Thursday, October 19, 2017

Sarah Hall / ‘I love writing about sex, the civil veneer stripped off’

Sarah Hall: ‘I love writing about sex, the civil veneer stripped off’

The books interview: the author of The Electric Michelangelo talks about her new book, The Wolf Border, how motherhood has affected her work and why avoiding politics in fiction is juvenile

Sarah Crown
Saturday 28 March 2015 09.00 GMT

ant to know what it takes for a literary author to become a household name? Ask Hilary Mantel. Never mind the three decades-worth of praise and prizes she garnered for her pre-Wolf Hall output, it wasn’t until she tackled the Tudors that she made the step-change. These days, of course, she’s Dame Hilary, universally revered – but not so very long ago she was writing in relative obscurity, vigorously championed by her supporters, but little known by the wider public.

Four novels and one short-story collection into her career, Sarah Hall finds herself in a similar position. On the back of her fifth novel, out this month, her publisher, Faber, lists her achievements in bold. “Winner”, it declares, simply: “Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. BBC National Short Story Award. Portico Prize for Fiction. John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. EM Forster Award.” It’s an exceptional record for a novelist only just entering her 40s – and that’s without her inclusion in the Granta list of best young British novelists and her numerous short- and longlistings: for the Man Booker (twice), the Impac, the Frank O’Connor prize, the Arthur C Clarke award. But despite the laurels, the eulogies (“the best British writer around right now”, according to Foyles’s Jonathan Ruppin) and glowing comparisons to the likes of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro, the odd sense lingers of Hall as a well-kept secret. If you’re currently revelling in your membership of the initiate, however, be warned: her new novel looks set to blow the lid off. “Honestly,” says Hall, “I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. Everything I’ve learned about writing over the years, it’s in this book.”

The Wolf Border is set in Cumbria, on the fictional estate of Annerdale – the largest private estate in a country that is, as the central character Rachel observes with lightly jaundiced eye, “particularly owned”. A Cumbrian native, Rachel has been living a nomadic existence overseas, setting up camp wherever her zoological work took her. Now home is calling. Her once indomitable mother is dying by degrees, and Annerdale’s cavalier earl wants her help in furthering his precious scheme to reintroduce the grey wolf to England. Fans of Hall’s fiction will spot the signature notes: the northern setting, the civic engagement, the dynamic, faceted female lead. But there is also a sense that she has moved up a gear; the canvas is broader and the plot appreciably thicker than in her earlier works. Questions of inheritance, national and familial, echo back and forth across a novel in which the political and personal meet and mingle. The wolves themselves, meanwhile, furnish both metaphysical resonance and profound, physical reality: fairytale monsters, flesh-and-blood predators, they ghost through the pages like shadows; rarely seen but deeply felt.
Hall’s first encounter with wolves came when she was a child, at Lowther Wildlife Park. The park has long since closed, but it crops up under an alias in The Wolf Border; Hall, like Rachel, was raised in Cumbria, and it soon becomes clear that the novel is threaded with autobiography. As well as a shared geography, Hall gives her main character her own alma mater, Aberystwyth, and has her spend time on an Idaho reservation that Hall visited in her 20s.
We are talking in the living room of Hall’s house in Norwich on a bright day in early spring; publicity for The Wolf Border has been cut to fit around the schedule of her seven-month-old daughter, who is currently being promenaded around the local park by Hall’s partner. The state of motherhood provides the novel with its emotional core; Hall wrestles intently with the questions it raises, and describes the bodily ordeal of pregnancy and birth in such visceral detail that I took it for granted that this, too, was drawn directly from life. But it turns out she wasn’t pregnant when she began the book; in a rare case of life mirroring art, that came later.
“It was the thing I was most worried about,” she says now. “Motherhood’s such a personal thing, a fugue state; I didn’t know if, not having been through it, I could pull it off. Then, when I’d finished the first draft, I did get pregnant.” She laughs. “I finished the copy-editing two weeks before the baby came – horrendously uncomfortable, lying on the bed with the computer balanced – so I was able to check through the pregnancy stuff, but not what came after.”
Hall was born in 1974, just within the boundaries of the Lake District national park, in a “tiny hamlet, near the village of Bampton, which is near the bigger village of Shap, which is on the A6”. The sense her description gives of her birthplace as the still centre from which the wider world spins out is reflected in her work. Although it is years now since she headed down the A6, in her fiction, she is continually drawn back to this remote, well-written corner of the north-west. She puts its pull down to a “combination of intimacy and unknowability. When people think of the Lake District they think of Wordsworth and the other Romantic-with-a‑capital-R writers, but I always saw it as a great setting for adventure. In my third novel, The Carhullan Army” – a near-future dystopia set in a Britain of limited resources and repressive, military-style law – “fanatics go up into the mountains and use them to their advantage. In The Wolf Border, there are political debates about what the national park is for. I like the act of rewriting the Lakes: of pushing back against history and trying to decide what the modern way is.”

