Donald Antrim

"The Verificationist": Donald Antrim's unsung masterpiece

Brave, generous and wildly funny, "The Verificationist" is among the most underappreciated modern novels


George Saunders
June 17, 2012 8:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from George Saunders' introduction to the reissue of Donald Antrim’s "The Verificationist," part of a complete reissue series of Antrim's three novels.

ARF, WHY DOES THIS GRASS FEEL SO TERRIFIC?

Sometimes, writhing in pleasure on his back, a dog will pause to shoot a glance at his owner, as if to say: “Sorry, master. Just a bit, you know, lost in delight over here.”

Some form of writhing-in-the-grass will, I predict, be your response to "The Verificationist," one of the most pleasure-giving, funny, perverse, complicated, addictive novels of the last 20 years. If my reaction is any indication, you will be drawn in immediately, sail through the novel with growing delight, thrilled by Antrim’s audacity, newly reminded that economy of means and largesse of spirit are not mutually exclusive.

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But alas, when we humans get as pleasantly subsumed in a work of art as I predict you are about to get, we may, unlike that dog, distrust our pleasure and feel a need to analyze that which has given us pleasure, and, in more depraved cases, even write an introduction to it. Especially if the work generates that pleasure in some new and unexpected way (i.e., is original), we may come out of it feeling a bit . . . unhinged. Insecure, giddy, adrift — Jeez, we may feel, what just happened to me? How did a description of events that never occurred, and, in this case, could not possibly occur, make me feel so terrifyingly alive?

I SHALL LIVE MY LIFE IN KNICKERS

"The Verificationist" is a coming-of-age story: a boy strives to become a man. True, this coming-of-age story takes place entirely in one night, in a strange place called the Pancake House; true, the boy (Tom) is a middle-aged, balding psychoanalyst with a bad back; true, Tom spends most of the book doing something that defies possibility, with the boner of a possible father figure protruding into his back; true, he’s not exactly “striving” to become a man, but doing everything he can to avoid it — still, it’s a coming-of-age story that asks a simple question: Why won’t Tom go home, honor the good, beautiful, patient, apparently lustful woman (Jane) who is his wife, and make a baby with her?

Tom is one of the great louts of American literature. I say “lout,” not “villain” because — well, I like him. I think you will too. He is (yes): reductive, controlling, didactic, easily disgusted (by food, bodies, sex — you name it), blind to his own blessings. He has a tendency to start off praising and end up blaming; dismisses his faults while being hypersensitive to those of others; destroys any moment of genuine connection via a burst of cold, erudite psychoanalytical babble — but we like him, in part because when he blurts out those cruel judgments of his, we often agree with him. (Try this on for size: “Have you ever noticed? — people, no matter how beautiful or desirable, invariably will, if observed closely while going about their daily business of keeping alive, begin to seem like monsters.”)

We like him mostly, of course, because he is our narrator, and it may take the reader awhile to see that Tom is, in fact, exactly what his doofus colleagues keep claiming he is: a selfish man-child who refuses to grow up, who mistakes self-indulgence for spontaneity and thinks that sex (and water-spitting, and toast-throwing, and baby-not-having) will ward off death.

Tom’s story is quintessentially contemporary and, I fear, American: a man has everything but can find nothing in it. Tom is so unworldly — so unacquainted with, terrified of, in denial about death — that he has seemingly dedicated his life to (slyly, without implicating himself) avoiding anything (intimacy, children, honesty) that might force a confrontation with mortality. But this flight is, of late, proving unsustainable. He’s cornered and knows it: can’t live with being an adult, can’t live without it. “The problem is that I don’t know how to be a man,” he manically reflects. “I’m the right age to be a man, but does that make me a man? . . . Why am I so afraid of children? Why can’t I talk to Jane about a child? Is it because I want to be the child? I want to be the child! I want to be the child!”

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Tom, it would seem, does not want to grow up. But Tom also does not want to not grow up.

JANE DOES IT WITH TOM,

CAUSING A PAINFUL MIRACLE

Tom’s hand is forced in one of the most beautiful scenes in recent American literature, during which Tom and Jane make love in their possible future baby room. The intensity of their talk, the precise descriptions of the day outside the window, a mysterious moth-chasing cat that moves between and around Tom and Jane as they make love — it is a scene rife with meaning and portent that convinces us that there is a path from Tom’s stunted self hood to the greater world beyond, and that path is Jane. She makes a heart-stopping speech, passionate and honest, deadly accurate in its diagnosis of their marriage (“You’re a man and I’m not a girl and I’m not who you think I am, you shit”) and, though not a member of Tom’s dismal little psychotherapeutic community, Jane suddenly presents as the most sane, non-narcissistic, fully adult character in the book. Her speech throws Tom and his many deficiencies into harsh relief. (Run, Jane, run, we feel like saying, this guy is never going to get up to speed, and we know, because we have access to his inner monologues.)

