SEPTEMBER 13, 2014
ROBERTO CALASSO, the writer and publisher, has observed that “mythical figures live many lives, die many deaths, and in this they differ from the characters we find in novels, who can never go beyond the single gesture.” By this he means that myths are polyphonic constructions of variation and appropriation. Apollo is an echo of Hermes, and Europa of Daphne, just as the Hebrew flood is an echo of the Akkadian, where Ea told Pir-napishtim to “tear down thy house and build a ship; leave all thou dost possess and save thy life, and preserve in the ship the living seed of every kind.”
Novels — from the Latin novus, or new — tend to resist polyphony by design. Emma Bovary’s ride through Paris, with its indelible white hand passing beneath the carriage blinds and tossing “some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom,” sings only of itself. The moment is monadic, special because it’s part of no refrain. For Calasso, the novel is “a narrative deprived of variants.”
It’s an idea so powerful that one wants immediately to search for contradictions. What about Ulysses? Or War and Peace? For M. M. Bakhtin, multivocality is one of the features that defines the work of modern novelists, such as Dostoevsky. Moreover, where do today’s short story collections fit into this apparent division between myth and novel? Like mythical figures, a collection’s characters can call out to each other across the traditionally solid border of the individual story, allowing the reader to assimilate a multi-narrative gesture — minus the communal experience that is myth’s raison d’être. Within a single collection of short fiction, then, narrative variations can simulate the reverberative workings that in myth require many tellings and many authors. In this respect, Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air is a dripping grotto of echoes. It hews closer to myth than novel.
Antrim, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and the author of four previous books, has been publishing short stories in The New Yorker for almost two decades. Seven of them appear in this collection. His last book, The Afterlife, published in 2006, is an autobiographical account of his relationship with his alcoholic mother. It is this memoir, more than his surreal and unambiguously novelistic novels, which mirrors the interests of his short fiction.
Some synopses of the stories in Emerald Light, with parallels: In “Pond, with Mud,” a failed middle-aged poet has ambivalent feelings toward his girlfriend’s toddler, whom he unwisely brings to a bar in order to drink the day away with the boy’s alcoholic father, an unemployed violinist. “Solace” depicts a man’s attempt to hide his drinking from an emotionally damaged woman he has started seeing; she, too, is a drinker, as well as a painter who resents her mother — another alcoholic artist. In “Another Manhattan,” the friendship between two mutually unfaithful couples is tested by the relapse of an unbalanced husband. (“He had a problem with anxiety and suicidality.”) The other cuckold/er is left to manage the first husband’s increasingly drunk wife. “He Knew” presents another childless relationship, this time between a mid-career actor and his very medicated wife, who shares the previous protagonist’s flirtation with breakdown. In “Ever Since” we’re dropped into a publishing party with a man who drinks himself into crisis and searches for both a cigarette and the source of his fear of commitment. As for the final and titular seventh story, it is a kind of summa theologica, and so ticks all of Antrim’s boxes: in it, a formerly suicidal sculptor mourns a two-year-old breakup with his artist ex-girlfriend, gets stoned in a rainstorm, thinks about the Browning A-bolt hunting rifle in the trunk of his Mercedes, and eventually — by way of prescription drugs and an improbable encounter with a nobly dirt-poor family — comes to terms with the death of his alcoholic mother.
These stories appeared in The New Yorker over the span of about 15 years. Yet how conspicuously consistent their interests! They are at once many stories and the same story, with slight but ultimately trivial differences among the various shades of alcoholism, childlessness, parental ambivalence, dead mothers, artistic ambitions, mood-stabilizing medications, and myriad other signifiers of middle-class “anxiety and suicidality.”
This arresting sameness — the monozygosity of these otherwise unassuming stories — I would attribute not to any creative drought on the part of Antrim (whose novels are enormously fecund, fun, and surreal), but to the peculiar ambition of the collection: it wants to be a miniature mythology. Its stories don’t aim to delight us with rare and precise Flaubertian details, or to present a wide and sparkling array of humanity. Instead, the book wants to wash over us in waves of familiarity. We are made to recognize the human hubris at work in each story precisely because the humans depicted are sketchily, almost indifferently drawn.