The presence of Cumbria in each of Hall’s novels means she is often spoken of as a “northern” writer. She is wry about the label (“the further away from the capital you are, the more exotic you seem”), but quick to point out that “we’re a small country: what affects the north affects the rest. In The Wolf Border, the Earl sits in the House of Lords and has his finger on the nation’s pulse. You can feel the vectors of power.” On the place of politics in her work, she is emphatic. “I don’t see that books can be written without political context – not if they’re relevant and ambitious. Our lives are politically wound. There seems to be such fear in this country of saying that outright about literature, as if it makes for lesser work, as if you’re writing a reductive manifesto. But to avoid politics seems somehow juvenile.”

A northern writer Hall may be, but it wasn’t until she put some serious distance between herself and her birthplace that she found herself writing about it. While studying for an MA at St Andrews she met an American law student whom she went on to marry; though the marriage was shortlived, its legacy was substantial: a move to the US proved the catalyst she needed to embark on novel-writing. The pair fetched up in the small town of Lexington, Virginia, after her husband was awarded a scholarship to a nearby law school. It was, she says, “kind of a brilliant place, but very southern and Christian: a serious culture shock. I walked dogs for this mad lady who had a loaded civil war cannon on her porch, pointed at the house of a neighbour she hated”. Uprooted, with time on her hands, she began writing the book that would become Haweswater, her version of the real-life story of the drowned village of Mardale. “It was like burying myself in the soil of the valley, not to sound too vampiric about it,” she says. “I was brought up three miles from the reservoir: there were people in my village who’d lived in Mardale; our church choir used to sing at the annual memorial service. The story was right there, but I needed to go away to write it. You can’t see all of a place until you look at it from a distance.”

If Haweswater is inward-looking, a close-up study of an isolated community drawn in wintry greys and browns, Hall’s second Booker-shortlisted novel, The Electric Michelangelo, the story of a tattoo artist who sets up shop on Coney Island amid the freak shows and fairground rides, is, by contrast, an explosion outwards; fireworks on the fourth of July. Writing it was, she says, “an act of exuberance. I was thrilled to find that I was allowed to be a writer, so I threw everything at it: language, rhyming sentences, non-existent plot.” Funnily enough, she says, “they love it in France. It riffs on concepts – pages and pages about what it means to get tattooed – and they like that. Here, it’s like, ‘Where’s the plot?’ Ideally, I guess, you strike a balance, but there’s no balance in that book. I look at it now and think, what were the Booker judges thinking? Rowan Pelling was on the panel; she was editing The Erotic Review at the time, and it’s full of sex, maybe that was it. Most novels avoid sex like the plague, but I love writing about it.”

Really? Why?

“I like extreme situations: people pushed out of their comfort zones; the civil veneer stripped off. Sex does that.” Also, she says, “it’s a challenge. You have to get the language right when writing about sex: if you want it to live on the page, you have to consider your choice of expression, the power of an image, the sound of a word. It gets down to the absolute essence of writing.”
The same is true, she believes, of short stories. Her first collection, The Beautiful Indifference, came out in 2011 to rapturous reviews; the form proved the perfect vehicle for Hall’s particular brand of brawny artistry. Val McDermid said of the taut, brutal opening story, “Butcher’s Perfume”, that it exemplified “the power of fiction to get to the grim heart of things”. With short stories, Hall says, “you’re required to fit much more in. It’s the world-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. It was excellent discipline for me, the baggy, sloppy novelist, to think about form and plot.”
Now, in The Wolf Border, she is reaping the benefits. This is a mature novel, coming at a transitional point in Hall’s own life. And just as the landscape of her childhood infuses her work to date, so she is excited about the way in which the shift in her personal landscape might affect her fiction. “Children make you vulnerable: it’s like having a wound that anyone can pour salt in. But as a novelist, that’s a plus: you’re aiming for direct empathy with the world. And in terms of the practicalities, it’s just something I’ll manage, because I love writing. It’s a question not of if, but of how.”
 The Wolf Border is published by Faber.

