Donald Antrim’s searing, ferociously observant debut collection, The Emerald Light in the Air, has been long in the making. The book’s seven stories span fifteen years. But as dedicated readers of The New Yorker will likely suspect—each story originally appeared in the magazine—the collection is worth the wait. Alone the stories are small masterpieces. Together they tell a larger story of despair and recovery.
Antrim’s stories center around white men in their thirties and forties, mostly in New York and often with Southern roots. These men are uneasy inheritors of Prufrock. They ask not “Dare I to eat a peach?” but “Ought I to light a joint?,” as one character queries in a fun, raucous party scene that becomes a frantic search for a former lover. They are adrift, mourning losses. Artists and intellectuals and lawyers who possess cultural capital and enough money to be middle class or upper-middle class (though typically not enough, by their lights, to feel secure), they struggle with anxiety and depression and grandiose flights of mania. They go on Madison Avenue shopping trips, buy—well, steal—outrageously expensive bouquets of flowers for their wives, mount ill-advised productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream featuring undergraduate nudity, pretend to be doctors while hauling ex-girlfriends’ paintings to the dump. They occupy friends’ apartments. They attend book launch parties. They smoke; they drink bourbon and Scotch. They fret.
But the characters’ problems go deeper than fretting, deeper even than a paralyzing anxiety. Many of these men are in the grips of a breakdown, or only recently on the mend. They drink too much. They despair. One man, an out-of-work actor, suffers from what he terms “the Dread”; another gets electroshock therapy that he details in excruciating scientific language, the dryness of which suggests the psychic pain that leads one to require this drastic therapy.
Antrim’s three darkly comic fabulist novels—recently reissued by Picador with introductions by Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders—have an intellectual playfulness and distance. They are surreal, antic, daring in conceit and wild in execution. (The Guardian calls the middle novel and my favorite, The Hundred Brothers, “possibly the strangest novel ever published by an American.”) Even as the novels enact and provoke a volatile set of emotions, they hold the reader at bay with the force of their absurdist intelligence. Stylistically matchless, they are perfectly controlled. For this reason, they draw comparison to Barthelme and Pynchon. Rightfully so. The three novels are widely agreed to be among the most under-read and most original books in the contemporary canon and are perhaps destined to be classics. But Antrim’s memoir, The Afterlife, about his relationship with his alcoholic mother, is my favorite of his prior books. It couples humor with a deep empathy and vulnerability that alchemize into a masterful emotional depth.
And this is what Antrim achieves here. Like Antrim’s novels, his stories are very funny. “An Actor Prepares,” the enjoyable and engrossing opening story, is a broadly comic romp in which an acting professor stages a hilarious, misguided production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We immediately suspect that the play will end in disaster. The revelation that “two seasons ago, we mounted an all-male, all-nude Taming of the Shrew” which audience members claimed “really increased their appreciation for the radical potentials in Elizabethan drama” puts us on notice. When we learn that the middle-aged professor will play the adolescent Lysander alongside “the beautiful, waifish Mary Victoria Frost,” a sophomore who is “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,” well, yikes. Puck is to be played by a blind boy. Staging situates him in a pit beside the outdoor stage. Before opening night, it rains and the pit becomes mud. A vengeful duck finds its way into the muddy pit, but the show must go on.
Its absurdist premise and deeply unbalanced narrator make “An Actor Prepares” the clearest analogue to Antrim’s novels, with their wild, writ-large comedy. No surprise, it is also the oldest of the stories. Subsequent stories, like the masterful “Solace,” flicker with a dry wit that illuminates subtler renderings of psychology.
“Solace” tells the story of a couple who meet up in friends’ New York apartments, conducting a romantic relationship in borrowed spaces. The man imagines a painting that the woman has been reluctant to show him—she is an artist who works outside in Central Park—and in the description’s hushed loveliness we see the gentleness and insight with which Antrim handles the couple’s connection: “If the painting was accomplished, or even if not, he would find and appreciate an aspect of it—an element reflecting technical execution and artistic choice, a movement of brushstrokes indicating an intensity of gray light behind bare trees, say, since she’d begun in winter. Or she might have revised with the changing seasons, painting over winter’s silvers with the pale greens and eggshell blues that signify spring. There might be a figure in the painting, a man walking quickly through the park, as he himself had done when out searching for her at her work.”
Other stories, like the standout “He Knew,” about that out-of-work actor on a celebratory late-autumn Madison Avenue shopping trip with his wife, allow us to spot a glimmer of the fantastical behind the scrim of real life. Heightened moments of apprehension—and misapprehension—introduce the surreal without positing it as literal fact. We see this, for instance, when the actor, Stephen, believes he sees his dead therapist eating pancakes in a diner only to realize this cannot be the case, or when he thinks of his wife, Alice, “She had long dark hair and round brown eyes, which, when he looked into them, seemed to have other eyes behind them. What did he mean by that? It was a feeling, hard to shape into words.”
The stories are arranged in order of publication. This order does surprising narrative work: read oldest to newest, they chart a descent and an emergence. “Another Manhattan,” the center of the book, is the nadir. A man named Jim stops at a florist’s to buy flowers for his wife, Kate, on a winter evening while walking home from an outpatient psychiatric clinic. He is in the grips of a frantic depression. Bankrupt, his marriage faltering, he hopes the flowers will buy “a chance that Kate might smile.” Later this evening, he and Kate are to have dinner with a couple, Susan and Elliot. Jim has five months earlier ended an affair with Susan; Kate is conducting an affair with Elliot. Jim adds more and more flowers to the bouquet until the arrangement becomes “a great concrescence of blooms,” only to have his credit card declined and steal the bouquet. When he arrives at the restaurant scratched and water-soaked and bleeding, his worsening mental state becomes undeniable. A pitch-perfect portrait of mania and despair, the story takes us from the tensely humorous to the heartrending. “Later,” we are told, Kate “would get on her knees on the emergency-room floor and extract the laces from his shoes. A nurse would come, then another, and a doctor promising sleeping pills.” Jim is returned to the care of a nurse and an in-patient psychiatric ward. The story ends with the lines, “She gave him Ativan and a paper cup of water, and watched while he swallowed. Then she showed him to a room of his own.”
If the reader hears here an homage to Virginia Woolf, good. Antrim deserves comparison to that great modernist master of charting interior life. Perhaps he courts it. The echo is, for this reader, unmistakable, and it suggests a larger point: Antrim has become a writer whose work converses as easily with the great modernists as with the great postmodernists. But he never loses his distinctive voice. His stories remain wholly original.
We emerge from the stories’ dark places shaken but more alive. The tentatively hopeful endings of the final two stories, “Ever Since” and “The Emerald Light in the Air,” lead us through brokenness into moments of potential. At the book’s conclusion, we have the end of a rainstorm, a Mercedes unstuck and again roadworthy, “soft white clouds” and “a few birds . . . in the air.” This is as it should be. Antrim is too good a writer to ignore the complexities of life, with its Dread and its suffering and its white clouds and its few birds. In fact, he is a genius. So says the MacArthur Foundation—and so says the quality of his work. A virtuoso with rare range, Antrim has long been one of our funniest writers. Here he proves one of our most unflinching and poignant and penetratingly insightful. If there is any justice, this collection, too, is destined to become a classic.