“Stay put and don’t piss off the duck.” That’s the last note Reg Barry gives his Puck before lowering him into a hole—in fact inhabited by a duck—for the start of his open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; but of course the director has other things to worry about as well. Hermia appears to survive on a diet of “breakfast cereal and amphetamines”; Titania wants Oberon to stop pinching her nipples. Reg tells her that the abuse is right for the scene, even as he wonders about the wisdom of giving himself a part, in his mid-forties, as one of the play’s young lovers. All that “simulated sex with undergraduates” looks risky.
Let’s call it nontraditional casting, this insertion of a “balding…PhD” into a college-aged show, and that goes for the Puck as well. The actor playing him is blind, and while Reg loves his own dramaturgical conceit, he nevertheless decides to dig the boy a foxhole. It’ll keep him from tapping around the performance space, bumping into the sets, and using his cane to beat out the lines. As for the duck, well, that’s an accident.
“An Actor Prepares” is the opening story in Donald Antrim’s first collection of short fiction, a gathering of seven tales presented in the order of their initial appearance in The New Yorker; this one dates back to 1999. His setting here is the kind of small college that’s all but vanished from American fiction, an amateurish ingrown place that recalls Pictures from an Institution on the one hand and Pnin on the other. I was happy to take a trip back there, and yet in Antrim’s hands its cozy idyll gets bent.
Reg is a descendant of Barry College’s founder, a dean at what remains a kind of family property, and he manages to cram every cliché and fear about college theater into one. He thinks of drama as a form of “dangerous play,” wants the kids to make it all as “ugly” as possible, and just before showtime works them into their parts by telling them that they will never “stop being depressed.” By the end his enchanted forest is chaos, an exquisite disorder in which the only restraint belongs to Antrim himself.
The blind boy, Martin Epps, can’t really act, and speaks his lines as if to a metronome: “I’ll. Put. A girdle. Round about the earth.” It doesn’t matter. There’s been so much rain in the days before the performance that his pit has filled with water, and “a vengeful mallard” has taken it for her pond. They drop him in anyway, and in the third act he slides down through the ooze and disappears, “cane and all,” beneath its surface; Reg is too busy with his Hermia and Helena to note whether or not he ever reappears.
It’s a brilliant performance, this deadly febrile slapstick, but to anyone who knows Antrim’s earlier work it will also seem familiar. For it is in essence the same story that the 2013 MacArthur Fellow told in the three short, rigorous, and deeply mannered comic novels that he published at the end of the last century: Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (1993), The Hundred Brothers (1997), and The Verificationist (2000). Each offers something close to the unity of time, place, and action that’s a feature of classical drama; each examines a tight-knit community that seems nevertheless to have cracked. And each depends on a narrator who sounds at first like the voice of calm reason in a strangely overdrawn society, but who becomes progressively if unknowingly less steady: a man without limits, who can talk himself into anything.
That unreliability is, however, only one aspect of Antrim’s comedy. It’s enough to drive “An Actor Prepares,” but in the novels the imagined world as a whole seems every bit as askew as the narrator himself. Antrim doesn’t write fantasy, not quite. But those early books do all describe a milieu, a set of social practices, that we don’t for a second credit as “real,” and for which he provides no explanation whatever. No explicit judgment either; this is fiction as a form of anthropology. Of the three, The Verificationist seems to me the softest, and it ends with its narrator in the ICU, “naked on a metal bed on a cold ward.” The other two finish off with scenes of human sacrifice.
The eponymous Mr. Robinson lives in an oceanside town down south, a white-bread place of palm trees and alligators in which the petty conflicts of suburban life have become physically dangerous. A former teacher, he’s been out of work since the town voted to defund the school system, and now thinks of himself as the local “scrivener,” writing among other things about the community’s attempt to defuse the claymores that a neighbor has dotted around a local park. Keeping up with the Joneses here takes the form of the defensive pits with which the residents all surround their houses. One is filled with broken bottles and covered over with a deceptive roll of Astroturf; another has water moccasins.
People are touchy—though on reflection Pete Robinson doesn’t know if he’d still support drawing and quartering their ex-mayor, even if after the “Stinger incident” it seemed the right thing to do. They used cars instead of horses; one of them had a dead battery, and while they hooked up the jumper cables the victim had time for his last wishes.
Robinson tells his story from the padlocked attic where he’s been shut up since “the awful things that happened to little auburn-haired Sarah Miller, early last week, down in my basement.” And while we first hear about little Sarah on the novel’s second page, the book’s delicate structure makes us wait until the end to find out what’s happened to her. It’s not what you think, which hardly makes it better. This first novel is deliberately modest in scale but masterful in its sense of pace and delay, and above all in its narrator’s blandly chilling geniality. Mr. Robinson means well.
