Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Donald Antrim, _Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World_

THERE IS A kind of fictional voice that I identify with George Saunders (in "Pastoralia" and "The Semplica Girls Diaries," say), with Ben Marcus (Notable American Women and The Flame Alphabet in particular), and especially with David Foster Wallace (from Infinite Jest on, particularly The Pale King).

Typically in the first person, the voice is a bricolage of phrases and constructions that have been re-circulated through an infinity of management seminars, motivational speeches, therapy sessions, contemporary sermons. Graceless, blinkered, unmusical, seemingly designed to avoid identifying anything too plainly, the voice's language dramatizes how far we typically are from even being able to name the actual sources of our alienation and pain. The language our culture has generated to speak of what is most important to us is clumsy, padded, nearly useless, but it is all we have. Its one virtue, perhaps, is that it shields up from the sharper edges of the reality we have no choice but to handle.

I had lazily assumed Wallace invented this voice, but a very confident and assured version of it occurs here, in a novel published a year before Infinite Jest appeared. Something unspeakable has occurred in Pete Robinson's formerly ordinary suburb, some entropic decline into barbarity is already in progress, but the discourse of normality endures, creating the just-barely-sustainable idea that things are still under something like control:

   I made a total of seven recruitment visits that day and the next, was successful at each, and in danger of dying only once, when Deborah and Carl Harris's automatic garage door/catapult discharged a fusillade of calcified coral fragments, missing my head by inches.

"I told Carl to turn that thing off, " Deborah apologizes. "He must have forgotten."

When done well--and I would say Antrim does it as well as Wallace, Marcus, and Saunders, three of my very favorite writers--the voice carries a powerful paradox: it reveals in language the ways that language can conceal, making us sense the unutterable in the bland surface of the uttered. There is a tragedy here, but at the same time the effect is comical.

Apparently Adolph Eichmann, while being interrogated by Israeli prosecutors, went on at length about how we was thwarted from advancement in the SS, slipping into the familiar Dagwood/Dilbert discourse of complaining-about-work rather than talk about exactly what his work was. Hannah Arendt writes, "What makes these pages of the examination so funny is that all this was told in the tone of someone who was sure of finding 'normal, human' sympathy for a hard-luck story." Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World is funny, too--hilarious, in fact--but frightening as well.

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