In August a man in the Bronx tied a chain to a pole, wrapped it around his neck, got behind the wheel of his Honda and stepped on the accelerator. The chain severed his head from his body, which crashed through the windscreen and landed on the street when the Honda slammed into a parked car. I can’t remember whether the story flashed across the computer screen or I heard it late at night as one of those World Service items that favour politely delivered scenes of the American berserk. Either way it put me in mind of a passage early in Donald Antrim’s first novel, Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World:
I keep seeing Jim’s face, lit red by tail lights, in the long moments before the lines snapped taut, while Bill Nixon tried and retried to start his fume-spewing, out-of-tune Celica. It was all so profoundly uncomfortable; there was nothing to do but toe the grass and stare up at the stars in the sky, and listen to that revving and choking, and, of course, to Jim Kunkel, trussed, bound, spread out and spread-eagle on his belly, weeping. Heavy nylon test, the kind sport fishermen around here use to haul in tarpon, radiated from Jim’s wrists and ankles, ran across grass and Jim’s beautiful Japanese rock garden to the back bumpers of cars poised to travel different directions. I wanted to tell Jim that it would be over quickly, that it wouldn’t hurt.
Jim Kunkel is the deposed mayor of a suburban town, and he’s being drawn and quartered by automobile. The narrator is Pete Robinson, former teacher at the local high school (now defunded) and amateur historian with a strong interest in medieval tortures. It’s America, perhaps Florida, in the 1990s, but an Inquisition-style barbarity has taken hold. It will not get any gentler from here. Pete will remain the sort of narrator who can’t help pointing out how pretty the rock garden is right before somebody gets dismembered.
Antrim published three novels between 1993 and 2000, a memoir in 2006, and now The Emerald Light in the Air, which collects stories that have appeared in the New Yorker since 1999. He’s invariably linked with a group of US fiction writers around his age that includes the late David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. There are a few things that set Antrim apart: he’s Southern; his strongest affinity to a writer in the previous generation is to Donald Barthelme, not Don DeLillo; he’s the least likely to be topical, to dramatise a few years’ close reading of the New York Times, to set down anti-capitalist allegories, or to moralise at all; he gives theory no quarter; his world is the darkest; he’s the last one you’d expect to be invited to deliver an inspiring university commencement address that could be repackaged as a stand-alone gift book. You don’t want to be told on graduation day that life is fucked up and baffling and the rest of it will be a long, largely unpleasant march towards death. That’s the sort of thing Antrim’s characters say, at least when they’re not delusional.
His novels are narrated by middle-aged intellectuals with a manchild problem. The Hundred Brothers (1997) is a family reunion: 99 brothers (one absent, having absconded with a woman called Jane, the only woman mentioned in the book, a single time) gather in the capacious and crumbling red library of their ancestral mansion to drink, dine, boast, brawl, chase bats, discuss investments, browse a collection of pre-modern porn, smoke pot and play American football with a sofa cushion. In other words, they behave like boys. The narrator, Doug, is the family genealogist and team quarterback; he’s also a liar, a drunk, and something of an embezzler. The novel is a parade of masculine folly within what seems to be a library of university calibre. By the end, the roof falls in. In The Verificationist (2000), a psychoanalyst called Tom gathers his colleagues for dinner at a Pancake House. Tom is married and childless, and suspects one of his colleagues of sleeping with his wife, another Jane; there’s an empty ‘baby’s room’ at home. Jane wants to fill it, but Tom doesn’t, not quite. His fear of parenthood, and of adulthood, is a matter of ‘unanalysable terrors, best articulated not in language, rather by the body’s tense, speechless postures of watchfulness and dread’. At the Pancake House he tries to start a food fight, is gripped in a bear hug by his colleague Bernhard, and in a dissociative episode floats to the ceiling where he’s joined by a teenage waitress he wants, but doesn’t want, to seduce.