Beautiful and brutal / How James Salter set the standard for erotic writing

Beautiful and brutal: how James Salter set the standard for erotic writing

Following a young couple in 1960s France, A Sport and a Pastime asks how we make sense of romance and tells the truth about sexual love

Sarah Hall
Friday 17 February 2017 13.00 GMT

am not telling the truth about Dean,” the unnamed narrator warns the reader early in A Sport and a Pastime. “I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.” So begins an ardent, interruptive tale of desire and discovery, conceived self-consciously and sensually on each page.

Since its publication in 1967, during the decade of sexual revolution, A Sport and a Pastime has set the standard not only for eroticism in fiction, but for the principal organ of literature – the imagination. What appears at first to be a short, tragic novel about a love affair in France is in fact an ambitious, refractive inquiry into the nature and meaning of storytelling, and the reasons we are compelled to invent, in particular, romances. That such a feat occurs across a mere 200 pages is breathtaking, and though its narrative choreography seems simple, the novel is anything but minor.
The narrator is staying in the house of rich friends in Autun, Burgundy, idly photographing the town and trying to uncork provincial culture. Thwarted in his own sexual yearning, he becomes obsessed with the relationship between his fellow guest, a nomadic American dropout, Philip Dean, and a local girl, Anne-Marie. Our narrator is the perfect voyeur, entirely suited to observation and vicariousness, and although not directly engaged in a menage a trois, his agency is crucial.
One cannot introduce the work of James Salter without mentioning his unmistakable prose. By this, his third novel, he had become the greatest stylist of any contemporary writer. There are sentences so precise, so abrupt and absolute, they almost defeat style, like literary pointillism. His evocations are both intricately faceted and vastly dimensional – a France of weather and architecture, history, flavour inhabited by characters as familiar, contrary, seasoned and unknowable as any human can be. Choose a page:
This blue, indolent town. Its cats. Its pale sky. The empty sky of morning, drained and pure. Its deep cloven streets. Its narrow courts, the faint rotten odour within, orange peels lying in the corners.
Another page:
Sometimes he is depressed by her imperfections. They should not be important, perhaps, but they often become so real, so ready to take control of her, these plain qualities hidden by the brilliance of a language and life the taste of which he has only just begun to grasp. He waits for her to put on her coat. She avoids his eyes.
Material, craft, and affect: Salter had a poet’s sense of aspect and essence, with power sustained across the long-form. Every sentence seems exactly right, each proposal true. The conceit of a work of fiction is to hide its mechanisms, to simulate, to suspend, even if it plays tricks with exposure and the seductiveness of words. The reader must be willingly transported into the believable unreal, as here the narrator is transported, via the erogenous imagination, deep into the heart of carnality and blinding emotion. Salter’s any-man narrator is complicit in our knowledge of the lie and understands the necessity of fabrication; a witness and an agent provocateur within his own story, he is also the reader’s accomplice.
Though Anne-Marie is the object of his desire and the subject of his incandescent, burning dreams, it is Dean he fixates upon. Dean is the sexual avatar, confident and entitled. He arrives at the house in Autun as heroes do, with ragged elan. He drives a discontinued Delage, a car flamboyantly at odds with the common Citroëns and trains of the nation, and sets about his regional conquest, plundering “the real France”, as he plunders Anne-Marie.
Dean’s physicality, his form, is as vital and compelling as Anne-Marie’s, and is rendered with equal care and attention by the narrator. We come to know his body thoroughly, as an attentive partner might. There are sublimated notes of homoeroticism in the text, jealousies and elaborations. The narrator is haunted, not just by a girl he cannot possess, but by another man’s prowess, his ability to perform. Even as he contemplates the eligible divorcees of the town for his own satisfactions, he remains passive, perhaps neuter, a receptor for the lust of others. “I am only putting down details which entered me, fragments that were able to part my flesh.”
Like Nick Carraway towards Gatsby in The Great Gatsby, this narrator’s ambivalence towards the winning, self-created character of Philip Dean is rounded by admiration. Their power differential is stark and paves the course for the obsession. “I am only the servant of life. He is an inhabitant.” The narrator wishes to know France: he observes France, catalogues her by eye and by lens, and he speaks the language, but it is Dean who journeys and surveys; who penetrates the culture. Dean takes a lover without promise or reciprocity; he takes her for whatever he can get now, like a colonial. He is penniless and directionless, has quit Yale, where “everything was too easy”, and is dependent on a rich father, on his charms and looks, to maintain his sexual flânerie and hotel tours. Dean’s fate is part of the attraction – it’s exciting but clouded, which will enable him to be a living idol, and to survive his betrayal, just.
James Salter in Paris in 1999. 
Photograph by Ulf Andersen

