Book Review: Donald Antrim’s “The Emerald Light in the Air” — Unabashedly Gorgeous
The Emerald Light in the Air is important reading for those interested in the state of the American short story, or of American fiction in general.
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pages, $22.
By Anthony Wallace
Donald Antrim has published three novels and a memoir and has now, after more than twenty years of publishing short stories in the New Yorker, brought out his first collection (and his first work of fiction in fourteen years). In 2013 he received a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and it may be that his publisher wanted to get something out this year to capitalize on the buzz surrounding that honor, but The Emerald Light in the Air is important reading for those interested in the state of the American short story, or of American fiction in general—at a time when fiction in general seems to be attracting fewer readers, many of whom have defected over to non-fiction, or to binge-viewing of cable TV series like The Wire.
So part of this review, perhaps too large a part, is about audience. The Emerald Light in the Air should provoke conversation about the New Yorker, its readership, the fiction that is published there, how representative that fiction is of the contemporary American short story—who is writing it and who is reading it. All seven stories were published in the New Yorker over the past fifteen years, and people who have not read Antrim’s stories and who do not read the New Yorker on a regular basis are perhaps a bit more likely to come away from the book with a few complaints, which I would like to address as the framework for this review.
One complaint might be that the stories all focus on a narrow segment of the population: upper middle class into one-percenters, as well as people slipping from those ranks or never quite arriving in them, plus what has recently been termed the “creative class”: people involved in the production of art at various levels from mass entertainment to stories like Antrim’s that seem written for a fairly small, sophisticated readership: i.e. the upper middle class and above, plus the creative class, which might not have the cash but which, presumably, is in the know, culturally speaking. This class also includes teachers with creative aspirations, particularly college professors. These would be the same people who stereotypically read the New Yorker on a weekly basis (circulation of about one million). I am a member of the creative class, and I am a college professor, so I would seem to be the New Yorker’s—and Antrim’s—ideal reader.
I suppose that’s true, which means I’m probably not the best critic to address the complaint that the stories in The Emerald Light in the Air are elitist, or not “relatable” to the “average reader,” what Flannery O’Connor called “the tired reader,” except to say that interest in the short story seems rapidly to be turning into an elitist pursuit, like reading Latin poetry or collecting butterflies. Donald Antrim’s stories are not ones that could have been written by Raymond Carver, the last great storyteller of working class, workaday America, but they are nevertheless concerned with many of the questions and ideas that concerned Carver: how we in modern times find and keep meaning in a world of randomness and ephemera; the possibility of love in such a world; the concomitant problems of communication, identity, fulfillment. One big difference between Antrim and Carver is that Antrim’s literary style is unabashedly gorgeous, though he is no less distrustful of language and our ability to make it say what we intend it to say. Another big difference is the population group he is working with, which I’ve already described and will come back to.
A related complaint might be that all the stories seem too much alike—that there is not much variety here: well educated, middle-aged white men who cannot find fulfillment in art or in love or even, most of the time, in commerce. This sounds like the territory of John Cheever and later, in a different way, of Anne Beattie, and I think it’s true that Antrim stands in a line of succession to those other two more famous New Yorker writers. What is new here is that the earlier writers were essentially “realistic” fiction writers who worked to depict a range within a population of characters whom New Yorker readers could identify with. In Antrim’s stories, we see the same kinds of characters exhibiting the same kinds of behaviors over and over again: drug and alcohol abuse; psychological and emotional problems in extremis; an expectation of a place in society that they cannot quite achieve or hold onto; an insistence on the role of art and beauty to create meaning, and a corresponding insistence on love to fill the pathetic void in their seemingly pathetic, narcissistic, consumeristic lives.
That description certainly does take us back to Cheever and Beattie, but the important difference is that Antrim is providing us with the same kind of carefully observed and exquisitely rendered detail that we associate with the best realism but is nevertheless not a realistic writer, and that shows up in some obvious (and to some readers, perhaps, objectionable) characteristics that are generally associated with expressionism: repetition, exaggeration, simplification. Antrim signposts this conversation within the text: a character in “Solace” is in revolt against her abstract expressionist mother—she stands painting at an easel in Central Park, and even wears a beret!—while a character in the title story is after “‘a more total realism.’ ‘Photo-realism?’ he’d asked. ‘No, nothing like that.’”
