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March 6, 2016

“The Emerald Light In The Air”

by Anne Paddock

I’m not of this world.

The Emerald Light In The Air is a collection of short stories written by Donald Antrim that were originally published in the New Yorker Magazine. If you’ve never read Antrim’s work before (and, even if you have), it’s helpful to know a few things about him because his stories often mirror parts of his life.

Born in 1958, Antrim was raised in the south by an alcoholic seamstress mother and a father (a scholar of TS Eliot) who married and divorced twice. Moved from place to place, Antrim’s childhood was anything but idealic although boarding school and college (he graduated from Brown) paved the way to a writing career.

Elect_Mr._Robinson_For_A_Better_worldAntrim has published three novels: Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist, along with a personal memoir: The Afterlife. The_Hundred_BrothersThrough the years, Antrim has dealt with his own mental health issues which culminated in two separate psychiatric hospital stays in which he submitted himself to electroconvulsive therapy to treat his depression.

In 2013, Antrim was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship (a $625,000 grant paid over 5 years), a prestigious award given to those who show “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Clearly, Antrim had made it but the road was bumpy.The_Verificationist

Antrim’s work is not of the Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, John Irving, and Jane Smiley fiction world where both characters and situations are real, troubled, and identifiable but more of the George Saunders and Don DeLillo contemporary postmodern fictional universe where the dark side of human nature emerges in a Kafkaesque way; that is to say a strange, dark, almost hopeless, comedic way.The Afterlife Except, where Saunders and DeLillo often use characters to address an issue or deliver a message about consumerism, culture, media, corporate responsibility, and government, Antrim focuses more on the internal strife of his characters. In other words, what’s going on inside their heads.

Antrim’s characters are deep; they tend to be troubled men in the arts who suffer from mental illness, drug abuse, or alcoholism. Socially awkward, driven by the moment, and fixated on the constant chatter within their heads, these men are eccentric and focused on imagery – how clothes, women, and social situations make them look and feel. But, it’s not all psychosis. Antrim also imposes humor and makes jabs at the social class in almost everything he writes which makes reading one of his stories that much more entertaining.

The_Emerald_Light_In_The_AirSeven short stories make up the collection of The Emerald Light in the Air beginning with An Actor Prepares, the story of a 46-year old unmarried professor of speech and drama at a small liberal arts college who is staging a production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, Shakespeare’s popular play (which is helpful to know about before reading this short story). Fixated on the raw sexuality of youth, the protagonist, Reginald (Reg) Barry casts himself as one of the teenage lovers which makes the story a dark comedy on par with the play.

The older troubled man-younger woman is played out in three of the short stories in the collection – Pond, With Mud, He Knew, and Ever Since. The stories stand alone and are distinctly different but all three stories are about a middle-aged man suffering from depression or anxiety who can’t figure out what he really wants or loves except recognition.

In two of the stories – Solace and Another Manhattan – the protagonist is still the troubled middle-aged man but within a dark relationship. In Solace, two very unhappy New Yorkers meet at a dinner party and eventually hook up realizing their common ground is the abusive homes they grew up in. Both struggling and living with roommates who are always home, Christopher and Jennifer are forced to use their friends’ apartments to play house and have sex. During the week they lead separate lives which works to conceal their true selves from each other.

The most hilarious story in the collection is Another  Manhattan. Jim and Kate are married and not very happily. Jim is having an affair with Susan, his wife’s friend while Kate is having an affair with Susan’s husband, Elliot. Recently released from a psychiatric hospital and unemployed, Jim is on his way to meet Kate, along with Elliot and Susan for dinner when he decides he needs to buy flowers for Kate. What ensues is both outrageous, funny, and profoundly sad.

The last short story in the book and the one that leaves the reader with a message of hope is the story for which the collection was named:  The Emerald Light in the Air.  Billy French is a middle-aged sculptor and art teacher who has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital, after getting electroconvulsive therapy treatments to alleviate his suicidal tendencies. His parents recently died and his girlfriend left him to marry someone else. Depressed, he decides to take a drive to the dump to get rid of some old paintings and comic book collections but gets stuck on the road in a storm. As he tries to find his way back, Billy has a unique experience – or is it a dream – which gives the reader a sense of hope that maybe, just maybe Billy will be ok, as the last page is turned.

…could sense the weight of low pressure bearing down. An emerald light was in the air. The birds and other animals had gone quiet; the world was still, as it can be when bad weather is coming.” He was driving to the dump where he planned to throw out Julia’s paintings and his comic book collection that he found in the garage.

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