But who is Anne-Marie? She’s a shop girl, though a cut above: alluring, commanding, sacred and temporary. She is youth, if not innocence. She has a “stunning sexuality, but it’s like memorising the reflections of a diamond. The slightest movement and an entirely different brilliance appears.” The source of her power is rare, and also commonplace. She is chosen, she arrives, she’s a rapturous illusion – in the end it doesn’t matter. Like many women, and the shrewdest psychologists, Anne-Marie will come to understand that we can “die of love”. Only 18 years old when the affair begins, she’s already had previous lovers – a black American soldier, an Italian waiter. She is both unschooled and willing, that heady mix, and as such she is the novel’s erotic accelerant. Submission, control, preference for positions and role-play; she’s an actor in the theatre of intimacy, gazed upon, reactive and adored. She will be educated and will experiment with technique and methods, both painful and pleasurable; she will be humiliated, used, abandoned, as she will also be gloried in, raised up as a goddess, immortalised.

And this transaction is, of course, the truth about sexual love. It’s a gorgeous minefield. Gender politics and sexual powers are coolly tested throughout the novel – another of Salter’s remarkable skills – and are revealed to be inadequate analyses. Male solipsism. Female sentimentality. The labels stick and then peel off. Lovers are cruel and selfish, as well as generous and collaborative; they are imbalanced emotionally even if they match physically. Lovers pine and fantasise and self-deceive, they profess, they lie, they leave and they remain indelible to each other’s lives. Salter understood what lies beneath housebroken relations and rules: the fairytales. He understood the deregulation of encounter and exchange – beginnings and endings, potency and vulnerability, the construction of a union and its breaking points, moments of genuine affection and failure of feeling. In this brutal and beautiful novel, nothing is reconstituted to save our feelings. It’s all presented with gratuitous honesty.
Students of literary passion owe the author a huge debt. We’re not benign creatures in love, but angels of pornography. Nor are the mechanics of sex immune from attachments. To be privy to Dean and Anne-Marie’s entanglement is to look in on our own private, impure bedrooms, our own desires and crimes.
How compulsive and how fascinating. Until the last page, the book’s tension is exquisitely drawn. Though impotent, the narrator details everything, lays it bare. He activates the grand romance that Dean himself seems incapable of. Perhaps he is Dean, Dean’s higher, missing component. Or Dean is the alter ego, granting permission, enabling wish-fulfilment of the constrained libido. In this domain, we have so many selves.
Certainly the narrator is our registrar – without him nothing of the relationship is notarised; nothing can really exist. His observations and judgments are as cruel as they are tender – Anne‑Marie’s bad breath, her lack of intelligence and peasant’s earlobes. Her expectations of marriage are foolish and perfectly reasonable. Dean is callow and handsome, he stimulates and elates his lover, but he is terrified of the consequences, responsibilities, babies. He fails to respect France and her regulations, and he calculates, on a base level, that money and happiness are bedfellows. Together, the couple’s “atrocities induce them towards love”.
But what is love, the novel asks? What can it be, beyond temporal, beyond other? Is it simply the conceit of art, like the songs on Anne-Marie’s little plastic radio? Is it the impossible phenomenology of someone else’s account? A thing unreal to our selves, frigid under our own hands, lambent only when dreamed? Is love just a story, created from our biological urges and our soul’s ache, so that we might make sense, somehow, of our coming together, our making of it, and our parting?

 James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is published as a Picador Classic.