Antrim himself is working for “a more total realism” that includes a level of realistic detail and observation but also the less realistic features I’ve just mentioned, plus comedy, especially satire and farce. One question the humor poses is how sympathetic Antrim is to his subjects, for they behave not very well most of the time and are as self-sabotaging as they are self-absorbed and self-indulgent. In the first story, “An Actor Prepares,” a director of a college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream drags his own life along with his students and their production (of which they are so naively earnest and hopeful) literally into the mud. It’s a dramatic trajectory of straight down that describes just about every story.
Antrim is cutting against reader expectations, challenging them, dismantling them. We do not get “resolution” in the endings, we do not get epiphanies that we and the characters can “learn” from, and we do not get particularly likeable characters—though at important moments I think our hearts must go out to them ( if not, what does that say about us?). In “Another Manhattan,” most of the story is taken up by a man trying to buy an elaborate, expensive bouquet of flowers for the woman he is married to (while hitting on the “shop girl”), and then trying to deliver them to her in the restaurant where she sits with another couple, their best friends and adulterous lovers. He steals the flowers, slashes his face bloody with the thorns as he walks with the bouquet against the wind all the way to the restaurant, and ends up in a psychiatric ward. He has been here before: “‘Hello, Mr. Davis. You’re back with us again, I see.’ 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.” No need to point out the scalding reference to Virginia Woolf and this character’s pathetic attempts to live an existence defined by aesthetic refinement. He gets the room of his own and the suicidal impulse but not the talent, and the story seems to take him and us to a rather scary dead end.
We see also a sort of cynical viciousness exhibited by some characters—and perhaps by the author toward them—in the pervasive notion that one generation corrupts the next, set out in its most shocking form in the elaborately staged orgy in “An Actor Prepares” and then again in “Pond, with Mud,” in which the main character gives a little boy a sip of his scotch and soda as the ending of the story. The cynicism and hopelessness only expand from story to story, and some readers might legitimately ask why they should keep reading. In “He Knew,” the fifth story in the collection and the recipient of an O. Henry Prize, a fading, second-rate TV actor married to a younger woman fantasizes about them having a son, even though we know by now what grownups do to children, and even though the happy couple is so stoked up on a mixture of pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol that they are barely functional for only a few hours each day.
The Emerald Light in the Air is intentionally, expressionistically repetitious of the negative elements I’ve described, and elaborately patterned with a complex set of images and motifs that resonate with one another and deepen the reading experience with each successive story—something we could not appreciate in reading the stories in magazine publication over a period of fifteen years. They belong together, like pictures in an exhibition, and I think one proof is that Mr. Antrim published other stories in the New Yorker that he chose not to include in this volume. The elements of earth, air, fire, and water appear in every story, with air of course in the title of the book and as the place where all the characters’ hopes and dreams are tending. In story after story we see dreams that disappear into the ether, and characters who sink into the dirt—and who seem to do everything possible to take themselves there.
In “An Actor Prepares,” an outdoor stage set gets rained out and becomes a pond in the mud, and in the next story this motif is picked up in the title, “Pond, with Mud.” This imagery builds until the title story, in which the main character’s vintage Mercedes gets caught on a rock in a stream during a rainstorm. Antrim’s characters think nothing of driving their cars across streams during rainstorms; they also like to play with fire, which is present in smoke, passion, heat—and sometimes in a kind of infernal blaze that a character is permanently trapped in. Water cleanses but also drowns. Earth is a dependable foundation but also a burial place. Gravity is always working with and upon these elements: gravity itself appears as a kind of cosmic force, like a god, or in place of one. It’s the only thing you can count on.
Even as there doesn’t seem to be much real movement or “progress” in each story, there does not seem to be much movement in the collection, and story after story seems to be about the same kinds of unlikeable, self-absorbed people doing the same kinds of desperate, destructive things. I’ve argued, though, that Antrim is working through subtle variations and patterns such as we might appreciate in a selection of Rothko paintings, and for me the stories do vibrate and hum like the best Rothkos. They possess a kind of furious inner movement that balances the outwardly static qualities I’ve described. The final, title story is importantly different, too, even though the main character seems for most of the story like yet another version of characters we’ve encountered throughout the collection. Here is the story’s wonderfully Antrimian opening sentence:
In less than a year, he’d lost his mother, his father, and, as he’d once and sometimes still felt Julia to be, the love of his life; and during this year, or, he should say, during its suicidal aftermath, he’d twice admitted himself to the psychiatric ward at the university Hospital in Charlottesville, where, each stay, one in the fall and one in the following summer, three mornings a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, he’d climbed onto an operating table and wept at the ceiling while doctors set the pulse, stuck electrodes to his forehead, put the oxygen meter on his finger, and then pushed a needle into his arm and instructed him, as the machines beeped and the anesthetic dripped down the pipette toward his vein, to count backward from a hundred; and now, another year later, he was on his way to the dump to throw out the drawings and paintings that Julia had made in the months when she was sneaking off to sleep with the man she finally left him to marry, along with the comic-book collections—it wasn’t a collection so much as a big box stuffed with comics—that he’d kept since he was a boy.
