Life goes on

In a heroic memoir, Donald Antrim explores his relationship with his late mother -- a troubled alcoholic he couldn't live with, or without.

Published August 15, 2006 11:12AM (EDT)

Donald Antrim describes himself, in his new memoir, "The Afterlife," as "a novelist with literary-level sales and a talent for remorse." False modesty aside (Antrim is a much-lauded author, having been named in 1999 one of "20 Writers for the 21st Century" by the New Yorker), on some level the epithet works. Antrim's three novels to date have all been mad experiments in the laboratory of remorse, for both their protagonists and their author. The eponymous narrator of "Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World" regrets recommending the drawing and quartering of the local mayor. Doug, one of "The Hundred Brothers," has not always been kind to some of the others. And Tom, "The Verificationist," seems to carry with him, as he floats to the ceiling of the local pancake house in the bear hug of a rival, the complicated marital guilt of an Updike hero.

For their creator, the discomfort has seemed more aesthetic than moral. His books are known for their defiance of such realist données as the constraints of human embodiment, the laws of gravity and the unfazable banality of the American suburbs, and in these japes one discerns an uneasiness with the authority implicit in the role of, well, author. He is saddled with a distinctly modern authorial problem, the problem of a culture increasingly afraid that nothing is sacred. How does the self-conscious novelist write literary books, with all their silly promises of truth and transcendence, and not feel a little guilty? For some time, the best inoculation on offer seemed to be irony. But that, too, is subject to skepticism, and nowadays nothing ties a writer in knots like the question of irony: Is it a necessary disclaimer, or a cowardly dodge? Is it corrective in that it keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously, or corrosive in that it prevents us from taking ourselves seriously at all?

Antrim's novels suggest the former: They are often ironic to the point of absurdism, as if only a funhouse mirror can reflect the grotesquery of our cultural features. If there's a complaint in "literary-level sales," there is also refuge: It is the oddness of Antrim's genre that keeps him known but still respectable, validated in the delight of a few discerning readers, but not indicted by the appreciation -- or burdened with the expectations -- of hoi polloi. But as the self-deprecation of that self-description implies, some square little angel on his shoulder still defends the latter; that is, still worries that these mordant jokes do worse than preach to the converted -- they prophesy to the cynical. Happily, the devil wins the skirmishes: The jokes, if sometimes brittle, are true and funny. (Also happily, however, the angel may be winning the war: Each of his three novels has more heart and less bite than its predecessor.)

So what would such a novelist do with that other utterly realist convention, the family-trauma memoir? "The Afterlife," a memoir originally written as a series of essays in the New Yorker, shares some DNA with Antrim's novels: disheveled settings still wearing the tatters of historical grandeur; a cultural and familial atmosphere characterized by extreme, emotionally sublimated violence; a narrator whose moral culpability seems well matched to an endearingly self-flagellatory voice; recursive, elliptical digressions; and perhaps most significantly, a plot consisting of increasingly audacious, increasingly suspect acts of imagination. And yet "The Afterlife" must do what the irony of Antrim's novels has no responsibility to: It must save its protagonist by earthbound means.

The book is primarily about Antrim's mother, Louanne, an alcoholic, dreamer and paranoid, "whose power to drive people away was staggering," he says more than once. Louanne dies in the book's opening chapter, leaving our protagonist in a familiar position -- one might call it "original remorse." "People are fond of saying that the truth will make you free," Antrim writes. "But what happens when the truth is not one simple, brutal thing? I could not imagine life without my mother. And it was true as well that only without her would I feel able to live. I had had enough of Louanne Antrim and was ready for her to be gone. I wanted her dead, and I knew that, in the year of her dying, I would neglect her."

Neglect her he does, with full knowledge of his sin, and this time, the writer cannot resort to flights of wicked fancy. Antrim must deal in reality not only because the material is so personal to him but also because he is after redemption in the old sense of the word, a moral transaction that both absolves the debts of the past and promises solvency in the future. "The Afterlife" can be read as existentialist journey, the story of an artist seeking meaning by sheer force of will, rejecting contemporary clichés yet plagued throughout by the nagging suspicion that his mission has been doomed from the start. Imagine the Sartre play, renamed "No Closure." However well Antrim knows that he needs to write through his mother's death, he also knows that he has little hope of facing it head-on. This knowledge, mind you, doesn't stop him from trying, because what could?

