With the possible exceptions of Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace, no contemporary American author makes such prodigious use of the Nabokovian digression as Donald Antrim. These parenthetical asides, which either disturb or delight depending on a reader’s willingness to follow an author down a labyrinth of language and excess, can certainly distract from the narrative at hand. But for Antrim, the aside is the novel: He takes to heart John Hawkes’ still radical 1965 dictum that “the true enemies of the novel” are “plot, character, setting and theme.”
Like Antrim’s first two novels, “Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World” and “The Hundred Brothers” (the latter a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist), his latest, “The Verificationist,” is an audaciously imagined work of whimsy and wonder. And yes, it’s brimming with his patented digressions, including meditations on everything from pancakes to adultery to Revolutionary War battle tactics; there’s even a deconstruction of the freckles and moles on the back of a waitress’s neck, a pattern that happens to resemble a Bruegel painting. (Don’t ask.) Although it’s easy enough to isolate Antrim’s influences — he shares Vladimir Nabokov’s wickedness and his revelry in wordplay, Thomas Pynchon’s antic comedy, Donald Barthelme’s sense of the surreal — he nonetheless manages to create, with each new novel, a fictional universe that’s wholly, truly his own.
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The premise (if you can call it that) of “The Verificationist” involves a biannual gathering of psychotherapists dedicated to “the seemingly everlasting task of reconciling classical metapsychology to our particular branch of Self/Other Friction Theory,” as Tom, the novel’s narrator, explains. As his Krakower Institute colleagues arrive at the Pancake House & Bar and place their orders, Tom decides a little levity is in order. But just as he’s about to instigate a food fight with a group of child psychologists, he finds himself in the metamorphosing embrace of the group’s leader, the paternal Bernhardt — a manly hug (“sordid, oddly lovely, threateningly intimate”) that puts Leo Buscaglia to shame and, what’s more, causes Tom to ascend toward the restaurant’s ceiling, where the majority of the novel takes place.
More accurately, the novel takes place in Tom’s deliciously imbalanced mind while he apparently undergoes a nervous breakdown. During the course of the evening (“The Hundred Brothers” also encompasses a single night), Tom’s out-of-body experience provides him with a lucid vantage point from which to examine his life, his profession, his colleagues, his marriage, his mortality, his manhood. “Perched high with feet hanging and my head rising upward to float closer and closer to the ceiling and lights,” Tom describes the sensation, “I felt, for a short while, as if I were becoming what every normal child most truly is: an inventor of reality.”
As strange as this all sounds (how many books have a levitating narrator who regresses to “a classically pre-oedipal position, in order to reorganize psychosexual reality and survive trauma”?), Antrim turns “The Verificationist” into yet another tour de force, demonstrating again what makes his voice so compelling and unique. Few writers can match his madcap burlesques, and even fewer can equal his dizzying high-wire prose. But along with the yuks and the verbal theatrics, Antrim infuses the novel with a surprising sadness, satirizing psychoanalytic jargon one moment and delving into Tom’s existential crises the next. It’s a virtuoso performance: funny, playful, melancholic, outrageous, over the top (perhaps, at times, too over the top).
Antrim is an acquired taste. He writes a kind of fiction that’s bound to polarize and provoke, and his unconventional style and disdain for realism will no doubt turn some readers off. There’s an underlying darkness, a sinister edge to his work. His narrators are unlikable, hyperintelligent, Humbert Humbertish men who struggle to understand their tenuous place in the world and eventually endure a kind of reckoning of the soul. Whether it’s the postapocalyptic suburbia of “Elect Mr. Robinson,” the raucous family gathering of “The Hundred Brothers” or the pancake-house hallucinations of “The Verificationist,” Antrim seeks to shatter the veneer of contentedness and normality surrounding our day-to-day lives. An act as simple as choosing the paint color of the empty room that Tom and his wife have yet to fill with a child isn’t so simple; rather, “it is loaded to capacity with marital sorrows and the profoundest mysteries of destiny, accident, and the overall purpose and meaning of life.”
“The Verificationist” goes further than Antrim’s previous novels: It’s more brazen, more shot through with the raw ache of relationships and the nakedness of emotional experience, with the tragedy of our inability to connect. “I feel the dread of love,” Tom confides. And it’s Antrim’s achievement that we feel Tom’s pain, even though he happens to be floating five feet in the air.