These novels have the reverse effect of the historical fiction that’s lately glutted US lit, in which narratives of the illiberal past confirm the virtues of the reformed present; instead, Antrim looses history and tradition to wreak havoc on Clinton-era Americans. He’s a deft choreographer of his large casts, weaving the townsfolk, the brothers and the psychoanalysts in and out of his narrators’ monologues, seeming to take a gamesman’s pleasure in the stage directions. All three narrators go mad: one causes a murder; one is murdered; one suffers a breakdown. Pete Robinson tells his story from a padlocked attic, alienated from his wife, Meredith, after an episode of ‘playacting’ with students in his basement gets somebody else drawn and quartered, this time a schoolgirl:
her innocent bloodless face rag-stuffed and screaming silent screams at the ceiling while shoulder and hip and wrist and ankle bones pitched and rocked and pivoted grotesquely before at last tumbling free from their sockets as the grim separation took place at the soft centre of her, the tearing of Sarah’s muscle and cartilage and bone.
Or perhaps it was only the basement door coming off its hinges, that made that awful cracking.
Horror and grim laughter. Pete somehow still holds out hope that the town might forgive him and elect him mayor: ‘compassion is everything … I wish Meredith would come home. I want to fuck her. She does not think well of me.’ In The Hundred Brothers, Doug has his heart carved out of his chest by a throng of brothers. Tom of The Verificationist winds up in hospital: ‘would Jane, finding me naked on a metal bed on a cold ward, would she crawl into the bed and hold me for a minute, and stroke my head, and whisper sweetly in my ear, over and over again, telling me that, after all, we are married, and she doesn’t mind?’ All three narrators are, by the end of these books, deluded men: no epiphanies, only anti-epiphanies.
One way to think about Antrim is as a stoic comedian, the term Hugh Kenner applied to Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett (as well as Buster Keaton). ‘The stoic,’ Kenner wrote, ‘is one who considers, with neither panic nor indifference, that the field of possibilities available to him is large perhaps, or small perhaps, but closed.’ Such an artist ‘selects elements from a closed set, and then arranges them inside a closed field’. Antrim’s closed fields: the suburb; the red library; the Pancake House. His elements: medieval violence with modern equipment; the books on the shelves; the psychoanalytic tradition. (His peers, especially the authors of Infinite Jest and Freedom, have never been as comfortable with such limits.) The Hundred Brothers is the book that best fits the bill; of the three novels it’s the most closed off from the real world (outside the mansion there are only the homeless gathered around fires). It’s at once overloaded with culture and propelled by ceaseless (Beckett-like) physical comedy: civilised madmen run amok in the library. Lost in the stacks, Doug, half-naked and on the run from a mob of siblings, gets directions from his brother William:
Take your first right through Minor Elizabethan Drama. Comedies will appear on your left and tragedies will be on your right. Keep going past Ralph Roister Doister and The Spanish Tragedy. About three shelves after Gorboduc, you’ll come to a narrow fork. Do not continue through Shakespeare because that whole section is flooded and you’ll ruin your shoes. Instead you’ll want to detour through Cavalier Poets and Writers of the Couplet. Go straight all the way to Hobbes. Follow Hobbes through The Age of Dryden, then veer left. This brings you face to face with Pope and Swift. You will not have noticed anything in translation. If you do encounter any French political writing, you’ll know you’re in the wrong corridor. You’ll have to make a half-turn and backtrack through Sir Walter Scott. This is tricky. Be careful not to go too far because the Waverley novels will return you, inevitably, to The Castle of Perseverance, and you’ll never get out. It’s better to remain in the 19th century if you can get there. As you know, we’ve had shelving problems, so don’t panic if you see Russians mixed in with the triple deckers. Put your head down and charge through the War Poets. By now you’re smack in the centre of The Modern Era. From here you can choose any number of directions. Pay attention because if you take the wrong route, you’ll have to start over from Beowulf. Are you paying attention?’
‘The New Critics. Stay with The New Critics and you’ll get where you’re going.’
