Donald Antrim

by Thomas Bolt


Donald Antrim. Photo by Ulrike Shamoni.

In an interview on the Internet, novelist David Foster Wallace says, “I think there are about five of us under 40 who are white and over six feet and wear glasses . . . Richard Powers, William Vollman, Jonathan Franzen, Donald Antrim, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody.” That makes seven, but who’s counting. Donald Antrim is tall, but what really sets him apart as a writer is his tone—deadpan, gently insidious. His hilarious novels are narrated by earnest men who are trying to do their best, by their lights, in worlds that can suddenly fill with menace. That the characters often find themselves a part of that menace, even, despite their best efforts, helping to originate it, makes the novels more interesting still.

In his first book, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World , the suburban houses are not just alarmed, they are defended: minefields, pits with sharpened bamboo sticks or broken glass, even (my favorite) the “Rainbow Pillbox”: “Gleason, who works, or did until recently, at the local boat basin, spraying fiberglass onto the hulls of recreational vehicles, had used this same industrial aerosol technology to apply a white lacquer of composite slipperiness to his house, transforming it into a fantastic humpbacked windowless bunker with a nautical screw hatch for a door. The roof, a low dome, had ganged at its apex a cluster of heavy-duty latex garden hoses, spewing forth. The water cascaded out of the hoses, over the roof, down the hard-shell walls, and into PVC runoff gutters sunk neatly into the flower beds.”

Donald Antrim’s new book, The Hundred Brothers , takes a family gathering to the third power: one hundred brothers meet in the vast library of their family home for drinks and dinner, a prelude to a mission that is never carried out. As is often the case with old buildings and rooms, Antrim’s library seems to be the physical manifestation of a way of life: “Noises came from everywhere, and the chandelier bulbs overhead flashed off, on, off, like playhouse lobby lights signaling act one. What a sad theater ours would be, with its inaccessible bar and its fire-hazard electrical circuitry and the cracked ceiling-vaults and ripped curtains and the cigarette-burned seats, and the people and things constantly tumbling over and breaking on the floor. It’s enough to make you hate mankind.”

Antrim’s narrators, likable enough at first, draw you into their world and entangle you in their neuroses, misconceptions, and mistakes, so that the inevitable laughter takes on, at last, an uneasy feeling of complicity. There is also, despite all the exaggeration, a light touch; and, rarest of all in our literal-minded time, a pervasive, but almost subliminal, creeping use of metaphor.

Thomas Bolt I’m scared by your books. There’s something funny going on with the plumbing.

Donald Antrim Yes. The drains are clogged.

TB What I like is that, along with many other things in your books, the plumbing seems metaphorical, almost emblematic—like something from an allegory with the key missing. Do these first two books in your projected trilogy link up in space and time, or share any characters? Or is it just the plumbing?

DA I’ve been calling these books a trilogy because I feel, for whatever reasons, that they belong together. They are written, I think, with similar things in mind, though they do not form a continuous narrative; characters do not appear in book after book. It may turn out that this is not a trilogy at all. But about the plumbing. Yes, there is, I guess, a metaphorical significance—it’s leaking, running water, after all. It has to have a metaphorical significance.

TB The way you handle metaphor—visually, and without distracting from the narrative (if anything, making the metaphor the narrative) brings to mind not so much another writer as it does a film director—Hitchcock would be an obvious example. The way reflections and water (shower and swamp) are used in Psycho, or stage and circus imagery in Murder, for instance.

DA The shower and the swamp are a couple of my favorite places. Actually, I’m not sure I can address your questions about metaphor by talking about cinema. On the other hand, I do think that I have a kind of elastic approach to reality and reality testing. It’s probably not sufficient to say about these novels that metaphor becomes reality, though certainly it does, over time, for any reader who decides, after the first five or ten pages, to continue reading. Both Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and The Hundred Brothers begin with improvisations—little departures from reality, I suppose—and these improvisations accrue reality, retroactively, as subsequent events grow out of the initial situation. Reality gets built.

TB You build worlds that aren’t reliable simulacra of ours, but wrong turns, that parallel our world in unexpected ways—that threaten to become our world. On their own terms, they function consistently and coherently; but that very coherence—a coherence of the outrageous and the absurd—has the power to floodlight areas of our own reality. Especially the routine outrages we’ve made our peace with (often in the name of coherence) so long ago that they’re all but subliminal. How did this style, this approach, evolve? What came before Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World?

DA A number of stories, some with more straightforward, strictly realistic dispositions. Those weren’t much fun. I was depressed at the time, so I began Elect Mr. Robinson, a novel that was written with two rules in mind: 1) The logic of the created world had to grow, event by event, along coherent lines; in other words, the narrative would grow out of itself and not violate its own terms; and, 2) I had to like it.

