succumb, at least a little, a different kind of disappointment will settle in.

In a way, all great beginnings are rooted in this kind of inevitable, damned- if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t disappointment. A great story beginning makes you want nothing more than to read the story that follows, and it makes you want nothing more than to abide forever on the brink, in the bright, fresh present moment where you can allow yourself to believe that possibilities are end- less; that rising action, falling action and climax are for suckers; and that consequence and closure are nothing but dirty rumors.

Tom Noyes‘ novel, “The Substance of Thing Hoped For,” will appear with Slant Books in 2021. His most recent collection of stories, “Come by Here: A Novella and Stories,” won the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize and the Independent Press Awards’ Gold Medal in Short Fiction. He serves as chair of the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and as Consulting Editor for the literary journal Lake Effect.

Originally published in NOR 15

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