Sarah Hall / The brilliance of Richard Brautigan

Cat in a hat … Richard Brautigan.
Photograph by Chris Felver

The brilliance of Richard Brautigan

Fairytale meets beat meets counterculture: bursting with colour, humour and imagery, Brautigan’s virtuoso prose is rooted in his rural past – and that’s what draws me in

Sarah Hall
Tuesday 23 September 2014 15.24 BST

Over the years, I’ve lived in a variety of places, including America, but I was born and raised in the Lake District, in Cumbria. Growing up in that rural, sodden, mountainous county has shaped my brain, perhaps even my temperament. It’s also influenced the qualities I seek in literature, as both reader and writer. In my early 20s, connecting with fiction was a difficult process. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to what was meaningful, what convinced, and what made sense. There was a lot of fiction I did not enjoy, whose landscapes seemed bland and unevocative, the characters faint-hearted within them, the very words lacking vibrancy. This was no doubt empathetic deficiency on my part. I wouldn’t say it was lack of imagination – if anything, roaming around moors and waterways solo can lead to an excessive amount of making things up, a bizarreness of mind. I suppose what I wanted to discover was writing that served these functions, and I was in danger of quitting books.

Around this age I first read Richard Brautigan. When I learned that he was from the Pacific Northwest – an equally wet, rustic, upper corner of America – the coordinates struck me as significant, I sensed a geographical cousin. True enough: this formative territory is carried within his work, not as romantic vastification, but a sort of regional echo, possession of an underlying spirit. Though Brautigan moved to California, wrote about California, and California’s hip, sexy, psychedelic tropes become superimposed on his writing, beneath the berserker elements there remains trickling sadness, a wide-open loneliness, psychological rain. Such sensibility might partly be personal or social – the poverty of his youth and, later, mental illness. But its roots are perhaps Oregonian. In his collection of short fiction, Revenge of the Lawn, Brautigan describes the Pacific Northwest as, “a haunted land, where nature dances the minuet with people and danced with me in those old bygone days”. The stories set in this territory, about hunting and fishing, childhood play and damp weather, display a kind of sobriety and straightness that the San Francisco tales often don’t; the narrator is an isolated self, on a bridge, up a river, hitchhiking home in a soaked coat. Though these pieces aren’t necessarily bound by conventional physics or literary laws, something earnest and “real” rises to the surface in them, like trout in the author’s lost forest streams.
And then there are the stories where reality bends and warps, stories that seem to explode off the page. It’s also true that in my early 20s I was looking for prose with big personality – vivification and invention. Brautigan is a high stylist; his lines can be astonishing and have neon-grade memorability … “I sounded as if I had stepped in a wheelbarrow-sized pile of steaming dragon shit” … “she opened her purse which was like a small autumn field and near the fallen branches of an old apple tree, she found her keys” … “The way he lit a cigar was like an act of history.” But it’s very hard to label his work. Fairytale meets beat meets counterculture? Surrealism meets folk meets scat? The writing is bursting with colour, humour and imagery, mental flights of fancy, crazed and lurid details. There are wild inaccuracies and fever-dream occurrences. Bees living in hives made of liver. Bears dressed in nightgowns. Whisky-drinking geese. Heartbroken friends set fire to radios and the lovesongs being played melt into each other. People pay 237 cheques into the bank at once while the narrator waits, thinking of the skeleton buried in his garden holding a can of “rustdust” money. Men in debt have the shadows of giant birds attached to them.
Richard Brautigan
San Francisco, 1970 
Photograph by Michael Ochs

The more you read, the less there seem to be regulations and governing forces, ways of qualifying Brautigan. The mind of the author is simply too unbound, too childlike in its enormous, regenerative capacity to imagine. I often give one of his short stories, such as Homage to the San Francisco YMCA, to a creative writing student on the first day of a course. Suspecting I want them to write like Balzac or Woolf, the relief on their face is palpable. Not just relief, but sheer delight. Plumbing replaced by poetry! A man forced out of his own home by John Donne’s sonnets, Emily Dickinson, Vladimir Mayakovsky, et al! Many creative writing lessons are pointless, but this one is not. Even in adulthood, and no matter our circumstances, the imagination is a phenomenally powerful device, perhaps the most powerful. Brautigan knew it; he was a master-practitioner, a high-wire act.