TB Alligators are mentioned in Elect Mr. Robinson. Did you live in Florida? Where did you grow up?

DA I grew up in the Southeast. My family lived in Virginia and all over Florida. The landscape of Elect Mr. Robinson is, more or less, Floridian. I remember, from years when I was very young, hurricanes and floods.

TB Where do you imagine The Hundred Brothers to be set? It reminded me of Virginia.

DA Well, The Hundred Brothers is set in an interior. The brothers never leave the red library. Of course, they look out the windows. There are mountains in the distance, and there is an open field, and a rose garden close to the walls of the house. It is, for part of the novel, snowing. Yes. A child’s memory of Virginia.

TB Your work seems to pick up a strain of American writing last seen in the hands of Shirley Jackson, in her famous short story, “The Lottery” (a story Edgar Allen Poe would have loved).

DA That’s a great story. It shows, among other things, that if enough fictional characters throw enough fictional rocks, then, eventually, the rocks hurt.

TB Your novels are short, and you don’t divide them into chapters. This seems important to the way they work, but I’m not sure why.

DA The unbroken narrative is a consequence of my little rule that the story must grow out of itself—as much as this is possible. Chapters and space breaks are great tension relievers. Chapters are, I think, left over from times when books were routinely serialized, and now they function as organizing devices for the author, or resting places for the reader. I just didn’t want to relieve any tension. So brevity became important, because I also didn’t want to tire the reader before the end of the book. And perhaps I was afraid that, if I gave a reader a chance to put down the book, I would then lose my reader, who might, halfway through, say to herself, “These things can’t be happening!”

TB But they do happen.

DA They certainly do.

TB And yet, as strange as some of the things that happen in The Hundred Brothers are, just getting through an evening with one’s family can be even more outrageous and bewildering. Even without stripping down to dark socks and donning the mask of the Corn King.

DA Well, I don’t know about your family, but I would say that in my family reality was always up for grabs.

TB By the way—in The Hundred Brothers, the urn never turned up! It’s mentioned in the very beginning, as the whole reason for the brothers’ gathering: they’re going to search for the urn containing “the old fucker’s ashes,” but they never get around to looking.

DA The urn does its job. It kicks off the book and its failure to reappear is an obvious flaw. However, once the father manifests on the ceiling, it is possible that the urn is superfluous.

TB True enough—that spreading stain—the water again, always seeping, infiltrating. Water will out. After reading this novel, I finally believed that “all men are brothers”—that this is how we treat each other, especially when it’s time to eat. In your first book, a neighbor, teacher, and friend; in the second book, a brother. The sentimentality that has grown up around these roles probably says something about their importance. And the fact that we often prefer to sentimentalize our interdependence than to acknowledge that realistically, probably says something about our discomfort with the idea of needing other people. In many ways your work seems to be a critique of individualism (not individuality), especially as popularly conceived.

DA All men should think a lot about their cultural roles and the possibilities for action and empathy. Pete and Doug, the narrators of Elect Mr. Robinson and The Hundred Brothers, think about these things all the time. The novels are really records of their feelings. Unfortunately, these men’s good intentions and hard-won insights cannot repair their neurotic wretchedness. These are men who hurt the people near them. You could say that hurting people inadvertently, then feeling guilt and remorse of melodramatic proportions, is one of our culture’s most cherished masculine roles. Much literature is devoted to describing the inner lives of lovable brutes.

TB And one of the great set-pieces in The Hundred Brothers is your own history of literature in English—a chase through the labyrinthine, rotting open stacks of the red library.

DA That was fun to write.

TB Fun to read, too.

DA I was especially happy to get this chance to refer to Gorboduc, a play that is rarely produced and almost never read.

TB The Golden Bough was present also, in spirit, if not in name. All of our nineteenth century ideas of history seemed present, in one way or another—and equally up for grabs.

DA Yeah. Once Doug puts on the Corn King mask, you could call this book The Hundred Brothers: or, The Golden Bough.

TB Which are your favorite brothers? I’d have to pick Clayton and Rob.

DA I am fond of brothers who receive little or no real stage time. Most brothers get their moment, and some get half the book, but several, like Saul and a couple of the twins, never quite make it out of the chorus.

TB A reader tends to sympathize with a narrator—and by the end of both of your books, that sympathy is in shreds. A way of making the reader conscious of how much he or she is willing to go along with?

DA First-person narrators often will, if well written and not too venal or stupid, hold our sympathy. I don’t think I was concerned with pushing the reader to her limits. Nothing like that. But I do like the idea of implicating a reader who feels an attraction to a narrator guilty of insensitivity and other narcissistic crimes.

TB I think that’s what reminded me of Hitchcock: a kind of complicity that gets more and more difficult to take.

