Donald Antrim: “He Knew” from The New Yorker, May 9-15, 2011

New Yorker art by Jean Claude Floc'h

What he hated about nice clothes was both wanting and not wanting to wear them. He disliked his own conspicuousness to himself, whenever he was out in the world expensively costumed. It was only the pleasure he felt in his tactile awareness of sewing and fabric, of the hands of the maker in the garment, that led him, again and again, to risk the danger of seeing himself – literally; reflected in the mirror of a bar, perhaps – as something faintly ridiculous.

This is one of those stories that frustrates me, because it seems to violate some inviolable rules about plot. Like, something should happen, some change, some turning point, what-is becomes what-was because of some catalyst. This plot is: Stephen and Alice, damaged people, go on a shopping trip on Halloween. He’s a no-longer-in-demand comedic actor who spends weeks in their apartment wearing a bathrobe, she’s his second, much younger, wife, and they both have multitudes of psych histories and medications. They buy some stuff, have a few squabbles, stop for a snack and to pill up, shop some more, have a few more squabbles, talk to parents of a trick-or-treating child in lion costume, have another squabble at which point Alice runs off, Stephen goes to “their” bar and waits for her, they go home. Apparently this has happened many times before. We learn a lot about these people, but it seems to me it’s exposition.

Here are some of the things Stephen (the POV character) has wanted to do but not done: buy an apartment or house, resume competitive running at the veteran level, move to Europe after his divorce from his first wife, take a vacation to the South where they both grew up, have children. In fact, so much of the story seems to be going from thing to thing that he hasn’t done. So at the end of the story, when he says in the morning he’s going to have a talk with Alice, get his career back on track, and begin a pregnancy, we know he’s made these resolutions before; it’s all talk.

There are a lot of powerful elements in the story. The costume motif is nicely done, perhaps the best thing about the story. They are shopping for clothes, it’s Halloween, and he’s an actor who wears costumes. This is not coincidence, I do not think. I wonder if his fear of being found ridiculous (see opening quote) is the reason he doesn’t really want to have children: what are children, especially to narcissists, as a reflection of onesself and another means by which one may be judged? The whole reflection-of-self thing – narcissism 101 – is perfectly framed as they meet a couple, total strangers, with a trick-or-treating child in a lion suit: “[He] wondered what Margaret and Robert were thinking of him and Alice. What picture did they make, this older man worrisomely buoying up this sedated young wife?” Towards the beginning: “women wearing heels and men in European clothes were showing themselves in the uptown air.” Showing themselves? That assumes some narcissism on everyone else’s part. It’s an interesting view of people who are simply going about their daily business. I suspect there are many people in sweatshirts and jeans, by the way, but they aren’t the people he sees. While looking through some other New Yorker articles Antrim has written, I noticed an abstract of an article (it’s from Antrim’s published memoir, Afterlife) about his mother, described as an alcoholic, who did some clothing design and owned a clothing shop in Miami. This kind of detail intrigues me.

The notion of “keep moving” comes up a few times, too, first in connection with some regrets he might be having about his life (it’s fine to not dwell on regrets, but if you don’t examine your mistakes, you don’t learn from them) and again as they go from shop to shop. It’s dropped, though (they stop twice in the story) so it feels more like a coincidence than a theme.

To return to the issue of children, at two points they are confronted with baby carriages. Early in their shopping trip: “‘Are you holding up?’ She was leaning against him. Here and there around them, babies, pushed in strollers, came and went.’ Then a few minutes later: “A baby carriage was bearing down on them” just before they take a break from shopping to have some cake and a few pills. And of course they run into the little girl (who they at first think is a little boy) in a lion suit.

The return to their apartment from the high-powered shopping district is pretty cool. I know little about New York other than what I’ve seen on TV, but I get a strong impression: leaving behind Fifth Avenue and ending up in a Village walk-up.

And the title. Who knows what? Maybe this is an answer to an early question: “He had a young wife. She didn’t yet know what life had in store for her. Or did she?”

What I’m thinking of here is Steve Almond’s Plot Fail about the character in a hole. These are both characters in a hole. Together, and maybe that’s enough of a twist. He sort of wants things, as I’ve already described. But there’s no real passion there, and certainly no effort. It’s more like idle thoughts – “Sure, I’d like to write a fantastic story, but I don’t think I’ll take a class this semester, or write a story for workshop, I’ll just sit here and think about how nice it would be to write a fantastic story.” His dreams – she doesn’t really have dreams – aren’t backed up by any passion. In the end, that makes the story pretty dull for me. And that’s a learning experience. Either that, or it’s what I’ve become trained to expect from a story.

One response to “Donald Antrim: “He Knew” from The New Yorker, May 9-15, 2011

  1. Pingback: Donald Antrim: “Ever Since” from The New Yorker, 3/12/12 « A Just Recompense

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