Stanley Elkin’s The Magic Kingdom is about a man’s efforts to take a group of terminally ill children to Disney World. Published in 1985, it is about as unsentimental and hilarious a chronicle of the indignities of life as I’ve ever encountered. The language and wit of the narration, and the detail lavished on the wretchedly afflicted children, keep what is now a familiar trope—the Make-A-Wish phenomenon—very fresh. There is a funny sequence toward the beginning of the novel when the protagonist, Eddy Bale, himself a grieving father, gains an audience with the Queen of England. He hopes for a royal donation, and after his pitch, Her Majesty reaches into her purse (“We clutch it this way because of the muggers”) and takes out a pen and checkbook. Her checks bear her image and resemble pound notes, and she writes one to Bale for a measly amount. She tells him not to cash it but to show it around: Money from other donors will come pouring in. Then she instructs him to return the check, uncashed. “Just put it in the post.” Bale is flabbergasted. “You want it back?” he asks. “Fifty quid? You want it back?” “Does the Pope shit in the woods?” the Queen responds.
—Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask
No writer moves rubles—or numbers, for that matter—more effectively than short-story master Isaac Babel. In “The Story of My Dovecote,” the magic number is five. The story is set just before the 1905 pogrom. The narrator, a schoolboy, scores two perfect fives on the entrance exam for the Odessa Russian gymnasium, earning a spot in the 5 percent Jewish quota. As a reward, his father gives him money to buy doves (fifty-five kopecks for a pair). During the pogrom, the doves are brutally killed, as is the narrator’s great-uncle Shoyl, a famous liar and storyteller. The boy is instructed to place two five-kopeck coins on the eyes of the maimed corpse. The universe seems to be telling him: “You wanted your two fives? Here they are—put them on your dead uncle’s eyes.” In happier news, that isn’t the last we see of the two fives. In “My First Fee,” the narrator, now a destitute twenty-year-old aspiring writer, spends a night with a prostitute. Everything he says and does is a total failure—until, out of desperation, he tells her a wild, Uncle Shoyl–style fabrication about his years of sexual slavery to an old Armenian. The prostitute is so moved that she gives him back the money he had paid her: two gold five-ruble coins. Having become a storyteller, faithful to untruth, the narrator gets his birthright back. The two copper five-kopeck coins come back to him as two golden five-ruble coins.
—Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a story of terrible innocence combined with terrible pride, purity of feeling and pure, vulgar stupidity. The beautiful, outwardly dainty heroine is a rolling ball of knives, each marked “tender,” “selfish,” “devouring,” “gentle,” “guileless,” “mindless,” “vicious,”“soulful,” “theatrical,” “cheap,” and each sharp blade has “love” for a handle. A married countrywoman, she is seduced by a sophisticated man who is sensate enough to perceive and delectate the na´vetÚ of her passion, but who tires of it quickly because she soon sounds and acts like too many other women he’s been with. He drops her, she takes up with someone else, completely loses her reputation, goes into enough debt to ruin her ignorant husband; after trying to beg money from her most recent boyfriend and anyone else she thinks she might get it from, she goes to her first lover, by that point more disillusioned than he is—disillusioned by suffering. The scene is exquisite, she seducing him now, “twisting and turning her head in coaxing little movements that were loving and catlike.” He responds, and this is the wrenching thing about the scene, that there is a kind of stunted love in each of them, beating its puny self to pieces inside each impenetrable nightmare of personality and circumstance. He kisses her and exclaims to see her crying, thinking it’s from “the violence of her love,” and “womanly modesty.” His gross and callous fancy is tickled silly, and he goes down on his knees, exclaiming, “Forgive me! You’re the only one I really care about! I’ve been stupid and heartless! I love you. . . . I’ll always love you. . . . What is it? Tell me!” She finally has what she has been dying for, and she is still, after everything, guileless enough to ask him at the most wrong of moments for three thousand francs. Which of course ruins everything, even more deeply than it already was.
—Mary Gaitskill, author of Don’t Cry
It may be difficult for us to comprehend why Lily would be indecisive about her soul mate, Lawrence Selden, in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. (Why not? He’s cute! He’s funny! He’s a lawyer!) But most of us can relate to how Lily feels every time she has some money—even when it comes from her friend Judy Trenor’s unctuous husband, Gus, and his weird, suspiciously abundant “investments.” Like all of us, when money appears, Lily pretends to have lost her sense of smell and takes the sum, no matter how much it may stink. And every time she has money, her worries magically lift like an easily removed stain. She uses every minor amount of cash she receives to buoy up her social self for just a little bit longer. Every crumb she acquires is an allowance for her to continue skating on the fragile gilded glass of the American dream. She is always just that much closer to realizing the perfect vision of her life, even if it is as impossible and preposterous as one of those cavernous SoCal mansions on The Bachelor. Don’t judge Lily. Who among us doesn’t have that same unknowingly destructive thought: “If I just had money, I could finally be nice, generous, serene, and in love.”
—Mike Albo, author of The Underminer