With a task this hard, one can hardly begrudge a postmodern writer a parodic sidestep or two. And in fact, Louanne's death, which we see in the first sentence of the book, is so brilliant with mercy and guilt that Antrim cannot look at it straight. (It doesn't help that, as we learn a few pages later, Antrim himself guided her to her end, with comforting words and syringes of morphine.) Thus the first digression: In the aftermath of her death, we are elaborately told, Antrim is held captive by that late-capitalist paralysis, consumer indecision. He cannot decide on a new bed. He buys beds; he returns beds. He rhapsodizes, in the hyperbolic argot of advertising, on the qualities of the ultimate bed, the Dux bed, a make whose superiority is evident in that they "are manufactured in Sweden, advertised on classical-music radio stations, sold in company-owned stores that look like spas, and never, ever go on sale." He buys one, and smirks: "If you're going to buy a brand-new rest of your life, why go halfway?"

Yet at the same time that Antrim satirizes his own consumerist fantasies, he would have us believe that his ambivalence reflects a real emotional indictment. "Alone at night," he tells us, "I sank into the bed and tried to want it. And the further I sank into it the closer I came to knowing what the bed was. It was the last bed I would ever buy. It was the bed that would deliver me into my fate. It was the bed that would marry me again to my mother, the bed Louanne and I would share ... I sank into the bed, and it was as if I were sinking down into her arms. She was not beside me on the bed, she was inside the bed, and I was inside the bed; and she was pulling me down into the bed to die with her. It was my deathbed."

Antrim's metaphorical use of a mattress is a stretch worthy of Procrustes. The Dux episode, while funny, doesn't quite suit the proportions of his grief. If it's absurd to think that a bed will set you free, then it must be also to think that a bed can imprison you. Yet the intensity of Antrim's need for the connection, and the agility and gusto with which he conducts these mental and emotional contortions, are compelling. When he makes a pun relating his mother and father to the question of whether to go with the queen or the king, it's striking not because the pun seems deep (in fact, it's hollow and flippant), but because there seem to be no straws at which Antrim will not self-consciously grasp in trying to make sense of his pain. If one needs to believe that one can find new life, he asks himself, must one believe that it can come from any quarter -- even from a mattress? Without answering the question, Antrim dignifies it by his struggle.

"No other human being, no woman, no poem or music, book or painting," claimed Marguerite Duras, no stranger to drink herself, "can replace alcohol in its power to give man the illusion of real creation." Louanne Antrim is richly portrayed in "The Afterlife" as a woman who became for her son the embodiment of a central problem in his life: the intimate relationship between delusion and creativity. In her case, as in Duras', the power of illusion took its most seductive form in the bottle. Louanne was a former professor of fashion and designer of outlandish clothing, and her claim as the source of his artistic impulse is so great that when he first begins to write and publish, he says, "it was understood by my mother, and hence unwittingly by me, that I was exhibiting, in whatever could be called my artistic accomplishments, her creative agency, her gifts." As a son, her identification with him is terrifying, because as an artist, he can see nothing but pathos in her technically skilled but aesthetically puerile attempts at art. In an episode when the gravely ill Louanne is rebuffed by an art gallery she thought might represent her, Antrim's first impulse is to remember that she believes the two of them to be bonded, as artists, in "alienation from the noncreative world."

Antrim believes in this bond, to a point -- his attachment to his mother seems grounded in it -- but inasmuch as his mother's creativity is tied up with her monstrous alcoholism, it plainly makes him miserable. When Antrim is a teenager, he watches his mother's behavior destroy his parents' marriage. As one might expect of a brooding, budding artist, he writes, "it seemed to me that our family was guided by a bleak, incomprehensible fate." But as an adult who has seen the ravages of her addiction, he must flatly reject this romantic interpretation. "It wasn't incomprehensible," he says in retrospect, "and it wasn't fate that was guiding us. It was alcohol."

