The Emerald Light in the Air

By Donald Antrim

Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. 158 pp. $22

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Reviewed by Kevin Grauke

Fifteen years ago, thanks to the accolades received by his first two novels, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (1993) and The Hundred Brothers (1997), the New Yorker named Donald Antrim one of the 20 writers under 40 years old who should be considered the "future of American fiction." The other names on this list included Sherman Alexie, Michael Chabon, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and David Foster Wallace. This roster was impressive then, and it's significantly more impressive now.

The next year, 2000, Antrim published his third novel, The Verificationist, which was lauded just as much as his first two. Since then, however, his only book has been 2006's The Afterlife, which was a memoir. Those waiting for more of his fiction have had to make do with the stories that he's published in the New Yorker over the years. Now, The Emerald Light in the Air, which will be released on Tuesday, collects seven of these stories, the earliest of which appeared in 1999 and the most recent in February of this year.

Antrim's novels, which were reissued a couple of years ago (with celebratory introductions provided by his better-known New Yorker 20-under-40 comrades Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, and George Saunders), are surreal, fantastical, and darkly funny. At their best, they call to mind the whimsically off-kilter worlds of the late Donald Barthelme's fiction. The stories of this collection, however, demonstrate few of the characteristic attributes of Antrim's long-form fiction. Arranged chronologically by their initial publication dates, these stories quickly segue from the farcical and humorous opening story, "An Actor Prepares" (the most "Antrim-like" story of the book), to the much more somber subjects and moods of the remainder of the collection.

Emerald Light's characters are an unsettled and disoriented lot. They are little boats in search of harbors, to paraphrase Linda Loman's description of her irretrievably lost husband, Willy, in Death of a Salesman. Sometimes these desired harbors are physical places, but mostly they are emotional states to which they have lost their maps. Some cannot seem to stop grieving the end of a failed relationship; others struggle to regain equilibrium after bouts of mental illness. All are keenly aware of their troubles, although their self-awareness rarely leads to significant healing or growth.

Frequently, Antrim's characters ask themselves questions that they are at a loss to answer, almost as if they are watching themselves in disbelief from above. "How had I become so lost and alone?" ("An Actor Prepares"). "Would he never know what it was that he was trying to think about himself?" ("Pond, With Mud"). "How could he tell her what was wrong? What was wrong?" ("Solace"). "What kind of man courts a woman by letting her make an enormous bouquet for his wife, then asks her to pare back?" ("Another Manhattan"). "Why hadn't it happened already? Why hadn't they done it yet, like normal people?" ("He Knew"). "Watching her, he felt - what? Appreciation? Affection? Love?" ("Ever Since"). Such questions often nicely reflect the characters' defining insecurities and confusions; however, in aggregate, they also tend to come off as tiresome, stylistic tics.

Nonetheless, despite this small complaint, Antrim's stories take us so deeply into the hearts and minds of his characters that we have no choice but to care about them. This is particularly true for the stories that concern his most damaged characters, the ones who have recently spent time in psychiatric wards because of depression and suicidal ideations. For instance, in "He Knew," one of the collection's finest stories, Stephen and Alice are reminiscent of Francis and Helen in William Kennedy's classic novel Ironweed, but instead of being homeless alcoholics on the streets of Depression-era Albany whose love for each other just barely sustains them, they are well-to-do New Yorkers whose spending sprees and prescription medication do a poor job of masking the troubles that continue to haunt their loving relationship.

The Emerald Light in the Air seems to signal a sea-change for Donald Antrim. Gone, for the most part, is the frenetic, cerebral hilarity of his first three books. A sober and compassionate contemplativeness now prevails, even as his characters act foolishly. Fans of his novels may be disappointed by this transformation, but these stories deserve to be read on their own terms, and savored. Though this book is fairly slim, coming in at only 158 pages, it delivers more for readers to ponder and, more important, feel than most collections twice its size.