Donald Antrim: “Ever Since”

03/09/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, March 12, 2012.

I don’t dislike this story, but it perhaps represents a little too much of that hypercasual, urbanite modernism that seems to get so many people’s goats. Like a cross between Carver and Ferris (with maybe a splash of McInerney), Antrim’s story is simple ditty about a middle-aged guy named Jonathan who is stuck and lost in life. As the title (and first line) suggest, his life is defined by a moment in the past: “Ever since his wife had left him–but she wasn’t his wife, was she? he’d only thought of her that way, had begun to think of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop–Jonathan had taken up a new side of his personality and become the sort of lurking man who . . . hovers on the outskirts of other people’s conversations [and waits] . . . to weigh in gloomily and summarize whatever has just been said.” Therefore, although he’s attending a high-end book-publishing partner with his current girlfriend, a beautiful publicist named Sarah, he spends his time fading into the background, avoiding introductions and constantly referencing his ex-wife . . . that is, his ex-girlfriend. To him, time flows oddly, too, and the story jumps without telling us — hours at a time, as if getting as lost in itself as Jonathan is getting lost in himself.

All this is sort of admirably accomplished, even if a bit obviously and thematically overdone, and yet all the small talk, emptiness, and general ennui makes for a somewhat draining read. Moreover, for a story that chooses the third-person, Antrim seems determined to shove us inside Jonathan’s head: “She held his hand, as they stood together before a big window, and he wished that he were more in love with her. Or was he, maybe, in love with her?” These bits seem forced upon us,  and call out the weaknesses of the piece itself, in that everything is forced on us (as is true, really, of every story: the magician’s trick is in making us forget). And these random snippets of overheard conversation, the descriptions of the party itself — all of these careening sections, really — serve to establish an atmosphere more than a character study, frustrating because the former is uninteresting (the characters constantly complain about how boring the party is, even as it devolves into frenetic, drunken dancing) and because the latter is what Antrim keeps returning to. It’s a bit like going on a first date and then, upon getting home, being only able to talk about the decor. Well now, that wasn’t the point, was it? (There’s a reason Zagat‘s doesn’t publish fiction.)

Moreover, by trying to be so small in scope and natural in description, Antrim writes himself into some dangerously melodramatic sections of dialogue. For instance:

  1. “I like you, too,” he said, and she announced, “I want you to know that if we sleep together and I get pregnant I’m keeping the baby.”
  2. “Jonathan, we’ve been over everything. We don’t have anything to talk about anymore.”
    “You’re right.”
    “I was ready to marry you,” she said.

Add to this the blatant way in which Jonathan’s physical movement mimics his mental state: he gets literally lost at the party and then loses his Rachel-surrogate, Sarah. After finding her, as if it’s not obvious enough, Antrim spells out the following:

But Rachel was gone now, for good, it seemed to him at that moment and–it was both crushing and a relief to feel this–he was free. And though he knew that this sense of freedom from her would not entirely last, that the memory of her would overtake him again, the feeling was nonetheless substantial: he was with Sarah.

Should a six-page story be so easily distilled? If this is really all there is to it — and Antrim leaves no room for us to think that there’s anything else to pull out of this; there isn’t a single developed character beyond poor, tortured Jonathan — then wouldn’t this have been better as flash fiction, or nothing at all? This isn’t exactly a zen koan, here. If this were awfully written, if it were unclear, I could at least hate it, or feel lost in relation to it. Instead, the lesson I take away is this: I don’t care if you believe my writing or not; just let it not be tedious.

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