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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Emerald Light in the Air" by Donald Antrim

Here we have a short story by literary fiction writer Donald Antrim. The list of Antrim's accolades reads like a wish-list for any literary fiction writer: at the age of 54 he's had four novels published, a dozen stories in the New Yorker; Guggenheim, MacArthur, and NEA fellowships, among others I'm sure, and a teaching position at the University of Columbia MFA program. Is this guy the real deal? Yeah, he's the real deal.

I found his story "The Emerald Light in the Air" a little less than compelling at first; however, given the layers of flashback, symbolism, and texture available in this story, I'm inclined to look a little deeper.... 

Basically, it's a story about Billy French, an urbane junior high-school teacher in his early 40s who lives in rural Virginia. Over the past year, Billy has lost his mother and father to a joint suicide and lost his wife to another man. The main action takes place as Billy drives home to prepare for date with a woman he hasn't seen since high school, and to whom he lost his virginity many years ago. A rainstorm has felled a tree branch, blocking the road and causing Billy to drive off the road and down into a field. He follows a creek bed until it leads up into the woods, where he is approached by a boy whose family is squatting in a remote cabin. The boy thinks he's the doctor, come to help his dying mother. Billy does nothing to disabuse the boy of this notion and instead leaves his car in the creek and follows the boy to where his mother lies dying of cancer. The father quickly realizes Billy is not a doctor, and Billy leaves, calls 911 but can't really remember where the cabin was because he was high. 

A lot of this story takes place in three distinct lines or streams, one might say, of flashback: Billy's flashback to a trip he and his ex-wife took to Italy, his flashback to high school and his first encounters with Mary (the woman with whom he's supposed to meet for a date), and his flashbacks to his shock treatments for chronic depression. All of these streams of flashback seem to mix into one big river as Billy gets stoned and drives his car off the road into the woods and has his strange experience. 

Because no good contemporary and inscrutable work of literary fiction would be complete without some intertextuality, Antrim dwells -- twice -- on a painting called "The Rape of Europa" by Giovanni Tiepolo (shown below). In the story, Billy flashes back to a visit to an Italian art museum with his then wife, and even speculates that, at the time, her interpretation of the painting foreshadowed what was to come in his life; he dwelled on the ominous looking "mushroom cloud" in the rear left of the painting, while she seemed to dwell on the distant meeting of the sea and the sky, off to the lower right. 

Also, for those unfamiliar, the "Rape of Europa" is a mythical story in which Zeus, disguised as a bull, seduces a young noblewoman named Europa and convinces her to climb on his back, where he takes her out to sea and ultimately to the island of Crete. Much like, in the story, Billy's then-wife fell in love with and left him for another man. 

In another, related flashback, Billy's ex-wife, Julia, says "Everything is off in Tiepolo...spatial relations don't cohere." I think this is also a reference to the style of the story itself; it is a shifting terrain of flashbacks, memories, and self-analysis which makes Billy's inner life unbalanced. While at the same time, the very physical "terrain" of the washed-out road and the creek shift underneath Billy and his automobile, making it difficult to reach his destination and causing him to get side-tracked. 

Also, much like the painting, the story is mythical and other-wordly, not a true representation of reality. Billy's encounter with the impoverished, cabin-squatting family seems like something out of the Odyssey or the Aeneid. Are we meant to think that Billy really drove into the woods and found a poor family squatting in a cabin? Or is Antrim creating his own fictional world, just like the Tiepolo painting? My guess is the latter. And, like a great craftsman, he has given us the tools to understand his work right in the work itself. 


Brent said…
I meant to comment on this story so I read it once and I thought "OK, decent" but I think I missed a lot of things that GC pointed out. Was the down and out family the narrator met, real? I thought they were, but maybe they weren't. I meant to read the story a couple of more times so I'd have some insights, but I haven't done that. Maybe I'll read it again after I post this comment, but if I get two stories behind, I'll never comment on anything so I better not wait, Oh, here's something, you know, emerald light in the air, wasn't there a green flash in "Gatsby," so there might be some connection there.

Brent Shearer

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