Though he did occasionally fall. His metaphors can be widely off the mark, some too gnomic to comprehend. Where the brutally brief length of The Scarlatti Tilt makes it one of the best flash fictions ever written, other pieces feel boil-in-the-bag, or half-formed, more musings than anything else. A feminist Brautigan was not – women often occupy wistful sexual and aesthetic space only in the tales, are expected to get on board with men’s desires, be compliant when a character wants to get laid. He does better with old ladies and daughters, where the complicated business of sex is moot. Here there are acute character studies and even heroines. Possibly the wisest person in the entire collection is the little girl in A Short History of Religion in California, who rejects the piece of cake given to her by a christian in the campsite where she is staying with her father. “I’ve already had breakfast”, she explains. She’s previously expressed a desire to be a deer, to have antlers and hooves, which, in the scheme of the story, makes perfect metaphysical sense.

If you think things work a certain way, think again, Brautigan’s stories encourage, and quite rapidly the reader does forget the normal arrangements. The shifting perspectives and playful reversals, the activation of inanimate objects, the sudden sentience of things we believe to be unthinking, the unusual possibilities of life, in the end might provide some consolation for the fact of Brautigan’s tragic death and the lessening of interest in his work over the years. “Perhaps the words remember me”, he writes in Banners of My Own Choosing, as if there is, or could be, a world where the letters and sentences produced by an author are capable of nostalgia, even affection. I love this idea.
Certainly the words in Revenge do justice to the writer. Perhaps because I first read him when young and those associations remain, when I go back to Brautigan I half-expect the naive and imperfect aspects to disappoint. I’m never disappointed. Those same virtuoso characteristics of limitless creativity, the lambent glowing of the old country and the iconoclastic energy of the period, shine through. It still rains evocatively over the woods and valleys of the Pacific Northwest. The quotidian and the impossible walk hand in hand. There’s exceptional originality and levity to the phrasemaking. I’m reminded of the fundamental qualities I sought out in literature, connections that were so vital at the time, and still resonate now.
 Sarah Hall’s short-story collection The Beautiful Indifference is published by Faber.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Donald Antrim / The Hundred Brothers / Review by Granta

by Donald Antrim

Ninety-nine brothers (one couldn't make it) gather in their decaying ancestral mansion. There's Rob, Bob, Tom, Paul, Ralph, and Noah; Nick, Dennis, Bertram, Russell, and Virgil. The doctor, the documentary filmmaker, and the sculptor in burning steal; the eldest, the youngest, and the celebrated "perfect" brother, Benedict. Bound by blood and a common streak of insanity, they have come together to feast, carouse, abuse each other and seek and inter, once and for all, the long-lost, cremated remains of their domineering father.

Donald Antrim / The Hundred Brothers / Kirkus Review

by Donald Antrim

Surrealism is alive and well in the antic universe of Antrim's fiction. This second novel of a projected trilogy (Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, 1993) begins with an audaciously absurd conceit and rings an impressive number of changes on it. Doug, the frantic narrator, gathers with 98 of his 99 brothers (including Zachary, ``the Giant''; Pierce, the ``designer of radically unbuildable buildings''; Milton, ``the channeler of spirits who speak across time''; and the celebrated ``perfect'' brother, Benedict, famous for his work on the ``sexual language'' of social insects) in their deceased father's library to ``put the past behind us, share a light supper, and locate, if we could bear to, the missing urn'' of their progenitor's ashes. The youngest son is in his mid-20s, the oldest in his 90s. Only George, the urban planner, is missing, having recently vanished ``with a girl named Jane and an overnight bag packed with municipal funds in unmarked hundreds.'' George is only one of the topics of conversation as the brothers, waiting impatiently for dinner to be announced, inevitably reanimate old grievances and competing loyalties. Doug, a rebel and openly disdainful of their father, inspires a series of bitter clashes among family factions. There are accidents as the brothers, packed into the library, begin to grow restive. Finally, also inevitably, violence breaks out, and the hapless Doug is at the heart of the increasingly violent (if slapstick) family feud. The plot, of course, is secondary here: What matters is Antrim's ability to keep an impossible concept spinning, to come up with more and more outrageous variations, and he does exactly this in a wonderfully calm and assured manner. Few writers can match his inventiveness or his determination to remind us that the best fiction can be simply about the pleasure that comes from the free play of the imagination. Another unique work from the most delightfully idiosyncratic of young American writers.


