Should I admit that I was first attracted to The Hundred Brothers by its cover (particularly as it consists largely of a striking pink)? Its design is just one more reason to congratulate Granta on reprinting the American reprint, accompanied by its introduction from a more famous American writer, Jonathan Franzen. (The only way in which Granta has let us down is that they have given us Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World, but not the third novel in what Antrim has described as a trilogy, The Verificationist). The latter was originally published in 2000 and remains Antrim’s last novel, though he authored a memoir, The Afterlife, in 2006.
The writerly introductions to his work (the others are by George Saunders and Jeffrey Eugenides) are intended to give the impression that Antrim is a writer’s writer and it is easy to see why this might be the case: I had an almost overwhelming desire to read The Hundred Brothers out loud so delighted was I with its prose. Do not mistake this compliment for an indicator of poetic fancy; the prose is loud and punchy, quite in keeping with the overpowering masculinity of the novel:
“It was a wretched, pewter-coloured day. The red library walls were haunted by shadows and light cast from a multitude of low-wattage reading lamps that haloed the tables on which they sat illuminating our laps as we flopped down on the sofas and chairs overhung by English hunt prints and the heads of game animals, mounted, desolate African, gazing out from rectangles of wall framed in wood shelves crowded with Victorian matched sets and works by obscure poets.”
In an interview shortly after the novel was published, Antrim described his creative process as follows:
“Both Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and The Hundred Brothers begin with improvisations—little departures from reality, I suppose—and these improvisations accrue reality, retroactively, as subsequent events grow out of the initial situation. Reality gets built.”
The ‘little departure from reality’ in The Hundred Brothers is the hundred brothers, gathered at their family home to search for the urn containing ashes of their father; it is the mother of all family gatherings. Antrim uses the intense atmosphere of the red library where they meet to explore masculinity in modern America. Violence simmers constantly beneath the surface, often bubbling into open confrontation. From the moment Max knocks over a table lamp and, in his efforts to clear away the fragments, careers into the eldest brother, Hiram, every movement is a potential collision, whether accidental or intentional.
The novel is a series of set pieces, from Doug’s confrontation with Hiram over a bouquet to the family meal (“The first person I hit was Raymond”) to Doug’s mad dash through the history of English literature between the library stacks. Doug’s only solution to his family’s problems is mythic and, of course, violent. Having by that point been immersed in the family for a good couple of hours, the reader may sympathise. The Hundred Brothers is an unusual book that, I suspect, will not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it in equal parts amusing and terrifying.