Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Donald Antrim’s new short story collection follows his path from light to dark

Donald Antrim’s THE EMERALD LIGHT IN THE AIR is a new collection of seven short stories that originally appeared in The New Yorker between 1999 and 2014.

In The New York Times Sunday Book Review (9/18/14), Adelle Waldman wrote in a somewhat curmudgeonly but admiring manner:

The most underrated quality in fiction nowadays is intelligence; the most overrated, imagination. Donald Antrim possesses both – but his intelligence is what makes you sit up straighter when you begin his new collection, ‘The Emerald Light in the Air.’ Very quickly you realize you are reading something different from the mass of competent, earnest and depressingly dull short stories that are as commonplace now as ever (only the styles change).

Antrim’s stories are arranged in the order of their publication which gives added interest to the collection. The reader is able to see the
changes in his focus and concerns over the years – and they do get darker with time.

The initial story, “An Actor Prepares,” is zany, if not slapstick. A Professor of Speech and Drama is casting and directing a student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream planned for twilight on the College Green. (This comes two years after he mounted an all-male, all-nude Taming of the Shrew. “People said it increased their appreciation for the radical potentials in Elizabethan drama.”)

He has cast himself (“a skinny, balding, unmarried, childless forty-six-year-old … a PhD with hair on his back”) as Lysander:

Normally, Lysander would be essayed by some good-looking lacrosse goalie waiting his turn to date-rape beautiful, waifish Mary Victoria Frost, our Hermia, only a sophomore herself and already the finest actress we’ve had in my time at Barry, a sure candidate for Yale, or Juilliard if she can ease off the drugs.

The costumes for the faeries and goblins are G-strings and pasties. Bottom and his fellow mechanics will be dressed in weight-lifting belts over wool tunics with the characters’ names ironed on. The young lovers (and the professor) will writhe around and grope each other. “Possibly – I should say probably – it was risky of me to attempt simulated sex with undergraduates.”

A blind student with halting speech has been cast as Puck and a hole has been dug in the Green from which he will rise. One of the students asks, “How are we supposed to do any acting when the entire stage is nothing but a hole in the ground?”

In a perfect parody of academic pedantry, the professor replies:

The circular patterns sketched by our movements around the pit will illustrate mankind’s proximity to the abyss, and this in turn will be a dramaturgical reminder of the themes of revolution and renewal in English morris dancing, which, you’ll recall from the first week of rehearsal, Billy, is an acknowledged folk source for Shakespeare’s May Day comedies.

But, then, heavy storms pound the area. Flash floods follow. Dams give way and roads, trees, cars and people are swept away including a chemistry professor who’s been at the college for forty years. His Memorial Service is scheduled for the same day as the play. Audience members will walk from one to the other.

The college Green is flooded, the actors are covered with mud, and Puck’s pit is filled with dirty water and now contains an injured, angry duck. In the middle of the performance, blind Puck falls in the hole, cane and all, and is attacked by the duck. Audience members leave their seats and surround the pit to gawk. The show goes on with the actors sliding in the mud and trying to avoid running into each other or the spectators.

In the ensuing chaos, the professor thinks:

Dancing barefoot and more or less naked around people wearing formal clothes had, as an activity, a distinctly anarchic, rebellious aspect – rebellious in the sense that it created, for me at least, the kind of sweaty excitement that comes with dangerous play. I felt free and young. I should say that I felt myself backsliding to a younger state of mind. It’s hard to say what this feeling consisted in – panic and hope, disappointment, shame.

The next two stories in the collection are darker and center on wannabe artists. “Pond, With Mud” is narrated by a middle-aged man who fancies himself a poet and walks about with a notebook and pen in which he solemnly records images which come to him:

“… he began to feel as if he might be on the verge of formulating a concrete idea about the nature of existence, and about his place in the scheme of things. It was a feeling that came, as he thought of it, from deep in his heart. But each time he got this feeling it almost instantly went away. Would he never know what it was that he was trying to think about himself?”

In “Solace,” Christopher is an anxious, unemployed man (“Hey, life’s just one big process of elimination, right?”). He is sleeping with Jennifer who “felt sure that as a very young girl she’d probably been happy.” Her mother was (“low whisper”) an abstract expressionist and Jennifer says, “I need to make painting mine.” Moreover, she solemnly intones: “When I study the thing I’m painting, I feel free from not painting.” Christopher wants to see even one of her paintings and has mentally rehearsed possible generic responses to utter. She says she has started a new painting “using bolder colors than she’d ever dared use in the past” but it never seems to be finished and the story ends before he is allowed to see it.

The last stories in the book are about characters who can’t quite get their footing in life or who have serious mental illnesses. In “Another Manhattan,” Jim has had two locked-ward hospital admissions.

He had a problem with anxiety and suicidality, and as Kate had reminded him in their conversation a moment earlier, everyone knew about his previous autumn’s sojourns on the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge and his games of chicken – not, not games, not at all, really – on the fire escape outside their bedroom window.

He unravels completely in a crowded Manhattan restaurant and is returned to the hospital where he is shown to “a room of his own” (Yes, Virginia, I believe that is an allusion).

“He Knew” tells the story of an aging actor who is no longer offered roles. His lover is on anti-anxiety pills “ever since her suicide attempt,” and overdoses while they are on a shopping spree, leaving herself barely able to walk. He himself is on antidepressants and antipsychotic meds. In “Ever Since,” Jonathan’s lover, Rachel, has left him for another man and he’s been in a “state of grief” ever since.

In the title story, the most harrowing in the collection, Billy has been twice admitted to the psychiatric ward of a Charlottesville hospital and has undergone electro-convulsive treatments which are described in some detail. He keeps a Browning Hunting rifle and ammo in his truck. As he drives,

… Billy recalled that, for a long time, the time of the locked ward and his sick brain and the torn-up suicide notes to Julia, he’d felt the burning. He’d felt it in his temple. It was, somehow, he knew, both imaginary and real, a beckoning, an itch, a need for a bullet.
• • •
… Some days, he’d curled in a ball on the floor and promised himself that soon, soon, soon – it would be his gift to himself – he’d walk up to the barn and lie down with the rifle.

Billy accidentally drives his car into a ditch and is unable to free it. A young boy runs toward him, mistaking him for the doctor who has been summoned to the bedside of the boy’s dying mother. Billy helps her (in a way I won’t reveal here) and then “went back the way he’d come.”

Donald Antrim is the author of three novels (Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World; The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist. He has also written a memoir, The Afterlife. An associate professor in the writing program at Columbia University, he was a 2013 MacArthur Fellow.

After I finished the book, I found Chris Powers’ review in The Guardian (11/12/14) where he noted:

Knowing writers’ biographies doesn’t always add to an appreciation of their fiction, but in Antrim’s case it helps to know that he was in hospital twice following the publication of The Afterlife, and that he believes ECT saved him from suicide; it explains why the same issues keep returning, story after story, stubborn as weeds.

Knowing this increased my admiration for Antrim. A brave writer and a brave man. Long may he live. And write.

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