Book Review: The Emerald Light in the Air
by Donald Antrim
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014
You’d hardly need anyone to tell you that the seven stories in Donald Antrim’s new book, The Emerald Light in the Air, all originally appeared in The New Yorker, since the whole enterprise shouts that fact from the mountaintops – starting with the collection’s title itself: “The Emerald Light in the Air”? Where, but in The New Yorker?
The magazine stoutly denies that there’s any such thing as “a New Yorker story.” They reject the idea of a template of predictability, and this is adorable, and we can safely pass right over it in search of what best characterizes “a New Yorker story.” What are the architectural traits of this house that Updike built? Long-time readers of the magazine – this weird omnium gatherum magazine that is one of our only truly indispensable periodicals – will be able to rattle off half a dozen such traits.
Are the characters in the stories from the Upper West Side? Yes. Even when they technically aren’t (and they usually technically are), they are: frou-frou obsessions, near-crippling neuroses, monumental narcissism – the works. Antrim’s main characters here are: a college theater professor, a printing press operator who writes Imagist poetry, an entertainment lawyer, an uptown money-guy, an actor, a litigator, and a middle-school art teacher (that last one claims to live outside Charlottesville, but since middle schools outside Charlottesville usually can’t afford roofs for their cafeterias, let alone art teachers, yah, he’s Upper West Side); not a sheet-metal worker among them, but it doesn’t matter anyway. In a typical New Yorker story, the characters drift above the quotidian concerns that fill the world of their readers – this is every bit as true for punk-ghetto world of Junot Diaz as it is for parks-and-penthouses crowd Antrim runs with.
Are the men pathologically impaired, emasculated, furtive, and pathetic? Yes. Antrim’s men fit this pattern right down to their monogrammed boxers: they loom at parties, they carry loose joints with them at all times, they’re in six different kinds of therapy (including the electroshock kind), they’re barely functional in the real world, and they come well-equipped with pharmaceuticals (Ativan is mentioned so many times in these pages you start wondering if Antrim won some sort of sponsorship). They show up late to dinner, they fumble, they get into easily-preventable predicaments from which they’re completely incapable of extricating themselves. They are hapless.
Are the men douchebags? Yes. They tell easily-detectable lies for no reason, they bully people whenever they can, and they never take responsibility for anything they do wrong. Jim, for instance, the main character in “Another Manhattan,” a nervous breakdown patient only temporarily out of the hospital, orders an enormous bouquet of flowers for wife, and while he’s fumbling with his inability to pay for it, he hits on the female florist who’s been helping him – and he hits on her in his very douchiest way:
“Do you know the painter Fragonard? Do you know Boucher? Look at Boucher’s flowers. They’re practically obscene. There might be a Boucher hanging at the Frick … I could show you the Frick …”
(When none of his credit cards work, he bolts from the shop. Then he calls his wife to tell her he loves her and whine about how he never manages to do anything right. Then he goes back into the shop and steals the bouquet when the shopgirl isn’t looking. He’s back in the psych ward by the end of the story)
Is the action in the stories entirely, almost defiantly unrealistic? Yes. Billy, in the title story, manages to slide his Mercedes down a back-country mountain ditch, and once it settles at the bottom, he decides to drive it into a creek bed and then drive back up the creek in search of a road. When this impromptu riverboating inevitably leads to the car getting stuck while the storm rages, he lights a joint, pockets some Ativan, and indulges in a reverie about a lost girlfriend (he has a cell phone in his pocket, but he doesn’t call for help – he’s just had electro-shock treatments, you see, and he’s suicidal, and he’s got a date for later that night, and all that). While he’s sitting there, he’s found by a boy walking up the creek in the rain. The boy assumes he’s the doctor the boy’s holler-dwelling parents sent for, tells him they all prayed he’d come, ’cause momma, she’s got the cancer real bad, see. So Billy goes with him to the family shed even though he’s not a doctor, hands over the Ativan to help the poor sufferer, and later makes a good-faith attempt to tell a 9-1-1 operator where a real doctor might find this poor family, but really, how do you find such people? They aren’t with Uber!
Is the writing itself insufferably mannered and pussyfooted? Yes. In “An Actor Prepares,” the drama professor, despite being perfectly capable of spouting observations like “Erotic possibility, signifying not immorality but immortality, is the real pleasure for unmarried lovers,” nevertheless says of one of his cast members, “Putting Martin Epps in as Puck was like putting, well, I don’t know what into what” – maybe Antrim’s MacArthur Fellowship wasn’t taking that morning. In “Pond, with Mud,” Antrim’s own narration fusses over its own inexactitude in a way that would have made Updike proud:
Immediately following the zoo’s inaugural ribbon-cutting ceremony – or relatively soon after, to be more precise – strange things had begun to happen to the more esoteric wild animals. Why was it that the rare and endangered species, the ones you’ve never heard of, all seemed to have compromised immune systems?
Contemplating Tiepolo, another character opines, “Spatial relations don’t cohere. It isn’t simply that people fly with angels through the air. What world are we looking at?”
What world indeed? Why, the world of New Yorker fiction, where everything is arch, absurd, aphoristic, and aphasic. Where characters are never anybody you’ve met in real life or would ever want to meet. Where, most importantly of all, there is never even a tiny hint of point or resolution (that might have been all well and good for primitive bunglers like Eudora Welty and Mavis Gallant, back in Olden Times, but we’re too sophisticated these days to think things, or decide things, or care about things). Indeed, the only point on hand in The Emerald Light in the Air seems to be a contractual urgency to re-present Donald Antrim stories to a reading public that, apparently, can’t get enough of them: these seven stories are all fairly recent – given the famously dilatory habits of most New Yorker subscribers, chances are you haven’t yet read the issues where they originally appeared – and there aren’t ten of them, or fifteen, or twenty; this isn’t a retrospective or a measure-taking, it’s just the top skimming of a “Donald Antrim” Google search, bound in hardcover for his fans.
Those fans – and newcomers who just like the undeniably comforting low glow of New Yorker short stories – now have this slim volume to add to their shelves and periodically revisit. How much such stories warrant revisiting is another question (I believe it was Winston Churchill who once said “What do they know of Ativan who only Ativan know?”). Antrim is certainly capable of a very rarefied kind of Manhattan evocation, as in the story “Ever Since” when the main character finds himself looking out a huge loft window next to a young woman he’d like to roger:
What she had to show him was the sun, disappearing at last, and the sky above, the color of fire. She held his hand, as they stood together before the big window, and he wished that he were more in love with her. Or was he, maybe, in love with her?
Then she opens her mouth: “The world is incredible at this time of day, isn’t it?”