This kind of prose is thrilling to certain kinds of readers—i.e. ones like me—and is reason enough, in itself, to keep on reading. The style throughout this final (and most recently written) story is a little plainer, though, a little more direct—a bit more “honest” and “down to earth” and a little less “elitist.” The main character, Billy French, is also different: he is a Southerner in the South, as opposed to all the displaced Southerners in New York whom we encounter throughout the book. He also performs an action that is generous, human—ultimately generous, I’d say, in that it involves his own precious supply of Ativan—that signals movement toward a more authentic self and which might cause us to look back at the other stories in a different way and wonder if there were more possibilities for these lost and frequently unlikeable people than we had thought. Billy eases the suffering of another human being, and kneels at her bedside, and this seems to me the moment in the collection in which Antrim has given us not just all the problems of modern life dramatized in his virtuosically postmodern way, but also, perhaps, a response to them.
This takes me back to where I started, to Raymond Carver and especially to his final collection, Cathedral. For Carver, earlier stories like “Why Don’t You Dance?” identified problems in modern life without necessarily giving readers or characters a way out—and let’s remember how those stories were difficult for readers of that time, and seemed so experimental and jarring and not like real, finished stories; and also how “Cathedral” seemed to those same readers so much more optimistic, and so much more complete. “It’s really something,” says the nameless narrator in the final line of the story and the book of the same title. The indefinite third-person pronoun, which Carver lifted from Hemingway who lifted it from Miss Stein, might mean contact with another human being, might mean a sudden awareness of his own inner life, his own true identity, might mean all of those things, but Carver tempers this epiphany in subtle ways that have not been given enough attention by critics. In my way of reading it, all the stories in Carver’s oeuvre move toward and recede from “Cathedral,” but that doesn’t mean the earlier pessimism and confusion have been overturned or canceled out. Those depressing qualities in Carver’s fiction sometimes referred to as “Hopelessville, U.S. A.” have been resolved in a way that seems to me highly qualified, which means that the narrator’s transformative and mysterious inner vision is of the moment, and possibly restricted to the moment, and it is up to us to imagine (and live out) the rest of the story.
In the same way, it seems to me that Antrim has, within the space of a collection that took more than fifteen years to write, worked relentlessly but honestly toward a resolution, and that resolution is just as tentative as Carver’s, just as qualified, but just as genuine (i.e. the savage irony in the story and throughout the collection doesn’t have the power to nullify it). Billy French must acknowledge the reality of another person, and one not from the book’s usual population group—the reality of that other person is suffering and death in the midst of terrible poverty—in order to open the possibility of his own reality beyond the psychiatric ward, which would, in fact, be “normal” everyday life, lived with some ordinary sense of purpose and satisfaction, with genuine love and companionship, of which there seems to be such a terrible dearth in these stories, enough to make us cry out for them.
Antrim and Carver arrive at the same place, the only sane place any literary artist can ever arrive at, and it really is something. “A marriage, a fruitful marriage,” Eudora Welty writes of the simple backwoods husband and wife in “Death of a Traveling Salesman.” “That simple thing. Anyone could have had that.” But love is the one thing Antrim’s characters cannot have, which condition seems to bar them from having anything else of real value, and in “The Emerald Light in the Air” Donald Antrim gives Billy French the important gifts of human connection, of shared experience, of charity and compassion. It is a start, even though “Billy circled the drive, eased the Mercedes to the road, checked both directions, and went back the way he’d come.” It is also a reminder of what is elementally important for us aesthetically inclined, disconnected, narcissistic New Yorker readers—which is what matters, after all, since, judging by the plummeting sales of literary fiction both short and long, everybody else out there in Hopelessville must be doing just fine.
Anthony Wallace‘s collection of short stories The Old Priest won the 2013 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and was first reviewed by Roberta Silman in The Arts Fuse. The book went on to become a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Hemingway Award. More on Anthony Wallace and his collection The Old Priest.