Review: The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim

December 11, 2014
The Emerald Light in the Air: Stories by Donald Antrim (Granta, £12.99)

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Several qualities unite the characters in Donald Antrim’s first collection of short stories. They drink or dispense drink to try and pacify themselves; they suffer from poor mental health; they invest heavily in retail therapy; or, if they don’t have the money, dabble in high-concept artistic pursuits to the same end. Ultimately, they are unable to find contentedness and simply love one another. These seven dark and restless stories were first published, in the order they now appear, in the New Yorker. Appropriately, they take place within in a metropolitan, wealthy, medicalised world in which people speak of their passions—“When I study the thing I’m painting, I feel free from not painting”—and their problems in similarly abstract terms.

Yet the collection never becomes so rarefied as to make those problems seem distant or absurd. Every scene—almost every sentence—can be read both literally and ironically, simultaneously earnest and surreal. As an ageing drama professor prepares his “oversexed dope addict” students for a gala production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the heady atmosphere is aesthetically debunked by a malfunctioning boiler. The bouquet of flowers Jim steals for his wife Kate (to whom he is being unfaithful, and who is being unfaithful to him) is both a symbol of his will to do better, but also a briar, “like some insane wedding canopy,” on whose thorns he cuts open his forehead.

The book tips from hilarious to devastating, from campus farce to a long night of the soul in rural Virginia. It is a near-flawless collection from one of America’s most able fiction writers.