The Emerald Light in the Air: Stories

by Donald Antrim

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 176

Who is this author?

Donald Antrim is hailed by literary critics as one of the finest contemporary American authors. His novels include Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers and The Verificationist, and his memoir, The Afterlife, memorialized his talented and tragic mother and her indelible effect on his life. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, where all the stories in The Emerald Light In the Air first appeared, and he is an associate professor in the writing program at Columbia University. He won a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, known informally as a “genius grant.”  Emerald was named as a Best Book of 2014 by The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement and The Independent.

What is this book about?

It’s about ordinary people doing ordinary things, but described in the most extraordinary fashion. This is a compilation of pieces Antrim has written over the past 17 years, and each captures emotionally fragile people at a turning point, and not necessarily a good one. His characters do simple things like trying to buy flowers, taking a walk through the city, coupling and uncoupling, driving through a forest: but nothing ever is simple in an Antrim story. He writes with amazing control and insight, and this collection will add additional gloss to his already shining reputation.

Why you’ll like it:

In 1999, Antrim made the prestigious New Yorker list of the 20 best writers under age 40. Today, he would undoubtedly make any list of 20 best writers over that age. He has been called “one of our period’s true artists of anxiety,” a description you will understand if you read his new collection. He presents deeply flawed people in a unsparing yet empathetic way: you feel for these people, fear for them and hope, with fingers crossed, that they will survive their richly detailed experience intact. Antrim has himself suffered emotional breakdowns and knows the bleak and dangerous territory of anxiety all too well. That he can take such raw and painful material and turn it into such delicately powerful stories is a testament to his considerable talent.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “The seven gripping stories gathered in Antrim’s long-awaited debut collection showcase the author’s ability to employ surreal and traditional modes to describe the emotional demons plaguing his characters. The opening story, “An Actor Prepares,” is about a dean at a “small liberal-arts institution” who shares his creepy experiences directing a twisted version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The quietly troubling “Pond, With Mud” draws out an awkward chance encounter between a man and his girlfriend’s son’s biological father in a train station. The remaining five stories speak to each other to form a sort of thematic saga, which portrays the nuanced connections between flawed but sympathetic characters. “Solace” highlights the pleasant early stages of a relationship, and follows a couple’s romantic rendezvous in their friends’ New York apartments; more seasoned pairs are entangled and on the brink of collapse, but maneuver around each other to achieve temporary harmony in “Another Manhattan,” “He Knew,” and “Ever Since.” Antrim is well attuned to the idiosyncracies that define the rhythm of a relationship, and is particularly adept at giving shape to the complications that inevitably arise between lovers. A collection of great depth to be read, reread, and above all, relished.”

“In the last few years one of my favorite novelists, Donald Antrim, has devoted himself to short stories—not as finger exercises, but with a combined intensity, delicacy, and feeling for tradition that set him apart from any writer of his generation . . . What is it about Antrim? He writes as if prose were his native language: his sentences have the matter-of-fact pathos and absurdity of dreams . . . His themes are the Chekhovian classics—ambivalence toward the life at hand; yearning for the life that might have been—and he evokes unhappy love with a sensuousness and a subtle, plausible magic that recall Cheever at his best,” says Lorin Stein in The Paris Review Daily.

“No one writes more eloquently about the male crack-up and the depths of loneliness than Donald Antrim; the stories in The Emerald Light in the Air, hopscotching between the surreal and ordinary, comic and heartbreaking, are dazzling,” says Vanity Fair.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Couples unravel and anxieties are revealed in this batch of urbane, wry and interior stories enlivened by Antrim’s talent for gamesmanship with words. Antrim’s debut story collection—his first book of fiction since The Verificationist (2000) — sticks to a remarkably narrow set of premises. In “Pond, With Mud,” a hard-drinking New Yorker is losing his grip on reality and growing distant from his fiancée  and young would-be stepson; in “Another Manhattan,” a mentally ill New Yorker is failing at the simple act of buying his wife some flowers before dinner; in “Ever Since,” a couple grows strained at a boozy New York literary party. This repetition of setups would be tiring were Antrim not so capable of conjuring a variety of tones and surprising amount of subtlety from these common predicaments. In “Another Manhattan,” for instance, the man’s illness is slowly and powerfully revealed by his inability to stop the florist from adding more and more flowers to the bouquet; as the gift absurdly blossoms, his despair falls into sharp relief. “An Actor Prepares” is a more surrealist look at emotional fissures narrated by a college acting teacher whose guidance to his cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reveals both his sexual fixations and romantic failures. And in the closing title story, a man left suicidal by a broken relationship heads back home and, through a series of misadventures, winds up navigating his car through a forest. “The Emerald Light in the Air” refers to the sickly tint in the air before a storm, which captures the overall mood of these stories, where bad news seems to be just about ready to come raining down. But there’s wisdom and humor here, too; Antrim is attuned to the way couples struggle to make themselves heard or obscure their true feelings. A deceptively spiky set of meditations on romantic failure.”

Library Journal says: The stories in Antrim’s engaging new collection have been published . . . in The New Yorker. Many are set in Manhattan, but they are not stereotypically brittle New York stories. Antrim’s city dwellers are perpetual renters of fifth-floor walk-ups with careers they cannot sustain as lawyers or painters or actors. They drink more than they should (one story is called “Another Manhattan”), fall easily into infidelities, have a taste for fine clothing they cannot afford, and check themselves in and out of the city’s psychiatric wards. At the outset of a story called “He Knew,” a husband feels that “he might soon be coming out of the Dread.” He leads his chronically panicked wife on their ritual walk along Madison Avenue, stopping first at Bergdorf Goodman and then working their way “north through the East Sixties and Seventies, into the low Eighties, touring the expensive shops.” The whole story happens as they walk, worry, and lose each other along the way, and we worry right along with them. VERDICT Master storyteller Antrim has an original voice and an acute sensitivity to the spectrum of human emotion. These are stories this reviewer won’t soon forget.”

When is it available?

Antrim’s fine collection of stories is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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