Still, there’s always more happening on Antrim’s pages than the grim pleasure of his characters’ misbehavior. The Hundred Brothers is about what its title suggests: the male children of the same dead father, who have gathered in a cavernous mansion, “resolved that the time had arrived, finally, to stop being blue, put the past behind us, share a light supper, and locate, if we could bear to, the missing urn full of the old fucker’s ashes.” Jeffrey Eugenides has described Antrim’s narrators as “syntactically well-behaved” and his prose as “scrupulously punctuated”: so read that quotation aloud and listen to the way he spreads the sentence, highlighting its clichés with the slight pause of his commas, and then squeezing out that final epithet.
Old fucker indeed: he must have been, though the book never mentions any mother or mothers. It does, however, characterize almost every one of that impossible hundred, whether shrink or spy, sculptor or schizophrenic. Add a few sets of twins and a handful of compulsive womanizers; add anger and memory; add the tendency of boys to be boys, “even when they’re men with heart conditions,” and what Antrim finally gives us is a taxonomy of every form of fraternal rivalry imaginable. It cannot end well, and the book’s last words are an understated account of its narrator’s own immolation: “There is nothing like a blaze in the hearth to soothe the nerves and restore order to a house.”
Savage, funny, and at times surreal—it’s as though David Lynch wrote novels. And yet Antrim seems entirely uninterested in “the novel” as such, or at any rate is silent about it, about the large claims or questions about American fiction today that have variously haunted such contemporaries as Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace. He’s interested only in what he can do, what he needs to do, and his narrators are all of them alone in a crowd. He has been described as “deeply unaffiliated,” but of course that’s not strictly true. In a recent interview he told John Jeremiah Sullivan that the earlier writers who matter to him include not only expected masters like Eudora Welty and William Trevor, but also such English eccentrics as Joe Orton and Henry Green. Sullivan himself suggests that Donald Barthelme stands as both his “namesake and literary father,” and Antrim has acknowledged the influence.
His hundred brothers find their necessary antecedent in The Dead Father, as Barthelme called the 1975 novel in which a gigantic, talking, not-quite-corpse is hauled across an impossible landscape. But some differences remain. Barthelme’s mash-ups hopscotch from subject to subject and change registers so frequently that even on the level of the sentence it’s hard to know what’s happening. Antrim’s prose is like crystal, and each of his books offers a simulacrum of a well-made plot. His sense of experimentation isn’t linguistic so much as situational: What if your family was that large?
Antrim himself belongs to a family in which his divorced parents remarried each other and then divorced once more. I mention this because it provides the background to the memoir he wrote between his early novels and most of the stories in this volume. The Afterlife (2006) is a prose elegy for his mother, who died in 2000 of lung cancer. She was a recovering alcoholic who had worked as a theatrical costumer, and her marriages to his father were the kind where the children crouch on the stairs in fear of what’s happening down below. “Would she kill him?” he remembers wondering. “Would he kill her…. And would silence feel like relief?” Antrim offers few details of their quarrels, and yet it’s one of the most emotionally naked books I know. The story of his “mother’s lifelong deterioration is, in some respects, the story of her life,” but it is also his own story, and in a way, he suggests, that ensures he can never lose her.
Why and when does one’s work change? Antrim’s early novels earned him a kind of coterie reputation as an oddly elegant and original young writer. But he has gone a long time between books, and the fiction he’s produced since his mother’s death is radically different from the things he did before. His newer stories are written in a coolly distanced third person, and set in an entirely plausible social world, most often in fact in Manhattan. It’s an anxious place but no longer a fevered one, and the five stories in The Emerald Light in the Air that lie between “An Actor Prepares” and its concluding title piece all share an emotional territory. Their characters are urban, educated, and unstable, precariously coupled, and no longer entirely employed.
In “Pond, with Mud,” Patrick Rouse sets off for the zoo with his fiancée’s son, only to spend the afternoon drinking with the boy’s father instead; they perch the five-year-old on a barstool and give him some juice. Christopher in “Solace” wonders whether to tell his girlfriend about “how bleak he felt when people found him funny.” They’re both in “transitional periods,” and meet on the weekends in the borrowed apartments of friends, when he “made a special effort not to drink.” Stephen and Alice in “He Knew” depend on their pills, “his antidepressants and her anti-anxieties,” and the story’s final paragraph reminds me of the conclusion to Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog.” They hope their lives might become simpler, and know they never will.