Antrim’s characters are therefore virtually interchangeable, and, once the types are established for a given story, few surplus details are needed: neurotic male protagonist, artistic girlfriend, emotionally frail spouse, drunken caricature, deceased parent. Minor characters are barely present, and the narrators are without exception financially comfortable white men over 30 with chummy, sensitive interior voices. (Two of the stories have additional, secondary narrators on top of this standard perspective.) In almost every story we see the sodden weight of social lubricants in a man’s social life; we witness the early hours or end days of relationships between the no-longer-young; we see the threat of suicide, which, once present in someone’s life, can never fully disappear; again and again, we encounter the debasement of drunk women under a man’s gaze. (“Patrick knew — her voice had that angry sound — that the wine had begun to take hold.”)
In spite of their shared interests, Antrim is unlike certain other male American balladeers of chemical dependence in the short story tradition, such as Raymond Carver or John Cheever. His stories don’t impress upon the reader’s mind with indelible descriptions, as Cheever’s do, or with memorable and suggestive silences, like Carver’s. In Antrim’s collection, narrative clichés are deployed casually and to echoic effect, especially where intoxication is concerned. Sometimes this tendency is even commented upon. In one story, a protagonist notices that his girlfriend “was weaving slightly, actually swaying in place, much in the manner of an actor impersonating a drunk […] Here was an example of a dramatic cliché’s analogue in reality.” Family resemblances are often depicted via intoxicant, as in the title story (“He was standing in the kitchen in his socks and underwear, drinking bourbon and Coke — his mother’s drink”) and the transparently named “Another Manhattan” (“Manhattans had been her mother’s drink”). The details of addiction are broadly conveyed, all the better to telegraph a plain, unfussy message to other members of Antrim’s clan, both within the book and without.
So who are the members of this clan? Like the book’s characters, they live in the predictable neighborhoods of New York. They have significant expanses of leisure time and are able to take time off or leave their jobs. They fly to Italy with their girlfriends to think languidly about Tiepolo; they impulse shop along Fifth Avenue and wonder what has become of their personal lives. In their darkest moments, they ask existential questions: Is my life a patched-together series of drunken moments, or the gaps of sobriety between them? Am I about to suffer another emotional breakdown? Should I have a child? Or kill myself? Because Antrim does not work to convince us of the three-dimensionality of these characters in crisis, the book lives or dies according to whether such questions are already familiar to its reader. In this, too, we are in the realm of myth.
A confession: I’ve been eliding some facts that might seem to undermine my argument. Specifically, I’ve skipped over the collection’s first story. In “An Actor Prepares,” a graying dean directs and stars in an undergraduate production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, inciting in the process the rage of his alcoholic girlfriend, a costume designer with whom he has refused to have a child. Despite its superficial similarities — middle-aged narrator, drunk girlfriend, and specter of a son — this story does not fit the mold prescribed by the rest of the book. To begin with, the lecherous dean is unrepentant. Early on, in a rare moment of sober reflection, he thinks, “Possibly — I should say probably — it was risky of me to attempt simulated sex with undergraduates,” but that moment soon passes. In his enthusiastic seduction of a couple cast members, he resembles Shakespeare’s coaxing Puck even more than he does the teenage horndog Lysander, which is the role he’s given himself (“high concept casting is a director’s prerogative”). His Midsummer’sopening nightdevolves into a nightmarish spectacle that belongs not to the world of the other stories, but to that of Antrim’s earlier, madcap works of fiction: The Verificationists, The Hundred Brothers, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.
In opposition to the Apollonian order of the rest of The Emerald Light in the Air, the conceit of “An Actor Prepares” is libidinal and Dionysian. The dean, a Lee Strasberg-like charlatan, has convinced some young co-eds to give their lives over to chaos and the void, and for several pages the book’s world is madness, disorder, and risk. At the story’s end, nature, in the form of a thunderstorm, assumes control, engulfs the orgiastic cast, and drowns the blind boy playing Puck. It’s a near-mythic deluge.
Later comes the covenant. Antrim rejects the pagan world embodied by the fairy bacchanalians. He distances his book from the celebration of indulgence and disorder — the drunkard’s faith —and instead develops his mythology of recovery, where mental illness, malaise, and addiction are treated with all due dourness and sobriety. It is as though he had to present a creation story of drunkenness before inventing the frail, penitent mortals who are forced to live in its world.
Ben Mauk lives in Berlin, where he is a Fulbright research scholar. He is a regular online contributor to The New Yorker, and his work has recently appeared in The American Reader, The Sun, The Believer, and elsewhere. His web site is www.ben-mauk.com.