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.

Donald Antrim: “Ever Since” from The New Yorker, 3/12/12

New Yorker illustration by Josh Cochran

New Yorker illustration by Josh Cochran

Ever since his wife had left him – but she wasn’t his wife, was she? he’d only thought of her that way, had begun to think of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop – Jonathan had taken up a new side of his personality, and become the sort of lurking man who, say, at work or at a party, mainly hovers on the outskirts of other people’s conversations, leaning close but not too close, listening in while gazing out vaguely over their heads in order to seem distracted and inattentive, waiting for the conversation to wind down, so that he can weigh in gloomily and summarize whatever has just been said.
He was at it again.

I’ve noticed that when I connect emotionally with a story, I miss a lot of details; I might not even know the names of key characters, the setting, the tense or person of the narration, until I go back and think about it later, because, like with great sex, in the moment I’m lost in the experience. Then there are those stories that are so cleverly woven that I’m enthralled with the brilliance of a writer who has used the same 26 letters and 9 punctuation marks we all have access to, in such an interesting and unique way. And sometimes, like this time, I sense little hints left like breadcrumbs, but I get lost anyway.

This story of a cocktail party, like Antrim’s story from last May, contains some wonderful elements. There’s a choreography that’s absolutely masterful; in his Book Bench interview, he says “Traffic control, for me, can be a pleasure” and he’s good at it. For example, right after the opening paragraph quoted above, protagonist Jonathan does his “lurking man” bit with a cluster of fellow party attendees, dropping his gloom, and the cluster reacts to enfold him:

“What you’re saying, if I’ve heard you right, is that the current rates of city government spending will eventually bankrupt the public schools.” He was speaking to a group of young parents – presumably, that’s what they were – at a book-publication party for a novelist he’d never read. He’d come with his friend, his date, he should say, who worked for the novelist’s publisher. He added, “My ex-wife, well, not my wife, but, you know, she might as well have been, taught eighth grade in the Bronx for two years.”
“Really?” a woman in the group asked. The man next to Jonathan turned sideways as if he were a door swinging open to let him in.
Jonathan stepped forward.

I love that detailed social ballet; it feels so accurate. It also starts two of the themes that run through this story: belonging, and the ex-not-wife Rachel. I’m trying to ignore the ex-not-wife thing as much as possible, since it’s the most blatant part of the story (at every turn he’s reminded of her), and thus the least interesting (though, since it’s the crux of the story, I can’t ignore it completely).

The theme of belonging, however, dovetails nicely with the religious imagery I found in the names used throughout. I’m not sure if I’m overreading. I went hunting in all my usual places for confirmation, and found it only in a comment on Cliff Garstang’s Perpetual Folly which also brings up the Biblical Jewish names. It isn’t just the Jewish names, though.

The Jonathan of the Old Testament is best known for his friendship with King David. I’m interested in how Jonathan describes Sarah as his friend first, then his date, and later we find out they’re more like a couple who’ve been together for a while.

The ancient Sarah was, among other things, associated with laughing at God’s assurance she’d have children when she was in her 80s; in the story, she’s the “friend/date”, and Jonathan sees her as playful; he also associates her with his old age (just what every young woman wants):

When they walked down the street together, and he rested his arm on her shoulder, he thought sometimes about how essential it would be in old age to have someone to lean on. And though his old age was a long way off, and he felt, the majority of the time, that he would never reach it anyway, he nonetheless considered it often when he was with Sarah.

Deborah was one of the few women of power and strength in her own right (not through her husband, father, or brother) in the Bible. At the party, Jonathan meets and possibly flirts with a strong Deborah, who tells him: “I want you to know that if we sleep together and I get pregnant I’m keeping the baby.” Which, by the way, splashes some cold water on the flirtation (which may be accidental on his part) and sends him skittling back to Sarah.

And Rachel, the omnipresent ex-not-wife, is the name of the woman Jacob wanted to marry when he was tricked into marrying Leah instead. Jacob spent seven years working for her father to win her hand; unlike Jonathan and his Rachel, however, the biblical pair did marry and fathered the Twelve Tribes. Our fictional Rachel, on the other hand, left Jonathan and married Richard Bishop. Now, maybe that name is a coincidence. And maybe it’s a coincidence Jonathan is standing on Church Street, taking a break from the party, when he calls Rachel and discovers she’s moving to LA and he finds himself sort of free of her (at least temporarily). And maybe it’s coincidence that one of the editors at Sarah’s publishing house who’s pursuing her ardently is named Fletcher, who is described as “thinner than he – in better shape all around, no doubt – with sharp cheekbones and a widow’s peak” or that, if we think mutiny instead of arrowsmith, another Christian is trying to take away Jonathan’s girlfriend when he is slow to propose. But I don’t think so.

The “belonging” theme rings throughout as well, from the initial sense of belonging to the circle at the party, to his diasporic longings for his place of origin:

Jonathan was extremely conscious of his origins, which were Southern…. he regarded himself as oddly and bravely homeless, imagining, from this city he’d chosen to live in, a lost, green place – Charlottesville, where his parents had been professors, and the nearby Blue Ridge, where he’d camped as a boy.

(no, “Next Year in Charlottesville” doesn’t quite sound right) to the difference between his and Sarah’s backgrounds:

…this drawn-out, vague acquaintance had given them each the subtle feeling, once they’d begun seeing each other and sleeping together, that they somehow shared common origins, though in fact she’d grown up on the Upper East Side, the daughter of psychoanalysts, and showed a dedication to European fashion magazines – Rachel had rejected fashion as a malignant form of commercialism – that he would never, throughout their long life ahead, their marriage, come to fathom.

That paragraph contains a wealth of substance besides Sarah’s New York roots: Rachel again, and a quick little flash-forward, slipped in so quickly it’s hardly noticeable, moving the narrator into the foreground as he spills the beans on Jonathan’s future. But if your mind wanders – and it might, given the intricate detail of who’s standing where talking to whom smoking what that suffuses this story – you might miss it. I’m fascinated by that trick of narration. There must be a word for it.

I think – I’m not sure – the climax of the story comes when Jonathan, having talked to Rachel on the phone and believing now he is mostly free of her, give or take a few slips he expects to happen – gets a jar of cherries from the bartender (cherries? really?) and winds a stem around Sarah’s finger while kneeling before her:

“Are you proposing?” Sarah asked.
He said, “I’m not sure that I can propose without a real ring. But at least you’ll know.”
“I’ll know what?
But he was afraid to say.
He stood and kissed her on the cheek.

I have no idea what that means – we already know they do indeed get married – but I hear violins and see soft-focus lighting. They then disappear towards Broadway, his arm around her shoulders, perhaps thinking about his old age.

Ok, I’m making all this up as I go along. Maybe it’s just a New York cocktail party story about a committment-phobic young man, and I’m just sensitized to religious symbolism because it’s the time of the year when everything from the wine on special at the supermarket to the onslaught of ads for Filet-o-Fish sandwiches at Burger King is grounded in religious practice. After all, Jonathan, Rachel, Sarah, and Deborah are not necessarily Jewish names at this point. So yeah, I’m overreading (but… why then are the novelist’s books titled Abel Kills Cain and The Strictures of My Love?). It’s what happens when a story doesn’t really connect with me: I torture it to find meaning. Sorry.

But hey, it was fun… 😉

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.