What should a short story do? Where should it take you? What sets a good short story, or a bad short story for that matter, apart from an exceptional short story? Whilst you’re ruminating on that one: what sets a good short story collection (or a bad short story collection, for that matter) apart from an exceptional short story collection? If we were to draw up a pair of lists, a list of what makes an exceptional short story, a list of what makes an exceptional short story collection, I would hazard a guess that the two lists would be quite different. Our expectations for one differ, quite rigorously I would hazard, from the other. It’s possible we would be more forgiving of a single story, taken in isolation, than we would for an average collection; at the same time, who knows, possibly we would be kinder, less critically ruthless, if a story bumbled along, an idea that never quite reached fruition, if the stories alongside came at you like Tyson punches. Personally, I want to be taken elsewhere. I want good writing (which, I know, we could write a book on what we think constitutes that and we’d probably all disagree). I want strong narratives (ditto). In a single story, the journey is important; the destination. In a collection, I’m interested in difference (I don’t want a bunch of similar stories – although, saying that, the stories can be unified by an overarching theme, by topics the author in question is drawn to again and again, worrying a flap of skin). I don’t mind being wrongfooted; I don’t mind a story occasionally working like a joke (but don’t overplay your hand on that on). I like a story to have a point (even if the point is not immediately apparent). I like stories whose climax forces me to re-evaluate everything that preceded it (although again, like the jokes, this shouldn’t be overplayed in a collection). I’m not a massive fan of oblique hard lefts, overly literary language that disguises WTF is actually happening. It’s hard to argue with clarity.
And so to Donald Antrim’s debut short story collection, The Emerald Light in the Air. Donald Antrim, we know, is already a name in some outposts. One of the New Yorkers list of the twenty best writers under 40. Recipient of MacArthur Foundation this and Guggenheim Memorial that and National Endowment the other. Author of interesting novels – Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World and The Hundred Brothers, introduced in the most recent editions by Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen respectively, and The Verificationist. Author of a memoir, The Afterlife, yet to be reissued by Granta his UK publisher. And now a short story collection, which like recent collections by the likes of Don DeLillo and J Robert Lennon, compile stories written over the course of the last few years. Seven stories to be precise. Each of which is precise in its own way. Some of the stories, like collection opener ‘An Actor Prepares’, which recalls Chris Adrian’s The Great Night, concerning as it does a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that descends to a farcical Bacchanal, are singular, amusing, if a little familiar (didn’t Neil Gaiman do the same thing, more or less, in Sandman years and years ago?; hasn’t the play itself been reframed and remodelled and refurbished each time it has been produced?; doesn’t A Midsummer Night’s Dream ask for this kind of approach?).
This sense of familiarity grows as you read the book: here we find frail intellectuals, struggling with romance, struggling with mental health, struggling with relationships, quietly bemoaning the loss of a major love, the dissatisfaction implicit in loving the one you’re with. Sometimes, in ‘Solace’ for example, a young man and a young woman find a port in a storm. Sometimes, as in ‘Another Manhattan’, a story that could have made a good novel by Richard Ford, comedic marital disharmony gives way to ‘a white labyrinth of hallways’, ‘Ativan and a paper cup of water’. Sometimes – in stories like ‘Pond, with Mud’ – you finish reading and wonder whether what you’ve read warranted reading. Antrim sometimes gives his stories away with a minor flourish. There are times when you think Antrim could write ‘And that was pretty much that’ and be done with his characters and his stories. Other times, when he is less Eugenides and more Franzen – as he is on ‘He Knew’, a tale of an ageing actor and his paramour, or ‘Ever Since’, a young man at a publisher’s party with a girl who isn’t quite the love of his life – his work hits home most effectively. Yes, there’s a little bit too much of New York (all writers who live in New York seem to think it’s the only city, the most fascinating city, that New York is all cities rather than just New York – but hey, if it gets you on the New Yorker’s list of promising writers, more luck to you) – but you don’t notice this until you arrive at the title story that closes out the book, a rural tale, that jars alongside the city-based outing, albeit in a good way.
Overall, it’s mostly consistent and it’s a collection that passes the time but it isn’t a thrilling piece of work and it won’t necessarily have you dashing off to read everything else he has written (which would seem to suggest that this isn’t indicative of Antrim’s work as the novels very much do that). There are ups and there are downs but the overall feeling you are left with on completing the book is ho and hum.
Any Cop?: We’re loathe to dismiss short story collections as stop gaps or holding patterns between the novels but The Emerald Light in the Air doesn’t quite live up to the rest of Antrim’s work.