Antrim’s father, Harry, taught literature at various universities in the southeastern US as the New Critics were fading. The early 1960s were the last years, Antrim writes in his memoir, The Afterlife, ‘of Southern intellectualism in the style of the Agrarians, when the newly married Episcopalian children of Presbyterians were reading Finnegans Wake, escaping into PhD programmes, drinking bourbon, Martinis and bargain beer, and staying up all night quarrelling and having affairs and finding out about the affairs’. Antrim’s mother, Louanne, was a seamstress, and a mostly but not invariably functional alcoholic. (Late in life she would earn a doctorate and become head of the fashion department at a Miami community college.) The parents married and divorced twice; each time the marriage was undone by Harry’s affair with a poet and Louanne’s drinking. Antrim and his sister, Terry (now a painter on the West Coast), grew up in more than a dozen houses between Charlottesville, Virginia and Miami.
The Afterlife is a series of episodes from Antrim’s childhood and early adulthood, when his mother was in recovery but prone to relapses, still somewhat delusional when sober and often in the grip of some New Age self-help regimen. It opens with Louanne’s death and Antrim’s feelings of relief, which soon give way to guilt and a sense of being haunted as he shops for an expensive bed and finds that no mattress will quite do: his mother’s ghost won’t let him rest. The bed story seems evasive at first, but as the book goes on in its propulsive and direct style, Antrim establishes himself as a very reliable narrator, forthright about his own doubts about his memory, and frequently the only adult in the room or on the other end of the phone line, patiently dealing with older relatives who’ve been rendered childlike by their excessive drinking. Louanne saw herself as a frustrated artist, a clothes designer whose genius would never be recognised and whose talent would only be realised through her son’s writings. Antrim assumes this burden the way the scapegoat narrator Doug does in The Hundred Brothers. There are other echoes of the fiction: the teenage Antrim’s relations with his uncle Eldridge – his father’s brother, also an alcoholic and a case of arrested development – come to an impasse after an awkward late-night wrestling match that resembles the bear hug Tom is held in by his colleague in The Verificationist. (It’s implied that Eldridge, like Bernhard, may have ejaculated under his clothes while on top of his nephew.)
Now that The Emerald Light in the Air has appeared, The Afterlife seems to be a hinge in Antrim’s career. The story collection spans 16 years, and across its seven stories a trajectory of style and theme – a turn from the comic exaggeration and cultural and historical saturation of the three novels towards a pressurised, often grave psychological realism – is obvious. The book’s first two stories, ‘An Actor Prepares’ and ‘Pond, with Mud’, appeared in 1999 and 2003 respectively, and they have plenty in common with the novels: the manchild problem is central to each. The narrator of ‘An Actor Prepares’ is Reginald Barry, a drama professor at a small college who casts himself in a student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘What would a skinny, balding, unmarried, childless 46-year-old Lysander – a PhD with hair on his back – mean within the context of an otherwise college-age show?’ More stoic comedy: the closed field of the campus production stuffed with gags about modern adaptations of Shakespeare (‘It had been my idea to depict Shakespeare’s vulgar tradesmen as a team of Elizabethan power lifters’) and parodies of academic speech. Reg becomes a surrogate father, or at least big brother and rival, to the boy playing Demetrius and lusts after the girls who play Hermia and Helena. The lovers descend into madcap muddy shame. ‘Pond, with Mud’ is about a man called Patrick, who fills his notebook with bad Imagist poetry, taking his girlfriend’s young son for an afternoon at the zoo, where the animals are dying from the seepage of a shuttered chemical plant. They never make it past the train station, where they meet the boy’s father, and Patrick buys him a drink, ‘a demonstration of the power of a weak man over a weaker man’. The story is funny (oddly, it begins with a framing scene, flashes back a few days, and never returns to the present of its opening: a rare bit of technical inelegance from Antrim), and notable for two things: it’s the only place in Antrim’s fiction where the hero has to act as an actual father, and it’s the first occurrence in his work of third-person narration, though the telling is so close to Patrick’s point of view it’s hard to tell if it would have been, say, more digressive were it presented in his voice.
