It seems impossible to say that someone was quietly assembling a story collection over a decade and a half when they’ve been publishing each of the stories one by one over at a little place called The New Yorker. And yet, that appears to be exactly what Donald Antrim has done. Farrar Strauss and Giroux released Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, The Millions published Lydia Kiesling’s long sought after and illuminating conversation with the author. In the interview, Antrim pays tribute to the literary community that has buoyed and sustained him since he first began writing more than 30 years ago—from the students he teaches to receiving a 2013 MacArthur Genius grant to how it feels being edited by Deborah Treisman. Of The New Yorker fiction editor, Antrim says:
But what she [Treisman] would do, and what I think she does with many of her writers—she has strong relationships with all of us—is very close thinking and looking and shifting and speeding up, and then there’s a back-and-forth and that can go 15 or 20 times. And then you have that full experience of things changing because of other things changing—that’s editing. It’s not fixing a story so much as making it more of itself and what it could be. Sometimes it feels like a very different thing in the end than what I brought in. But eventually I come to realize that it’s not a very different thing, it just feels that way. It’s really about the story, and about getting this thing into really good form, or as good as it can be.
The title story of Antrim’s collection, available here, begins with a 200 word-long sentence that wanders a curving dimly lit path through the recent tragedies in the life of Billy—a sculptor and middle school art teacher. We will spend much of the rest of the story with Billy on (and off) a similarly winding country road in the “ancient Mercedes” he inherited from his father and grandfather. What starts out as a simple trip to the dump to get rid of art created by Billy’s ex-wife, unravels into a gorgeously written story of a day of physical and psychological wandering:
There was the creek. It came out of the woods and flowed into a concrete drainpipe that tunnelled under the road. A stretch near the trees looked fordable. He could angle the car just so, over and between the rocks. Once he got to the other side, though, where was he going to go? Trees pushed against the embankment, and the way was overgrown. Billy nosed the car forward anyway. He felt a curiosity.
Curious is perhaps the best word to describe this story. Where is Billy really going? And what will Billy do with the loaded rifle in his trunk? And how is it that we’ve become so attached to him when he himself seems so unattached? And what can he find that will save him? To know the surprising answers, you really must just read this story. You really must.
Perhaps there is something worse than a sad couple falling apart at the seams and spending their evenings in silence as they watch TV. Like maybe instead they just sit and stare at Betta fish waiting for the “fighting fish” to escape their tiny aquariums and find a way to end one another. Emma Smith-Stevens explores this possibility in her short short, “An August in the Early 2000s,” which went up at Wigleaf on Monday.
My husband and I kept the first Betta fish (red, quick) in a bowl—itself like a fist-sized drop, a temporary planet. We hoped the fish would do something for us. The summer had been one long heat-wave, and the failure of our marriage bore down. We could have split up. If we had, there wouldn’t have been any tangible losses or gains… But we couldn’t leave. Neither of us had anywhere else to go. We had no one else to be.
As a contributor, Smith-Stevens also sent a postcard to the recurring Dear Wigleaf series. She writes to the form—capturing a vivid picture of a moment—as well as parsing out the trajectory of its emotions across time.