Thursday, May 26, 2011

Short-a-Day: Donald Antrim's "He Knew"

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 9, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 13.

"At the booth, he counted out pills, his anti-depressants and her anti-anxieties--he carried and dispensed for her more often than not, ever since her suicide attempt--and he asked her, 'How many do you think will do the trick?'"
What Antrim's really asking here, of the reader, is how many pills will it take for this story to jump from a light and uneventful Mid-Manhattan shopping stroll between two lovers -- an older, washed-up comic actor, and his younger, never-washed wife -- the sort of tale you might find in the Fashion Issue, into a tragic tale that represents the modern American condition. In my mind, there aren't enough pills in the world to doll this up: American problems are so slight and self-obsessive enough already that it's hard to write about them, particularly when you choose, as Antrim has, to have the narrative tone reflect that self-suffering gloss. (Far better to do as Jonathan Franzen does, writing around the situations so as to give us a fuller view, not of the problem, but of the roots and results.)

There's a nice moment in which the young wife frets about not fitting the Empire waist at Barney's ("It is my tits? Are my tits too small? Is that the problem?") and he comforts her by making a joke about her height -- a callback to the quaintly romantic way in which they first met -- and it looks as if we'll really learn something about these characters. But no; as it turns out, the story is vapid, and has merely been attempting to siphon off the vapors of a more serious subject. Worse, it is unconvincingly vapid: bland, unnecessary descriptions come at us in waves, telling without ever showing, all with an almost impressive lack of action and that distinctly indistinct (American) gloss: "The man was about thirty-five or maybe thirty-eight or -nine years old, forty or so, and his wife was coming up behind.... The man's wife looked plain, with short brown hair and a small chin, though, on the other hand, she was attractive."

Why include any of this? We get that both characters are medicated, each in their opposite way, but I don't need to read a fogged story to understand that. I don't need the story itself to put me to sleep. The title, "He Knew," bleakly hints that there's more beneath the half-fight that they get into on the Halloween-y streets of New York City, that there has been passion and will be passion, but that despite this, he knows that they're secretly doomed. He will not resuscicate his acting career; she will not get her nerves under control; they will not have a family; and the weight of maintaining this illusion is stifling them both. I say again: so what? 

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