The break occurs with ‘Solace’: published in the New Yorker in 2005, a year before The Afterlife, it’s different enough in tone and delivery from the two stories that come before it that you could mistake it for the work of another writer entirely. It’s the first of a sequence of four stories in The Emerald Light in the Air about New Yorkers of fragile mental health, with precarious financial security, in troubled romantic relationships. Drinking is part of the equation. I don’t mean to make it sound as if Antrim has become John O’Hara with a cell phone. No, a disciple of Barthelme conquers the territory of Cheever and Updike – it’s stunning.
‘Another Manhattan’, from 2008, the longest and most wrenching of these pieces, begins as if it’s going to be a simple farce or melodrama of adultery. Jim is married to Kate, who’s sleeping with Elliot, who’s married to Susan, who until a few months ago was sleeping with Jim. Tonight the four of them are to have dinner at a restaurant called Lorenzo’s. That afternoon, Jim is at the florist’s buying a bouquet for Kate, but he has his eye on the girl behind the counter and Susan on his mind. Kate is in their apartment on the phone trying to end things with Elliot. Suppertime comes, and the scene is set for a confrontation among the adulterers or ‘another night of exciting conversational pauses and sly four-way flirting’, but what takes place instead is Jim’s unravelling. We know he’s an outpatient at a clinic across town, but it’s only several pages in that we learn that ‘the problem was his thought process: the lithium he was taking in small doses brought a slower speed to reality.’ The bouquet he’s buying grows out of all proportion. The card he uses to buy it is declined, the account tapped out: we know he’s been spending too much on handmade suits. By now Kate, Susan and Elliot are waiting for him at Lorenzo’s. Kate orders another Manhattan (I can’t say if the story’s title is a pun, or simply deadpan). There are many frantic phone calls about the bank card. By now we know that Jim ‘had a problem with anxiety and suicidality … everyone knew about his previous autumn’s sojourns on the 59th Street Bridge and his games of chicken – no, not games, not at all, really – on the fire escape.’ He’s rattled but unaware that he’s rattled, and decides to steal the bouquet. He runs with it uptown to the restaurant:
Had you been walking downtown on Broadway that February night at a little past eight, you might have seen a man hurrying toward you with a great concrescence of blooms. You might have noticed that he did not even pause for traffic signals, but charged across streets against the lights; and so you might rightly have supposed that he could not see through the flowers that he held (doing what he could to keep clear of thorns) at arm’s length before him. Whenever a siren sounded in the distance – and, once beating helicopter blades in the night sky caused him to sprint up a side street – he dropped into a furtive, crouching gait. His balance was off; he was paranoid about police. Windblown flowers lashed at his head. Seen from a distance, he might have brought to mind an old, out-of-favour stereotype: the savage in a headdress. But as he came closer, you would have noticed his European clothes, his stylish haircut; you might have asked yourself: ‘What’s wrong with that man?’
He enters the restaurant bleeding from the thorns and sees ‘his horrid reflection in the mirror behind the bar’. In the last lines he’s back in hospital. It’s an echo of Tom on the metal bed in the last lines of The Verificationist. This is the same writer after all, only he’s curbed his inclination to cultural slapstick.
In a recent profile in the New York Times, Antrim detailed some of his own breakdowns and subsequent electroshock therapy, an experience that informs the first lines of the book’s eerie final story:
he’d climbed onto an operating table and wept at the ceiling while doctors set the pulse, stuck electrodes to his forehead, put the oxygen metre on his finger, and then pushed a needle into his arm and instructed him, as the machines beeped and the anaesthetic dripped down the pipette towards his vein, to count backwards from a hundred.
Antrim also explained the difference between his early antic novels and his recent stories as a matter of no longer showing off, of being done with ‘writing that exists to advertise the power of the author’. I see what he means, but it still strikes me as wishful thinking.