On the Disheveled Elegance of Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife

Darley Stewart

I’m coming to Donald Antrim this morning from the starting point of Paul Valéry filtered through William Gass. It could be a Saturday morning affliction, of course, but I’m interested in this unwieldy notion of elegance. Elegant writing unveils itself in ample quantities in Antrim’s work, and I couldn’t help but find his memoir The Afterlife a bright and beautiful star of what it means to have this quality experimented with. To experiment with one’s elegance is counter to the notion of elegance. We suspect that elegance is not only undercover — something like ricotta, not intended, really, to be bold — which implies that we as readers must detect it, but also not robust enough for experimentation.

We readers of taste are hunters of qualities unnamed, qualities that linger long after the act of reading has come to an end, not in pursuit of content — this world is full of the stuff — and so the content only interests us insofar as it carries, as form in motion, the qualities therein. No, we are not interested in how to make a movie out of a book.

The Afterlife could have been a well-polished turd. The core material is snarly and swampy enough to provoke a less skillful writer into fitful, compulsive polishing, like grooming a cat at the onset of irreversible organ failure: did I just read a memoir about his completely batshit alcoholic mother?

Well, you have and you haven’t.

Now as promised, a light, darting perception of Paul Valéry courtesy of William Gass:

Valéry liked to think of forms as arbitrary obstacles simply for the sport, and he was happy to believe that the sport itself was one of resolution, harmony, wholeness; one in which the poet, by consciously calculated and successive steps, creates out of artificial and even antagonistic materials an object as mysteriously complete, continuous, and beautiful, as the shell of a mollusk or a spider’s snare (. . .) instinctive, seamless, easy . . . as though exuded through a tube or spun from a gland.

Spun from the glands of memory, then.

I feel like querying Donald Antrim’s mother. I want to say: Hello, Donald Antrim’s mother. Do you know how you live on in memory? Your son Donald’s, for example? All this lies outside knowledge and reality, and oh, for the purposes of this essay, I’m going to courageously stipulate that you can’t have real, substantive, two-way, meat-and-potatoes mutual conversations with the dead. The reportage takes place all too vividly in the realm of the living, and you, Mrs. Antrim, belong squarely to the afterlife. After you die, memory, besides a few possessions, are all people have of you, and so a memoir is a perverse object, for it celebrates pure memory as literary form, at the moment it becomes all too clear that memory — being what it is, and we don’t altogether know what it is — subsides and selects abstract strands of a life as though it were geometry — when flesh and blood are forever lost, from presence to absence, from mommy to dust. (I had to stretch out my syntax for a moment.)

Donald Antrim doesn’t attempt much here. The Afterlife is merciful; it is sad, modest, funny, disheveled. Perhaps drifting through memory can yield humble pleasures, and we should savor our sherry.

The final passages of The Afterlife submit to memory so unhappily that for a time we cross this aim off our list and pick up our nearest and dearest scotch. These passages are, honestly, jumbled; the geometry destabilized, not expanded to unlock the secrets of mind and memory, which with a certain literary optimism we hoped would have been applied with exactitude back to the essential constituents of life. We prefer timelessness over blur, summation in place of scatterings. Well, the emboldened elegance unravels; it is a gift to us that Antrim does this. He permits the frailty — the apparent aesthetic error — of unelucidated emotion, embedded in the incomplete observations of memories, in ways that are to my mind hands-off in the methodology of his prose (I’m specifically thinking of The Emerald Light in the Air). In this case, it’s about a bird.

Should I now destroy the injured bird? Here was a chance to redeem myself, to kill humanely, in the spirit in which a farmer might, not pointlessly but with compassion. It was an opportunity to be a man in my mother’s eyes. She gave me permission to get the rifle from the upstairs closet. I made sure the rifle was loaded, then walked back down the stairs, through the kitchen, past the giant old Southern Coop freezer on the back porch, and out to the yard, where I shot the bird, I guess. I don’t remember shooting it. Maybe I waited in the dark for the bird to pass away on its own. Or maybe I never got the gun at all. Maybe my mother and I found a cardboard box and, using a folded towel as a cushion, made a bed for the bird, a bed like those we made for our cats to lie on when they gave birth to litters. Did my mother and I carry the bird inside the house full of cats and kittens? Or maybe the bird was gone when I returned to where it had lain on the ground. Had it hobbled away to die? I remember my mother’s face. She looked at me as if she understood that I was trying to understand something. She was willing to see me kill the bird. But did I? And if I did, was she standing beside me when I pulled the trigger?

I like this a lot.

I like this coming after pages and pages of Donald Antrim the expected. Yes, I had a few drinks while reading about his alcoholic mother. And? The point is that as a hunter of unnamed qualities, I found what I didn’t know I was looking for: the strangely pathetic beauty of a bewildered mind, an older mind groping for its younger counterpart, left raw and arbitrary at the edges, tumbling out of its elegant shell.

DARLEY STEWART is a frequent contributor to The Battersea Review. She lives in New York City.