On Donald Antrim and the Literature of Anxiety

Photo via the John D. & Catherine T. Arthur Foundation

Across three novels, a memoir, and now, a short story collection, Donald Antrim has proven himself to be the most acute chronicler of anxiety writing today. Antrim’s characters— including his own exacting self-portrait in The Afterlife—live on the verge of nervous collapse. The archetypal Antrim set piece involves a steep escalation of panic and despair in the face of a quotidian task: In his novel The Verificationist, the narrator’s inability to decide what to order at a pancake restaurant almost causes a complete breakdown. (He eventually chooses pancakes.) The Afterlife begins with an account of Antrim’s buying and returning, with increasing desperation, a series of beds, while trying to cope with his mother’s death. And in “Another Manhattan,” a story in his new collection The Emerald Light in the Air, a man in a florist’s shop finds himself completely overwhelmed by the fact that he has somehow assembled a flower arrangement so extravagant that he has neither the cash nor the credit limit to pay for it.

Antrim’s novels begin with fantastic premises—a suburban neighborhood descends into a state of medieval warfare, a hundred brothers gather for a reunion at their ancestral home—which grow more elaborate and chaotic as their plots progress. His method in these books is one of constant acceleration, with much of the pleasure coming from seeing how fast and far he will go. The answer is usually “all the way;” the novels have the quality of nightmares, and seem to hurtle inevitably towards grotesque violence and sex. (They are also hilarious, in a precise, pitch-black way that renders them kin to pre-Tenth of December George Saunders.)

Only the first story in Emerald Light, in which the unhinged head of a college theater department matter-of-factly explains why his production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream descended into a mud-soaked orgy, follows the model of the novels. Instead, most of the stories take place in a ruefully recognizable New York of book parties and borrowed apartments, and feature protagonists struggling actively, sometime poignantly, to hang on to whatever small degree of mental health they’ve managed to achieve. The humor is quieter, the pathos more grounded. These characters carry the perilous landscape of Antrim’s earlier works in their heads, perhaps, but they don’t live there.

The shift is significant, and it’s happened gradually—the seven stories here, presented chronologically, have been published over the past fifteen years in The New Yorker, and they intertwine tonally and thematically with the personal essays in The Afterlife. And as in his last novel The Verificationist, Antrim proves himself an expert at delineating internal crisis, tracing the volatile shifts in his characters’ moods over the course of a party, or, in “He Knew,” a shopping expedition.

The virtuoso opening of that story deftly lays out Antrim’s methods and preoccupations: “When he felt good, or even vaguely a little bit good, and sometimes even when he was not, by psychiatric standards, well at all, but nonetheless had the notion that he might soon be coming out of the Dread, as he called it, he insisted on taking Alice to Bergdorf Goodman, and afterward for a walk along Fifty-seventh street, to Madison, where they would turn—this had become a tradition—and work their way north through the East Sixties and Seventies, into the low Eighties, touring the expensive shops.” (This breathless initial burst of explication is something of a trademark, perhaps perfected in the two and a half page fraternal catalogue that begins The Hundred Brothers.) Over the course of “He Knew,” the married couple shops, pops pills, and argues, coming together and apart at the approximate pace of their prescription drugs’ absorption in their systems, “his anti-depressants, and her anti-anxieties.” These people are damaged and difficult, but the fact that they have found each other—and that they try hard, despite their crippled coping mechanisms, to help one another—is a minor miracle.

Indeed, the lifeline of emotional connection, usually in the form of a romance or marriage, is held out persistently in these stories as a possible route to salvation, or at least survival. But Antrim also complicates and darkens the “only connect” message. In “Solace,” we are told in the first sentence that the central couple has found comfort in the fact that “they were children of parents who’d acted grotesquely, some might say violently, toward them, even when they were fairly little.” The story charts their courtship as they spend weekends together in the apartments of friends, since they both have roommates that they’d rather the other not meet. Though nothing dramatic happens, by the end of the story these children of alcoholics, who have drunk cautiously, if at all in each other’s company, are deep into a bottle of gin. Ah, Solace.

The title story, which closes the collection, subverts the expectations that the preceding stories have created. The setup is classic Antrim: Billy, the protagonist has recently spent time in a psychiatric ward because of suicidal thoughts after the deaths of his parents and a breakup with his girlfriend. He’s driving through Central Virginia, on his way to the dump to throw away his ex’s paintings, when he takes his Mercedes on a self-created detour into the forest to avoid a downed tree. Through a series of odd circumstances, he finds himself at the home of a family living in abject poverty, where a woman is in the final stage of an agonizing illness. We are close to the echoing, parable-like world of the novels; the scene inevitably reminds Billy of his own mother’s prolonged death from cancer. He hands his Ativan over to the man of the house, explains how to administer it, and is thanked for his kindness. It’s a gentle, moving scene that demonstrates the distance Antrim has traveled since his early work, even with his foot off the gas pedal.

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