Even when Louanne does manage to kick the habit, she assumes in its place a sort of religion of creative potential, a combination of "astrology, Jungian psychology, Native American mythology, and various recovered-memory and past-life regression theories and therapies -- the ad hoc religions of the New Age." The son is not keen on this replacement, either; they seem of a piece with his mother's other delusions, to him. "These philosophies," Antrim says, "essentially gave my mother permission to imagine the world as a place of her own making. She never, I sometimes think, stopped being a child." There is a chill in this beyond the child's patronization of a parent: the sense in a novelist that there is something infantile in reimagining the world. To be sure, there is a difference between writing and believing. But if imaginative world-making is on no level more convincing than bourbon, why write? Whiskey goes down easier.

And so, what of art? Will our hero reconnect with it, wrest it from addiction and destruction, find a place for it in his mother's legacy uncomplicated by the sins of delusion and the flaws of selfishness? If nothing else, does he find hope that his chosen ambition can in fact redeem? The signs at first look grim. Entire sections in "The Afterlife" are devoted to stories of failed creative possibility, episodes of sadly authentic faith in inauthentic art. We have S., Louanne's sometime boyfriend and fellow alcoholic, who enlists Antrim's help in his quest to uncover the provenance of a painting that he has chanced across -- a painting he believes, incredibly, to be a lost Leonardo. S.'s hapless attempts to identify the painting, and Antrim's equally hapless attempts to take him seriously, put the author squarely on the side of hard realism. "Unfortunately," he says, "an understanding of reality is a liability in a situation in which reality is inadmissible -- or rather, in a situation in which people's feelings and hunches, their hungers and appetites, serve as reality."

Antrim's in-depth analysis of his mother's own creative output, in particular an elaborate kimono she designed and decorated with fantastic symbols of her personal mythology, is a conflicted but clinically argued diagnosis of madness. When he imagines her modeling the garment, "turning, showing me the back, like a lover displaying a dress that delivers the frank promise of sex," the radical, Oedipal candor seems almost sweet, as if this appraisal (however condescending) is the best an analytically minded, still angry son can do to take her seriously, sexually and artistically.

In case we were worried, what with the mattress thing, that in the end he might sacrifice himself on the altar of comedy, as he has occasionally done to his novels' protagonists -- in case we were worried we might remember him as a Freudian fugitive in the Woody Allen mode, who slept with his mother, then killed her, and hasn't been able to buy a bed since -- Antrim gives us a final act, which happened years earlier, but nonetheless concludes the book on a sincere, and sincerely moving, note. The son's last act is to save his mother's life, quite literally. He writes of having flown down to Miami at a moment's notice in the darkest days of her alcoholism, on the basis of little more than a premonition of distress. (He hears silence on the telephone when calling her.) He finds her, at 2 in the morning, drunk and hallucinating, barely human amid the stench of a neglected and unlocked apartment, all cat shit and unwashed dishes. She is at what the A.A. folks call rock bottom, on the last precipice of slow suicide. The son nurses her back to relative health, then leaves her with a note, which he punches out on that most romantic of contemporary literary symbols, a typewriter. In neither the act nor the note do we find a trace of irony, and the sentence that follows sure sounds like redemption to this reader: "She never drank again."

But of course, it's more complicated than that. Not only must our hero save her in life, he must also come to terms with her death, and with his inheritance -- her "creativity." Though the typewriter scene is the last "real" one in the book, the last scene presented as fact, it's not the last scene we're given. The final paragraphs of "The Afterlife" describe an entirely invented fantasy of what, if I didn't know better, might be called "closure." Antrim imagines a pastoral road trip through the landscapes both of his youth and of his mother's deterioration. At the end of this trip, he and his sister perform a funereal ritual that sounds suspiciously peaceful, suspiciously final. In order to achieve this resolution, it is worth noting, Antrim must resort to an unmistakably novelistic gesture. He must bend the rules of memory, if not of memoir. ("Have my memories converged to make some new, universal memory?" he asks, even before the fantasy trip.) But if his closing ritual, with its "walk to the water," seems a little pat, a little trite even, we have suffered along with him, during his struggle and his mother's, and we are willing to suspend disbelief. We are willing to free him from responsibility to irony, to let him have his artistic license and his filial peace, too. It is the least we readers can do, for a talented novelist who seems to need some convincing that his powers can redeem, in this all too real world.

By Ian Chang

Ian Chang lives in Los Angeles.


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