Authoring Anxiety

Ben Mauk sums up The Emerald Light in the Air, the new story collection from Donald Antrim:

These stories appeared in The New Yorker over the span of about 15 years. Yet how conspicuously consistent their interests! They are at once many stories and the same story, with slight but ultimately trivial differences among the various shades of alcoholism, childlessness, parental ambivalence, dead mothers, artistic ambitions, mood-stabilizing medications, and myriad other signifiers of middle-class “anxiety and suicidality.”

This arresting sameness … I would attribute not to any creative drought on the part of Antrim (whose novels are enormously fecund, fun, and surreal), but to the peculiar ambition of the collection: it wants to be a miniature mythology. Its stories don’t aim to delight us with rare and precise Flaubertian details, or to present a wide and sparkling array of humanity. Instead, the book wants to wash over us in waves of familiarity. We are made to recognize the human hubris at work in each story precisely because the humans depicted are sketchily, almost indifferently drawn.

In a profile of Antrim, John Jeremiah Sullivan offers insight into the roots of the author’s “art of anxiety.” He relates the story of how Antrim got over his fear of electroconvulsive therapy – with the help of a phone call from David Foster Wallace:

On the phone, Wallace said immediately, without prompting: “I’m calling to tell you that if they offer you ECT, you should do it. You’ll be all right.”

Wallace, who had undergone the procedure himself, spent at least an hour telling Antrim that he shouldn’t be afraid, that he would still be there when it was over, that it would still be there. He was saying it as one writer to another, giving the only kind of reassurance Antrim could possibly take seriously at that moment. Wallace told him that the treatment was going to help him, he would see. “He just kept repeating his own story,” Antrim said, “sort of cycling through it, because he could tell it was comforting me. When we hung up, I walked straight to the doctors and told them I was ready to start.”

A month passed in the ward, while nothing happened — not nothing, only flickerings. “Green conductive gel dried on my forehead. Weeping.”

Around the 11th time he underwent the shock, Antrim said, something shifted. Not subtle, dramatic. “The color came back on.”

It wasn’t a permanent fix — he went back into the hospital again, in 2010, and again underwent ECT. In all, between those two pe­riods, he submitted to the procedure 55 times. He is unequivocal in his belief that without it he would be dead.

In another review of The Emerald Light in the Air, David L. Ulin returns to this theme of mental illness:

Depression is a theme, and also suicide, or not suicide so much as the threat, the possibility of it, like another form of solace to be called upon when the living gets to be too much. “Some days, he’d curled in a ball on the floor,” Antrim writes of the protagonist in the title story, “and promised himself that soon, soon, soon — it would be his gift to himself — he’d walk up to the barn and lie down with the rifle.” That he never does is something of a Pyrrhic victory: survival, yes, but at its own psychic price.

And yet, the title story is in its way the most upbeat in the collection, ending on a note of reconciliation, if not quite hope. As the final effort … it suggests an arc or movement: from the surreal to the real.