This speech, not surprisingly, causes Tom to panic, and a few nights later, at the Pancake House & Bar, surrounded by his annoying, aggressive, panama hat-wearing, pancake-eating psychoanalytical colleagues, Tom suddenly, to our astonishment, begins to do something truly amazing — but here the introducer runs into a problem. What happens next, transforming this coming-of-age story into something unforgettable, luminous, and iconic, is quite surprising, and also quite impossible. To avoid giving this event away, and thereby ruining the pleasure you will feel when Antrim makes it happen before your eyes, I will refer to it as the impossible activity.

THE FLOOR ON WHICH OUR DANCE OCCURS

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The impossible activity begins via a trick of language. It is, Tom tell us, “as if” the impossible activity has started to occur. Tom has “the impression” it is happening. Later, he will describe it as being, possibly, the result of a “transient psychotic breakdown,” a form of “astral projection” — but almost immediately, and for the rest of the book, Tom’s protests notwithstanding, the reader will vividly see Tom engaged in the impossible activity, and soon, Tom performing his activity, though it is impossible, will become as beautifully real to the reader as Huck on his raft, Akaky Akakievich preening in his new overcoat, poor Gregor Samsa wiggling his antennae, late for work.

"The Verificationist" is in the respected lineage of stories in which, after one allowed violation of natural law, things proceed apace, as they do in ours, and, in this way, we see anew the way things proceed in ours.

On first read, the book presents as a long, spontaneous act of pure invention. That’s how I thought of it anyway: a kind of grand comic yelp, a prolonged victory of imaginative whimsy, a fever dream that produced some of the most acute and funny writing I’d ever read: structureless, free-associative, wild. But on closer investigation, it will be found, "The Verificationist" (like any good rant — i.e., a rant that fascinates and compels us to keep listening) has been built on a sophisticated and complex structure: the well-made floor that supports the trance-dancers, as it were.

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That structure might be described as follows: Tom goes on a twisted version of the classic hero’s journey. He’s trying to get to one place (Jane) but on the way is assaulted by obstacles, most of which are of his own making. To avoid Jane/home/ manhood he tries to start a food fight, resuscitate an old affair, initiate a new one (with a teenaged waitress)—but nothing works. Death is coming, still coming, Jane is still at home, waiting to make the baby that will underscore the unbearable fact of Tom’s impermanence.

This simple arc is embellished with a complex system of patterning that includes, but is not limited to: doublings; posture morphing/mimicry; a succession of psychosexual paradigms; and distortions both spatial and temporal.

This makes for a dense, cross-firing, wildly allusive fictional world. It is an absurdist-comic world, and the story ends, as the absurdist-comic must (imagine all of those Marx Brothers tumbling out of that stateroom): it escalates, escalates, then explodes.

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SUDDENLY MUCH IS OCCURRING ALL AT ONCE

Antrim has rigged the narrative so that the impossible activity is both undeniably happening (we are seeing it and believing in it) and is also, per Tom, not happening (i.e., is the result of a hallucination or breakdown of some kind). Toward the end of the book, even as the impossible activity continues to both happen and not happen, Antrim ups the ante by causing Tom to have a projective fantasy of escape from the Pancake House, a fantasy that soon, forced by the dexterity of Antrim’s narrative voice, will come to seem real to us (i.e., we will forget that it is a fantasy). Then, within that projective fantasy, there occurs another, in which Tom imagines himself confessing the events of the evening to Jane. In this way, several (six? nine? 12?) viable narrative realities are felt to exist at once. (Tom, while either engaged in the impossible activity or hallucinating it, is both escaping the Pancake House and not escaping it and, in either case, is either confessing it to Jane, or vividly imagining confessing it to Jane, who is either on her way to the Pancake House to rescue Tom, or waiting at home for the man who either is, or is not, her lover.) The effect is of watching an immense multideck cruise ship approach a harbor that is not quite ready for it, as, on each of those decks, some complicated version of the novel’s central question (i.e., Will Tom grow up?) plays out. It is a bravura performance that, at least in this reader, induces a state of luminous giddiness, in which the reader abandons logic and submits to bliss — the reading equivalent of throwing off one’s clothes and jumping in the pool, even if there is a thunderstorm coming and you’re supposed to be on jury duty.

The reader, in other words, is all in. Antrim wins.

Art wins.

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I’M SICK, BUT NOT THAT SICK, OR AM I?

In fact, what that cruise ship is approaching is not a harbor but a hospital.

