Dustin Illingworth at The Quarterly Conversation:
There is an unfortunate shortage of grotesquerie in literary criticism. Prudish intellect has somehow muscled the burping body from the realm of books, as if we do not read and write, too, through the revelations and failures of our flesh. The grand critics have already assembled in holy raiment—Trilling, Wilson, Kermode, Ozick, Wood—to lay a white cloth over the roughly hewn table of literature, smoothing over its splinters, its sap. While of obvious merit, their collected work is, in itself, something like a history of manners: spotless, chaste, the well-planed beams of a gleaming critical edifice. This is not necessarily a knock against them (I read much of their work with admiration); call it rather a lingering desire for something supplementary, a meaner model, runny as an egg or rich as butter, words to stain lips and lapels, to pass gas (as Gass’s does), flippant, bloated, savage, overcooked but rarely overwrought: a criticism of both gut and guile. Such a mode would, of course, need its exemplar, its Falstaff, comingler of erudition and eructation. Such a mode, finally, needed only Stanley Elkin.
Though perhaps we should pluralize that to Elkins, his guises being both potent and plentiful: pomo pervert, stand-up comic, sword-swallower, scamp, glutton, scribe, and oracle (to name but a few). Pieces of Soap, then—the recent, exhaustive Elkin collection from Tin House—is a necessarily lurid and lurching thing, a foaming cauldron of culture, a kind of bacchanal in which the master of ceremonies is soused but never sentimental. Cutting a broad swath across thematic concerns—California, Schnitzler, the tuxedo, multiple sclerosis, the future of the novel—Elkin’s essays swerve gorgeously before he allows them to soar: in riffs, in rages, in tangents spinning out like silken thread to pile on the floor.