Donald Antrim is the author of three novels and a memoir, The Afterlife. Recently, Picardor started reprinting the novels with new introductions by Antrim admirers Jonathan Franzen (who calls The Hundred Brothers “possibly the strangest novel ever published by an American) and George Saunders (who introduces The Verificationist, about a man who has an out-of-body experience while meeting with fellow psychoanalysts in a pancake house). In June, Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World will be reissued with an introduction by Jeffrey Eugenides.
There’s an unmistakable difference between the three novels and Antrim’s more recent short fiction in the New Yorker, but when I tried to articulate that difference, I struggled. So I contacted him to talk about this. I also wanted to discuss with him a friend once said: “Future literary historians take note: Donald Antrim is the great chronicler of early 21st century New York life.” This seems true—even though none of Antrim’s novels are actually set in New York.
Bookforum: Your style has changed. (I'm comparing the first three novels to the three recent New Yorker short stories.) Why?
Donald Antrim: I'm not sure that I think of this so much as a stylistic change as a shift in attack. The first three novels are propelled by, and rely upon, central, organizing conceits, fantastic propositions: a hundred brothers in a room; a levitating psychoanalyst in a pancake house. Those books were followed by a memoir. In writing the memoir, there came occasions when the first-person narrator needed to tell, as it were, other people's stories, or parts of them; and I remember those occasions as intensely pleasurable to write—the first-person narrator took on the distance and power of the third person. And so this became something that I wanted to do in fiction, and, for whatever reason—maybe because I was reading William Trevor and V.S. Pritchett—the short story seemed like the place to try.
BF: I just now recognized that you've switched from first to third person. Why’d you do that?
DA: As I mentioned above, I have found writing in the third-person to be quite satisfying. This must be due in some part to the kind of control (and freedom) allowed with the third-person. Perhaps it is the case that I feel, in the writing, a greater permission to explore, in a brief and condensed manner, a character's psychological life.
BF: I mentioned a different style. And you're right: “Style” is not the correct word. But there is a slight change in style, perhaps, with your first sentences. Those used to be (at least in The Hundred Brothers) a place where you did kind of a tour de force, but now, I'd say your sentences recede more. Would you agree?
DA: I suppose you are right. There is a way in which the language of the sentences recedes. Is this an accident? I think that I am interested, in these stories, in allowing the narrator, the third-person storyteller, to become more and more invisible, in a way. Invisible and trustworthy.
BF: Do you think an invisible, trustworthy narrator makes it easier to go into risky emotional territory?
DA:I'm not sure about that. Maybe it's true. Certainly the novels tend to present emotional life through special circumstances in which the narrator is directly implicated. The stories may be trying to achieve a more open-ended emotionality—emotion as a function not just of an individual's preoccupations and neuroses, but of something that comes up, in a broad way, through community and social life.
BF: I guess the most striking thing to me about the three New Yorker stories is how real and how contemporary they are. It’s so rare for a story to portray life as it is. Between us, I read one of your stories, then one of mine, and by comparison, could see all this bullshit in mine. How do you do it?
DA: I doubt that your stories are full of bullshit. That said, I'll take your question as a compliment. As far as the question of how I do it goes, I'm not sure that I can say in so many words, maybe because I feel so aware, in the writing, of simply trying to find the form in which the story will work.
BF: In The Afterlife, you mention using stories about your mom as opening gambits on dates, but resisting the suggestion you write about her. Do you ever think the earlier novels were a full expression of your artistic abilities, but without yet the toughness to look at and record this life?
DA: [No answer.]
BF: I'm sorry I'm imprecise. It's just how I am. I hope you'll kind of let me slide a little. I meant maybe once you went through the big one, writing about your mom, then you could do these others?
DA” I think that's probably right. The idea now is to bring some sort of greater emotional life to a novel driven by fantastic and somewhat absurd propositions.
BF: So that is what you are doing now? A novel? Can you say anything about it?
DA: There is a novel, but it's a bit in the background right now. I've really been interested in writing stories. But I will go back to the novel manuscript. I'm not sure at this point what to say about it. I'm not really sure what it's about, in some ways.
BF: This question is kind of an odd duck, but I always wanted to mention to you how much I like this passage from The Afterlife:
"What had S. seen in a Leonardo da Vinci, even in a reproduction, that had led him to imagine the world (or, at least, the world represented in paintings) as a place where even formal perspectives become wholly subjective, private creations; a place where even a realist landscape—a simple and apparently straightforward depiction of the straightforwardly known world—can utterly disorient us and, in our momentary disorientation, cause us to see worlds governed by laws other than those we rely on as somehow universal, worlds that are, in effect, governed by the traumas and hopes of others?"
I guess I wanted to ask you about this worldview. Or what you meant by the that, or if you remember how you came to write it.
DA: That passage was written near the close of a long story—the third section of The Afterlife, about a man, S., who was, for a number of years, near the end of her life, my mother's partner. They had met in Alcoholics Anonymous. S. was—is, I should say—an artist, a painter and muralist. I have one of his paintings, a small and somewhat strange landscape that might pass for a picture of another world. Anyway, S. had, for a number of years, most of his adult life, a consuming obsession with a painting he had seen when he'd been young, a large landscape that had been stored in an old boarding house in New York. S.'s belief's about the painting's provenance, and his pursuit of validation for those beliefs—he initially thought the painting to be a da Vinci—had of course always seemed wildly absurd to me. For a brief time, in my late twenties, I'd got caught up in S.'s search for a record of the painting. Then I'd stepped back from the project, and, for a long time, I heard nothing on this subject. Eventually S. disappeared from my mother's life; and my mother left Miami, where she and S. had lived together, for Black Mountain, North Carolina, the town in which her parents, my grandparents, had settled at the end of their lives; and then she'd got sick and, in August, 2000, died. It wasn't until I'd begun to write about her, and about my life with her, that I began to look at S.'s work again, and at the photograph I had of the old painting from the Chelsea boarding house, and, finally, on a trip to Paris in the winter of 2002, at the Mona Lisa. And it came to seem to me, looking at all of these paintings, that there was in fact—and depending, of course, on how one looks at and thinks about them—something they shared, insofar as they could all seem a bit otherworldly, mysterious in some way that had to do, I thought, with formal perspective and depth of field. In thinking about S., and about the traumas and disappointments in his life, and about his love for my mother and hers for him, it furthermore came to seem to me—and this was as much a feeling as a thought—that there was, after all, a coherence in S's beliefs about art, about painting, and that this coherence was emotional, maybe even, for want of a better word, spiritual. In other words, what had seemed merely crazy—the preoccupation with da Vinci—came to seem beautiful, and even dignified.
Amie Barrodale's work has appeared in The Paris Review, J&L Books, Vice, Denver Quarterly, and McSweeney's. In 2012 she won The Paris Review's Plimpton Prize.