Donald Antrim published three dark, dense, funny novels between 1993 and 2000: Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist. Next month will see the release of his first work of fiction since, a collection of short stories entitled The Emerald Light in the Air. In between we have only this memoir, The Afterlife, largely about his relationship with his mother, and partly based on articles written for the New Yorker. (The first chapter, for example, originates in I Bought a Bed).
Of course, an ordinary, unremarkable upbringing does not make for interesting autobiography, and it is perhaps no surprise that Antrim’s mother, Louanne, appears to have stepped from the surreal, twisted world of his novels:
“Her power to drive people away was staggering. She behaved spitefully and was divisive in her short-lived relationships with similarly disenfranchised people who became her friends…Her hair looked at times as if she had cut it herself in the dark. You were either with her or against her…She was, for anyone close to her, and particularly for those depending on her competency, a threatening person.”
Much of his mother’s erratic behaviour is a result of her alcoholism. A reoccurring image in the book is of her appearing in Antrim’s bedroom in the middle of the night, “swaying, half conscious and with gray smoke from her cigarette wreathing her face, shattered by bourbon and white wine.” One Christmas Eve she gets “falling-down drunk.” In the morning Antrim and his sister must open their presents as of nothing has happened.
Antrim does not tell his story chronologically, however – though whether this is a structural choice or a hangover from the magazine origins of each chapter is unclear. Certainly there seems to be no other design to the order other than the decision to begin in the aftermath of Louanne’s death and work back through memories until arriving at her deathbed at the end. Each chapter tends to focus on an object, most noticeably in the first chapter where Antrim’s attempts to come to terms with his mother’s death are illustrated by his search for a new bed. He identifies the bed with the next stage in his life:
“I imagined, or fantasized, that once cosy and secure in the space filled by the bed…I might discover who I might be and how I would carry on without my mother, a woman who had died in a dreary house in an uncomfortable bed.”
While is some ways a bed may seem a strange object to fixate on, it clearly represents the idea of a good night’s sleep – in other words, being at peace with yourself, something Antrim struggles with throughout the book.
Other chapters form a similar pattern. In the second his memories revolve around his uncle, Eldridge, but begin with his car:
“Today I cannot think of my uncle without remembering his car and the things he carried in it.”
This chapter reveals most about Antrim’s own past as he goes from admiring his uncle to pitying him in a story of growing up. Interestingly, our longest glimpse of Antrim’s youth hardly features Louanne. His mother is back in force in the next chapter, however, which centres on another object, a painting which her current boyfriend (Antrim’s parents marry and separate twice) believes to be a lost master. His ambivalent search for the truth (Antrim is never sure if he wants to discover it for certain with all the disappointment that may entail) somehow reflects Antrim’s relationship with his mother, and his mother’s relationship with art. Louanne regards herself as an artist (and Antrim’s success as a writer as down to her), demonstrating her talent through the garments she creates – a kimono she made is the starting point for another chapter.
Only one chapter touches on Antrim’s relationship with his father. His mother is a dominating presences throughout, as indeed she seems to have been in life. When he says at the end that “her ashes have yet to be scattered,” it suggests that he has still not found the peace he was searching for at the beginning.
The Afterlife is fearless and forensic as you would expect from Antrim. However, I’m not sure it is much more than a series of essays on family – each one perfectly formed, but not creating a more significant whole. Perhaps it was something Antrim needed to write. Hopefully The Emerald Light in the Air signifies a return to fiction that will not leave us waiting much longer for the next novel.