That hospital (pyramid-shaped, modern but ancient) stealthily comes to dominate the book. Several lyrical descriptions of the book’s sweet college town conclude (as does the book itself) at this hospital. At one point, Tom compares it to a spaceship, and indeed it gets bigger, closer, and more ominous as the night and the book progress. He also describes it as a temple, a holy resting place, a tomb. The stakes, it would seem, are high for Tom: grow up or crack up. One of the student-analysts takes a stab at explaining what’s happening to Tom (as he continues to engage in the impossible activity) that segues into a prediction of Tom’s possible fate: “Psychotic break with sudden onset of schizophrenic episodes, uh, possibly hostile behavior leading to a gradual dissolution of coherent identity, necessitating anti-psychotic medicalization and . . . let’s see . . . lifelong hospitalization?”

“A basic repudiation of socially binding mores and conventions, including the marriage contract?” predicts another student.

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“Watch and learn,” advises their teacher, and they do, and so do we.

Near the end of his hero’s journey, in what I take as a hopeful sign, on the very brink (maybe) of the much-desired affair with the teenaged waitress, Tom takes what might be a tentative first step into adulthood: he self-sabotages by committing that well-known sexual buzzkiller, i.e., mentioning the fact that one feels one is surrounded by spooky ghosts having sex.

In this way, sex-with-the-teenaged-waitress is averted. But the hospital is not. What happens at the hospital, and after, is the beautiful mystery with which the book ends. Tom wonders: “Would Jane, finding me naked on a metal bed on a cold ward . . . crawl into the bed and hold me . . . telling me that, after all, we are married, and she doesn’t mind?”

In a way, we hope so. In a way, we hope not. We hope Jane, ever patient so far, remains ever patient. On the other hand, we hope Jane will call Tom’s bluff. Me, I am a little alarmed that, even at this late juncture, Tom’s pose is still passive, with a hint of self-pity, and positions Jane, still, as a sort of homey shock absorber.

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But who knows? This is, after all, a book in which an impossible activity has been sustained for more than a hundred pages and borne amazing fruit.

In it, and beyond it, we now feel, anything can happen.

YEAH, OKAY, BUT WHAT’S THE TAKEAWAY?

Antrim belongs to that highest order of writer, for whom style and content are inseparable, who lives to make that specialized form of beauty that results when language instantaneously begets event—who knows that before a book can be anything at all—before it can convey theme or critique ideas or limn identity—it has to be magical, and convince us, and the principle ingredient of said magic is language.

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You will find this book to be full of diverse forms of magnificent language: sly, celebratory, compressed, ecstatic, sprawling. You will also find it funny — in a very specific, droll flavor that no one else does as well as Antrim and that has the authority, humility, simplicity, and inevitability of truly great comic writing.

You will also find an invigorating dearth of detectable authorial agenda. We feel the book as a bold, confident expression of energy, but when we look for some sort of simple intentionality behind that energy, we will be pleasantly rebuffed. In lesser stories, authorial intention is (too) easily identified. Writer A is trying to let you know that she once hitchhiked across Rwanda.

Writer B is making an urgent point about the role of social media in the decay of the modern American family. Even in more experimental stories, we often sniff authorial intent: the mechanical elephant who comes to life and is very strict and mean and against abortion? That would be the Republican Party. The man sprouting horns is (ugh) doing so because his wife is cheating on him. And so on.

But in the best fiction, authorial intent gets lost or repurposed by the actual energy of the book. Method be damned, agenda be damned, the story starts constructing itself, following the rules of joy, seeking after its own natural energy and best self, giving off meaning of the highest kind: irreducible, blessedly complex, agenda-free, ecstatic. We enjoy the strange pleasure of observing someone losing himself in the creative act. This is thrilling to watch. Why should this be so? Somehow, it gives us hope to see one of our fellows inventing a parallel world with such confidence and, well . . . love. Because — surface irony and dark wit notwithstanding — there is so much love in the Antrimesque. If, as I keep hearing, love equals attention, this book is overflowing with love: love for the contemporary American physical landscape, for those poor, misshapen struggling things called human beings, for love itself. Noticing as unflinchingly as Antrim does, describing as vividly as he does, nailing people for their foibles as mercilessly and gleefully as he does — these are acts of love. Who notices/describes/nails as energetically as this, but a lover?

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And watching him love the world in this way makes us happy. Who knows why? Why do we feel such fondness for Donald Antrim as he walks forward into the crazy-but-consistent land of this book? One thinks of Philippe Petit, circa 1974, up on that wire between the Twin Towers. The thrill comes from watching someone transported by, and immersed in, the act of creation. It appears to be generous, motiveless, beyond reason, holy.

And it is.

“Introduction” by George Saunders to Donald Antrim’s "The Verificationist." “Introduction” copyright (c) 2011 by George Saunders. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


George Saunders

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