Donald Antrim: “The Emerald Light in the Air” from TNY, 2/4/14

In less than a year, he’d lost his mother, his father, and, as he’d once and sometimes still felt Julia to be, the love of his life; and, during this year, or, he should say, during its suicidal aftermath, he’d twice admitted himself to the psychiatric ward at the University Hospital in Charlottesville…. and now, another year later, he was on his way to the dump to throw out the drawings and paintings that Julia had made in the months when she was sneaking off to sleep with the man she finally left him to marry, along with the comic-book collection—it wasn’t a collection so much as a big box stuffed with comics—that he’d kept since he was a boy. He had long ago forgotten his old comics; and then, a few days before, he’d come across them on a dusty shelf at the back of the garage, while looking for a carton of ammo.

Is it suicide season or something? In the past month I’ve encountered four pieces with suicide as a central plot or theme. This one (available online) came too late in the procession for me to care.

In the present of the story, Billy, though he was very close to the edge at one point (“He’d got all but there. He’d had the Browning loaded. He’d had it ready and at hand, a few times”) is more or less on his way to recovery. The story is literally about getting out of the woods, for pete’s sake; it’s is not a will-he-or-won’t-he story.

Thing is, I’m not sure what kind of a story it is. That’s usually a good thing, when a story resists classification, when it leads me in one direction then surprises me with that unexpected-yet-inevitable turn. But not always. Here, we have the inevitable metaphor of his discombobulated car trip and his life, the decision of who gets the pills, and the return to the thrum of daily life and the promise of what is to come, complete with braised rabbit; is there a more fecund symbol? It’s a powerful metaphor, but in spite of his Page Turner interview about skirting fantasy, it seemed routine and clichéd. Maybe it’s a New York fantasy, to drive into a creek bed and find onesself in a cabin in the woods? Instead of creating a sense of unreality, it just left me clutching my favorite part: the discussion of Tiepolo’s painting.

She’d talked to him, as they stood together at the Accademia, gazing at “The Rape of Europa,” about the singular cloud hovering over Europa, its complete non-relation to the more natural-seeming clouds that dominate the painting as a whole, the delicate, pale clouds on the horizon, the spire of darker cloud rising up behind the rocks. “Everything is off in Tiepolo,” she’d said. “Spatial relations don’t cohere. It isn’t simply that people fly with angels through the air. What world are we looking at? The paintings at all points lead the eye toward infinity.”

I suppose that’s what the story is trying to do: lead the eye toward infinity. From suicide to death to life to the future, to possibility. I like that description of the cloud being different from the other clouds; it’s hard to explain Depression, capital-d Depression, to people who immediately think, “Well gee, people get depressed sometimes, but I don’t see how it’s a disease.” Yeah, we know about you and your snapping out of it. Some clouds are different.

In his Page-Turner interview, Antrim insists the story is “not meant to be anything but a trip, an experience, a pleasure.” Often, when a writer says something like that, I find enormous meaning in the details of the trip, and feel it’s been much, much more than transportation from first word to last. But not always.

I seem to be alone in my meh on this one. I’m unusually up-to-date with my TNY reading so only a couple of the good folks at The Mookse and the Gripes have posted comments, but they loved this story. I defer to their wisdom. I may be simply worn out from dealing with literary suicide and depression, and thus closed off to entering into the communion that’s necessary. Or it’s simply not my cup of tea.

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