‘Hyper-real, yet bizarre; grotesque, yet sad and funny; short, yet intense’ – Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World & The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim
It beats me why Donald Antrim’s first two novels needed reissuing in the first place, because in a just world, they’d have been cult best-sellers all along. But in the absence of a popular and voracious audience for his surreal brand of textual insanity, they seemed to have slid away—despite Antrim’s ’20 Under 40′ gong from the New Yorker back in ’99—so kudos to Granta for shoving them back in the spotlight. Antrim had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t read him before; now, however, I foresee a future in which I aggressively market his demented narratives to all my terrified and sceptical friends. I’ll start with you.
Elect Mr Robinson For A Better World tells the story of Pete Robinson, elementary school teacher and medieval torture expert: a man who’s building a model dungeon in his basement while his wife, Meredith, is the talk of the town after transforming into a prehistoric fish while in an ecstatic trance at a Rotary Club dinner. Their fellow citizens are barricading their homes with hand-dug pits filled with spikes and poison and snakes, launching missiles at one another, and strewing the local parks with landmines in a return to feudal enmities. Public services have ceased to function and everybody’s drains are blocking. And Pete Robinson, election hopeful, has the dismembered limbs and organs of the previous (murdered) mayor stashed in his chest freezer, awaiting ritual burial. So far, so good. The Hundred Brothers, then, is about, well, a hundred brothers; men who congregate in the enormous library of their ramshackle house to discuss their father’s missing ashes. They fight and complain and drug one another, cruise in the stacks for casual (fraternal) sex, are overseen by a dripping, nagging water-stain in the ceiling in the shape of their long-dead dad, and don’t ever really get around to hunting for that urn. There’s a sacrificial dance, too; it’s all very Wicker Man.
These are short, pithy books, and because of this refusal to meander or deviate or sprawl, I found it pretty ironic that the new editions are introduced, respectively, by Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen, two of the twenty-first centuries most verbose novelists. Antrim, in contradistinction to them, is brilliantly concise, but that’s not to say that the books are simple. In fact, they’re masterpieces in compelling digression—if you liked Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine or Room Temperature, you’ll love these. His narrators are erudite and confident to the point of condescension, but they’re riddled with fear and love and inadequacy, making the books, for all their low page-counts, very claustrophobic reads. Eugenides, introducing Mr Robinson, calls it ‘a book without antecedents’, but (and I mean no disrespect to Antrim here, who’s definitely one of a kind) that’s a lazy, blurby response. A short roll-call of relevant reference points for both books would have to include Baker, Lord of the Flies (the horror of escalating violence driven by communal forces, and violence by children), Donald Barthelme (short, relatively demented conceits for stories), JG Ballard (the sea-scapes in Mr Robinson vs The Drowned World), Catch 22 (violence, madness, bureacracy), Vonnegut, DeLillo, Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor, George Saunders, Gordon Lish (Peru) and maybe, even, Will Self at his maddest and best. The list could doubtless go on. Hyper-real, yet bizarre; grotesque, yet sad and funny; short, yet intense. There’s nowt new out there, I guess; we’re all indebted. But, still, it’s rare to read a first couple of books that carry off such insane, surreal premises with such unflagging panache and invention.
Any Cop?: Hell, yes (though not for the squeamish traditionalist). These are, or should be, modern classics. Granta have done well to relaunch Antrim; I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next, and in the meantime I’ll be buying the rest of his back-catalogue.
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- March 22, 2013 / 8:56 am