DA That’s why the books are short.

TB There are just the two books to go on, but certain themes seem to be developing over them—trilogy or not. Atavism, atrocity, and the inability of our forms (cultural, civic, familial) to contain us as we really are.

DA Or as we really want to be. These narrators, though flawed, are deeply interested in their own humanity. Perhaps this is why they may seem likable. They’re trying, in misguided ways, to understand their lives, and to experience sensual pleasures, and to articulate emotion.

TB The way you play with circumstances suggests that our world doesn’t make any more sense than theirs, but that we accept it; and try to accommodate ourselves to it, and it to us.

DA Well, I don’t think our world does make more sense than the worlds of these books. The books are small parts of our world. Do the circumstances of Pete’s and Doug’s lives seem exaggerated or unreal? Not much happens here that isn’t reported in the Times, or at least the Daily News.

TB We accept the stories in those papers out of habit; it’s your use of metaphor, I think, that makes the bizarreness of our own circumstances stand out against the flimsiness of the equipment we’ve set up to deal with them. Metaphor is bottomless; what isn’t explained is, finally, what’s interesting. Your subtle use of genealogy in The Hundred Brothers is a good example. History is produced not by aliens, but by people like us—like the ancestor of Doug’s whose name appears on the manifest of a ship with “human cargo.” By avoiding stridency, you evade the reader’s defenses on this and many other points.

DA I guess metaphor is bottomless to the extent that the unconscious is bottomless. Actually, metaphor may only seem bottomless. I have some notion about the sources—sources in me, I suppose—of fictional characters, images, and so forth: the real sources, near the bottom of things. And the connection we seek, the connection a reader seeks with a book, it seems to me, is a connection that is felt, or experienced, unconsciously.

TB Tone seems crucial in your work. Your humor, for instance, is muted and edged at once, and political implications are touched either very lightly or with a very sharp blade. The writing is like a performance, in that a false move—especially the wrong tone—could “sink the whole boat.”

DA Or “blow down the house of cards.” These books are card houses. Humor (as opposed to sarcasm, which is often mistaken for humor, and which is never funny, though it will make people laugh) is so difficult to define or describe. Many people who are truly funny will tell you that their humor is the natural outcome of elaborate strategies for survival—survival, for instance, of a cruel or otherwise unhappy home. So of course their humor will contain sadness, loss, memories of deprivation—all the subject matter, in fact, that Doug and Pete are so obsessed with. It is true that this humor has little to do with gags or puns or word play. The truly funny subjects are death, alcoholism, etc.

TB You also use a kind of parody-by-transformation—a sea-change in familiar fallacies that leaves them newly unrecognizable and ridiculous. The fishy new-age self-realization or meditation techniques in Elect Mr. Robinson, for instance.

DA I’d like to get away from those kinds of easy targets in the future, and instead concentrate on the really big issues, whatever those are.

TB It would be an easy target if you were heavy-handed about it, but what you do, in fact, is to make merging with the bison or the coelacanth within so seductive, and render the process so lovingly, that you are at once ridiculing it and treating it more seriously than it has ever been treated.

DA I don’t know about ever. But that’s a nice way of looking at it. It’s that old spirit-animal attraction. Maybe we all have fantasies about ourselves as animals. What’s your animal?

TB Minerals come to mind first. Desert plants. Something that hides. We were talking before, off-page, about Henry Green. What do you like about his writing, and which books?

DA There aren’t any books by Henry Green that I don’t like. These are wonderful books, subtle and very sad. Party Going, for instance, is about a group of young, rich boys and girls—children, really—on their way to catch a train to a boat to a house party in France, a party that will last weeks. But fog rolls in and these drunken children become stranded in the station. The richest among them rents suites in the station hotel, orders flowers and a bar to be set up, while, below them, in the station, their servants and multitudes of working people stand shoulder-to-shoulder, exhausted, waiting for trains. And it is here, in a way, that the partygoers have their party. This is between the wars, and there is this sense that this is the last great party before everything changes and the partygoers’ way of life is lost forever.

TB How does Green’s style make him different?

DA What’s known about Green is that he is a great stylist. For instance, in places he’ll drop practically all his definite articles, and you’ll have a sentence like this from the novel Living, describing the actions of a foundry worker: “This man scooped gently at great shape cut down in black sand in great iron box.” The effect, aside from density, is of great immediacy—as if the description of an event is exactly coincidental with the event. This is startling to a reader. It is as if the emotion in a scene, or a bit of dialogue, or a moment of observation, comes straight up out of the page, almost unprocessed. The language makes itself felt, and only then, after the being felt, understood.

TB Which fiction writers do you like enough to reread?

