Friday, December 26, 2014

Donald Antrim's Very Once-Upon-a-Time Brand of Realism

By Nick Fuller Googins
New York, NY, Dec. 11, 2014

Dressed to the nines: Author Donald Antrim at NYU

Here's how Donald Antrim warms up a room:

“Alright, I’m just gonna read a story. So bear with me.”

The room was in the NYU Creative Writing Program’s West Village townhouse, decked out smartly for the holidays: wreath on the window, poinsettias on the mantel, heater humming in the background. Donald Antrim was decked out pretty smartly himself, wearing a sharp tweed coat, a chocolate brown vest, and a rich red tie, as though he’d perhaps moved on from his 2013 MacArthur “genius” award and retrained his sights on making the Best Dressed list. The story he’d selected to read was “The Emerald Light in the Air,” the final—and delightfully weirdest—story of his 2014 collection of the same title—narrated in his warm, hint-of-the-south accent.

“Emerald Light” begins modestly enough. Billy, a depressed, mildly-suicidal divorcé—who, like all of Antrim’s troubled male protagonists, has a past of substance-abuse issues and mental-health problems—is faced with a problem: His car has slid off the road and a storm is approaching. Rather than attempt to navigate the steep incline back to the road, Billy decides to drive his car up a nearby creek, deeper and deeper into the Appalachian woods, in search of an outlet. This is where “Emerald Light” takes an almost fairy-tale bend into the fantastic, making it, in some sense, the most Donald-Antrim-like story of his collection.

This discussion of the fantastic versus the real garnered a great deal of attention in the post-reading Q&A, moderated by Darin Strauss, author and NYU Writing Program instructor. To those familiar with Antrim’s previous work, especially his novels, the Cheever-esque realism of his short fiction might seem strange. Hearing Antrim speak on the subject, it appears as though this brand of short story realism felt strange to him too, or, at the very least, difficult to produce.

“I had written stories when I was much younger, in the eighties,” he said, “and they were dead kinda things.” Only after switching over to novels, working in the fantastic, and then returning to stories was he able to bring life to his short fiction. “I saw the thing moving away from a more conceit-driven conceptual universe to a more concretely emotional universe,” he explained, “one that the author doesn’t have to always manage and always find the distinctive logic in. Writing that is maybe less reflexively funny, in other words less driven by a narrator’s or character’s attitudes, or a writer’s attitudes, and a little more naked, and a little more direct. Just the world.”

This isn’t to say that the sharp realist fiction that drives much of Emerald Light suddenly poured forth from Antrim. Far from it. “The whole thing is so slow really,” he said, sounding deflated, as if someone had just told him to immediately hail a cab, go home, and begin work on another collection. “Each of those stories takes a long time, a couple years.” The seven stories in Emerald Light took him seventeen years from start to finish. (In response to Darin Strauss’s question if he wrote the stories concurrently: “I’ve never really done a lot concurrently. Multitasking! Can anyone really do it?”)

But the story “Emerald Light” is striking, in part, because it’s not overtly fantastical. Billy, after driving up the creek for some time, ends up grounded, stuck in the middle of the woods, at which point he is met by a boy with a tattered umbrella who asks if he is the doctor. Billy, high and definitely not a doctor, answers yes, and follows the boy to a dilapidated shack in the mountainside woods where he is faced with “treating” the boy’s dying mother. These events are neither shockingly unbelievable nor entirely fantastical in themselves, yet the story has an undeniable fantastical bent so subtle that it makes it difficult to remember where exactly Antrim departed from the more-or-less strict realism of the story’s beginning. Speaking on this juncture, Antrim called it “a bit of a leap of faith, this idea that the language, as it were, of that trip up into the woods. I mean, it’s full of associations for us, it’s very once-upon-a-time. I think the idea was to see if you can, without manipulating conceit, just get close to that place where the realism and this other thing—possibly fantastic, possibly hallucinatory—come together and are adjacent. And if that’s possible, then it may be possible to then start to actually produce what amounts to magical events.”

It’s after comments like these that you see why the MacArthur folks anointed the man. It’s not just that Donald Antrim’s fiction is skillful; it’s that he’s clearly thought about what he’s writing. Thought about it a lot. Listening to him you get the feeling that his mind is functioning at a different speed than the rest of ours are, not necessarily faster (okay, yes, probably faster) but on a completely separate plane.

Oh, by the way, he wasn’t finished with that previous comment, he was only coming up for air.

Donald Antrim took a breath, then continued: “So through that trip up into the woods, there was nothing to do but just sort of describe it as a romantic journey and a kind of a dream, and then hope that the other side would exist. If the suspension of disbelief is into this realist thing, can it then obtain in relation to something that actually isn’t real? So that was kind of an experiment for me. Does that make sense?”

“Perfect sense!” one MFA student in the audience answered, either lying, or much more of a genius than I.

The last question of the night went to another MFA student. He wanted to talk not about the fantastical or the real but about Mary, an ancillary, off-screen character who gets about a dozen lines in total. From these dozen lines, we learn that she and Billy slept together back in high school, have since reconnected, and have plans to meet for dinner. The question, posed as only an MFA student can pose a question (as an MFA student, I’m allowed to say that), went like this: “I have to say I was particularly drawn to the character of Mary, and I was almost taken aback by the very brief mention of her having had an abortion. I wonder if you can talk about your decision to have that be part of her story, the way it was included, especially in that very scientific and contemporary terminology.”

To which Donald Antrim responded with his most direct, easily understood answer of the evening: “It was just a sense of the place that I remember. That old Appalachian world, it was right there. It wasn’t meant as any statement on Mary. I was just remembering from when I was kid, growing up on a farm at the foot of the mountains. Everybody got going early.”