This is more conventional ground than Antrim has usually stood upon, and a reader who loves The Hundred Brothers might ask if it’s really where we want to find him. Nor are these stories all successful. “Ever Since” in particular seems both stale and parochial, with its account of a book party in a Tribeca loft. Still, I like the fact that he doesn’t try to make his characters sympathetic, and the stories reinforce one another: a picture of contemporary moeurs whose tenor one remembers after the particulars have fled. “Another Manhattan,” the best of them, concerns the meeting of two couples in a restaurant. Or maybe four couples, since each man has had an affair with the other’s wife. Jim and Susan’s thing is over; Kate’s and Elliot’s still glows. Jim wants “to be careful not to punish Kate, or at least not to seem to punish her, for her success in adultery….It was wrong to hate her.” Though he does, and that makes him stop to buy flowers on his way to dinner.
The girl at the florist’s is disconcertingly pretty. “Should he risk looking into her eyes? Was she wearing a ring? What about her ass?” Jim adds more flowers to the bunch, and more again, but his “recent hospitalizations” have shaken up his bank balance. His debit card can’t handle a $340 bouquet, and he has to call Kate for her Amex number. Things get worse from there, and yet Antrim refuses to play his character’s embarrassment for laughs. Anguish rather, and Jim’s face crawls with despair by the time he finally gets to the restaurant, with the flowers themselves all tatters. His arrival makes his cheating wife cry in relief, and later the four of them will drive to the hospital, where she will get on her knees and “extract the laces from his shoes” before a nurse comes to wheel him away.
“Another Manhattan” begins as an exercise about the deceptions of marriage. The “mental wind” from which Jim suffers steals over the story slowly, but in the superb “Emerald Light in the Air” that wind starts blowing in the very first sentence, in Billy French’s memory of being prepared for electroconvulsive therapy in the “suicidal aftermath” of his parents’ death:
Three mornings a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 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 meter on his finger, and then pushed a needle into his arm and instructed him, as the machines beeped and the anesthetic dripped down the pipette toward his vein, to count backward from a hundred….
Antrim likes lists, and he likes long sentences too; this one will run for over two hundred words. But he rarely settles for a string of nouns. What he provides instead is a kinetic inventory of the different things and motions the doctors must do to get Billy ready; and near the end of the story the character will remember the rest of the process, down to the bite plate and the paddles against his forehead.
The therapy seems to have worked, and though at the start Billy packs a Browning rifle into the trunk of his car, this is one gun that won’t go off at the end; Chekhov isn’t always right, even if we read in the fear that he might be. What happens instead proves far more interesting, and both disturbing and saving at once. Antrim spent part of his childhood in Charlottesville, and he sets the story in the Virginia hills to its west. There’s been a storm, and when Billy tries to edge his way around a fallen tree, his car slips down a rain-softened embankment. He goes off the road, and has no way to get back. He does, however, manage to reach a stream in the woods, and soon finds himself beginning to drive, not alongside it, but actually in the water itself, heading up the creek and into the unknown.
I have never seen an emerald light in the air, but friends have told me of spotting a green flash over the Pacific, and in 1986 Eric Rohmer released a film called Le Rayon Vert that posits, following an idea of Jules Verne’s, that such magical bursts of light at sunset can reveal both our own thoughts and those of others. That’s not quite what happens here, but when Billy’s sky turns color he does leave the ordinary world behind. He drives upstream for a while, his tires making a wake, until his front wheels slam down in a hole; lightning flashes. Then a boy comes toward him through the woods, shirtless and yet carrying an umbrella. “Are you the doctor?” he asks. “We prayed you’d come.”
There’s a woman dying of cancer in a cabin up the hill; its roof leaks, and her family has had to move her from spot to spot in the hopes of avoiding the drip. They seem to have arrived only recently, and her husband says that “we didn’t mean to be staying here,” though they have no car and Antrim characteristically offers no explanation for their presence. “I know there’s nothing to be done,” the man adds, but there is. Billy has a bottle of Ativan in his pocket, enough to get her through, and after he gives her the first pill they haul his car from the stream and tell him how to find his way back.
In helping her Billy gets the help he needs himself. The symbolism is obvious. Or maybe just elemental. You’re meant to spot it, and anyway, “symbolism” is a cheap word for what happens out in that storm. The stream, the shack, that dying woman—they’re all charged with meaning, and more than simply present. And yet they are present too, like the Westchester pools in Cheever’s “Swimmer” or the stowaway in Conrad’s “Secret Sharer.” That emerald light means that the world has shifted, its rules suspended, if only for a moment, and Billy drives along that creek into the kind of mystery that offers catharsis instead of a solution. It is haunting and cleansing at once, a place where one can’t and probably doesn’t want to stay. But it changes everything. “The Emerald Light in the Air” fuses the irreality of Donald Antrim’s early novels with the thickened social detail of his later work. It is one of the most provocative new stories I’ve read in years.