DA Henry Green, of course. And Cheever. Cheever’s stories are astonishing. I recently reread Go Down Moses. Faulkner is a writer I’ve been out of touch with for a long time. “The Bear,” in Go Down Moses, is one of those short works that seem to contain the writer’s entire world.

TB Someone suggested to me that The Hundred Brothers, both in setting and in situation (a hundred highly strung people getting together in a big decaying room for conversation, drinks, and a meal), owed something to the experience of staying at an artists’ colony. Does this seem true?

DA A little bit.

TB But, then again, Virginia can be like that too. Especially Charlottesville. How did readers react to your first book? Were you taken by surprise?

DA I don’t think I was ever taken by surprise. The publication was greeted with a fair amount of silence.

TB They were taken by surprise. Do you have a title for the third novel yet?

DA The Verificationist.

TB In your books—for your characters—taking things seriously is no guarantee of getting them right.

DA I believe that my narrators are, within the context of the worlds they inhabit and describe, quite sane. They’re not crazy, but they are earnest.

TB Even Mr. Robinson? When he has little Sarah on the rack in his basement?

DA He doesn’t have little Sarah on the rack. The other children in his third grade class have little Sarah on the rack.

TB But he presides.

DA So do we all.

TB Well, let’s just say some characters are saner than others, and your protagonists in particular tend to seem less and less sane as their books go along. How are we all involved?

DA The fact that they seem less sane does not mean that they are less sane. When I said that they were not, as far as I am concerned, crazy, I meant to agree with your idea that taking something seriously does not insure success. These men are quite serious in their convictions about life.

TB So, the plots of your books end by revealing the implications of these convictions—to your readers at least.

DA To a degree. You could say that the convictions of characters reveal the contents of their minds, and the author’s. But I don’t know if that’s right. Convictions, per se, and ideas in general, are expressed in forms of behavior and through emotional states that tell us much more than the ideas themselves. I don’t mean to put forward—or to dismantle—particular convictions about family or education or government, only to drop these characters into their worlds and run them around for awhile.

TB Do you imagine a life beyond the edges of your books, know what happens to your characters before and after they appear?

DA Not really. They don’t much exist before or after the edges of the books.

TB Does Doug, at the end of The Hundred Brothers, die?

DA You might as well ask if Sarah, at the end of Elect Mr. Robinson, lives or dies.

TB But that is the kind of question readers ask, right?

DA Some do.

TB Why isn’t it important to you?

DA It’s not unimportant, it’s just out of my hands.

TB You’re one of the few writers around who did not come from an MFA writing program. How important is that independence—from academia, from workshops—to you?

DA It’s partly an accident that I never went to graduate school. I don’t have anything against them. I don’t teach. But who knows. Maybe I will.

TB You didn’t study writing as an undergraduate either, did you?

DA No, I didn’t. My one writing workshop was with Allan Gurganus, at the West Side Y, about ten years ago, and it was, actually, a terrific experience.

TB What do you think are the worst tendencies in contemporary fiction writing?

DA Boy, that’s a tough one. The same kinds of things probably make fiction of any era good or bad. There has always been bad writing, and a certain amount of good writing. Do we, today, suffer from particular types of bad writing?

TB Well, when we talked at dinner about that old Twilight Zone episode where the harried executive dreams of a small, peaceful town called Willoughby, and jumps off of his commuter train and finds himself in the town from his fantasy—and meanwhile a hearse comes to carry his corpse away and it’s from the Willoughby Funeral Home—we both recognized the “clincher” ending as an amusingly bad feature of the pulp writing of that era. When writing is more polished, more contemporary, and is praised—yet seems bad to you—why does it most often seem bad?

DA It’s sometimes hard to say what, besides obviously poor execution, bad technique, etc., makes a particular work bad. This is because truly bad work, for one reason or another, gives very little to think about at all. There isn’t that much to say about a bad book or a bad poem, unless, maybe, you’re feeling angry, or if you’re teaching.

TB Just for fun, here’s the kind of awful question people like to ask: What writers might a future literary historian group you with? For instance, does your approach to fiction have anything in common with that of, say, Nicholson Baker or Rick Moody?

DA My writing must have much in common with any number of contemporaries’, but I don’t know if I’m the right person to decide what, or if today is the day to see how.

TB Your books are very, very funny. Why?

DA The books are constructed of interlocking set pieces, and the set pieces are often defined by particular moments of physical violence or self-abasement, a rise and fall of pain and suffering. What could be funnier than that?

 

Thomas Bolt was awarded the 1993 Rome Prize for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His 1,001-line poem, “Dark Ice,” appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of BOMB. The poem will reappear this winter, with notes, on the Nabakov Electronic Discussion Forum.

Tags:
Families
Anxiety
Space
Narration
Mortality
Metaphor
BOMB 58
Winter 1997
The cover of BOMB 58
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