Thursday, August 03, 2006


I read a review of The Afterlife in the NYRB a couple months ago which set me scurrying to acquire Donald Antrim's entire catalog. I wanted to read this memoir so lavishly praised in my favorite periodical, but thought I should check out his novels first. Though fabulously written and often hilarious, there was a too pungent whiff of graduate creative writing program exercises about those books--something artificial and contrived marred the at-times scintillating imagination manifest in the text.

The Afterlife, however, is a magnificent success. Antrim's portrait of his mother attempts to get at her via multiple threads--he understands there's no such isolate entity as a "person," but only a Jamesian network of relations and perceptions involving primarily Antrim himself. He understands that a character portrait is exceedingly difficult, but moreso when attempted on an intimate relation of a mother's status, and that any portrait of her done by him must by necessity be a self-portrait too. Fine filaments of narrative line wind round and round the central subjects whose essences are best caught in a web of impressions.

Many of these impressions are distinctly unpleasant, others attain an aching beauty. Therein lies our existential paradox. The Afterlife is a very compassionate, honest book which exemplifies The Master's teaching: There is one point at which the moral sense and the artistic sense lie very near together; that is, in the light of the very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer.

One gets the sense that Antrim has exorcised mighty demons with his small book. Where he goes next intrigues.

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