Donald Antrim / The Hundred Brothers / Review

The Hundred Brothers

By Donald Antrim
Crown Publishing Group (NY)

The first sentence of Antrim's hallucinatory, grimly funny and esoteric second novel (following Elect Mrs. Robinson for a Better World) is a feat of absurdist humor and wordplay. In a single, three-page paragraph, Antrim introduces his cast of 100 brothers, ranging from doddering 93-year-old Hiram to Sergio, ""the caustic graphomaniac,"" Mongo, ""the really bad womanizer,"" Maxwell, ""the tropical botanist, who, since returning from the rain forest has seemed a little screwed up,"" and the narrator, Doug, a crazed genealogist. They have all gathered in the byzantine library of their crumbling ancestral estate to ""share a light supper"" and discuss their deceased father. Like a Beckett play interlaced with elements of a medieval heroic chronicle and the comic anarchy of a Marx Brothers routine, the novel follows Doug, a kind of authorial stand-in, as he wanders about the library, wreaking havoc, discoursing on bloodlines and inheritance and observing his brothers' bullying, grousing and violent skirmishes. Leading an after-dinner football game, Doug, who gradually proves himself the most demented of the clan, sheds his clothes and proclaims himself the Corn King, an ancient, sacrificial harvest spirit. The novel ends as Doug dashes through the library, past shelves of Cavalier poets, minor Elizabethans, 19th-century novelists and war poets, imagining that his brothers are chasing him with clubs and knives, intent on tearing him limb from limb. Drunk with language and surreal humor, Antrim's allegory never really coheres. One suspects that he views this novel as a kind of sacrificial goat in its own right, one that only readers with a strong sense of the perverse are likely to enjoy. And that's probably the point. First serial to the New Yorker. (Feb.)


Donald Antrim / Here Come the Sons / Review by Hal Espen

Here Come the Sons
March 30, 1997

A cruel and debauched family, consisting of 100 brothers, reunites at the ancestral home

onald Antrim likes his comedy pitch-black. In his first novel, ''Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World,'' a pleasant suburban town becomes a hellish war zone in which neighbor dispatches neighbor with Stinger missiles, and the psychotic narrator, good old Mr. Robinson, presides over the basement torture and murder of a little girl. Now, in ''The Hundred Brothers,'' the second volume in what is shaping up to be a very nasty projected trilogy, the 38-year-old Mr. Antrim has staged the testosterone-poisoned reunion of a cruel and debauched fraternal cohort whose sibling society would make Robert Bly weep with shame. Yes, there really are 100 brothers -- white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American men of the usual upper-middle-class professions. For mythic and satiric purposes, Mr. Antrim has concocted a fantastically large brood whose prodigious father is dead but still uninterred, and the brothers have gathered in the vast red library of their leaky ancestral home for the ostensible purpose of finding and burying the urn containing the old man's ashes.

Jonathan Franzen / Rereading The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim

Donald Antrim

Jonathan Franzen: rereading The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim

Without supreme authorial control, The Hundred Brothers would collapse under the weight of its preposterous premise

Jonathan Franzen
Friday 1 February 2013

he Hundred Brothers is possibly the strangest novel ever published by an American. Its author, Donald Antrim, is arguably more unlike any other living writer than any other living writer. And yet, paradoxically – in much the same way that the novel's narrator, Doug, is at once the most singular of his father's 100 sons and the one who most profoundly expresses the sorrows, desires and neuroses of the other 99 – The Hundred Brothers is also the most representative of novels. It speaks like none of us for all of us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Donald Antrim / Another Manhattan

Another Manhattan

By Donald Antrim

December 22, 2008

They had lied to each other so many times, over so many years, that deceptions between them had become commonplace, practically repertoire. Everyone knew this about them—it wasn’t news among their friends. That night, they had dinner reservations with Elliot and Susan, who were accustomed to following the shifts in attitude and tone—Kate’s theatrical sighs, for instance, in reaction to Jim’s mournful looks across the table at her—brought on by the strain of living in an atmosphere of worry and betrayal. It was winter, and dark, and the air in their little apartment was dry and nauseatingly warm; and yet what they needed, it seemed to Jim, was not to flee their home for another night of exciting conversational pauses and sly four-way flirting. They needed to sit down together, no matter how stuffy it got in the living room, no matter how loudly the radiators hissed and banged, and take turns speaking their minds. They had to talk. But first he would stop at the florist’s on his way home from the outpatient clinic. If he walked through the door carrying a bouquet, there was a chance that Kate might smile.