Exhibit 1.8.15

The Verificationist




I remember reading Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers on a plane some years ago and almost immediately deciding two things 1) Antrim is a genius and 2) I ¬†shouldn’t read more Antrim lest I hurt myself reenacting his stunts. Well, the first has been recently confirmed by the MacArthur people and the second I knew was a promise I couldn’t keep.

There was just something so captivatingly effortless about that hilarious, impossible novel. I think a lot of authors probably have ideas for these sorts of novels but only Antrim can actually pull it off. And thank god. He did it again in The Verificationist, setting himself an even higher bar–not only one night in one room again but with substantially fewer characters. O, also the narrator spends most of the night at the pancake house held in a bear hug.

“Don’t let go of us,” I pleaded to the man holding me. By then I think I realized he had no intention of releasing me, that there was, for Richard as well as for me, something significant–something movingly, vividly pornographic–taking place.

“I love you, Tom,” he whispered…

Yeah, it’s pretty great.

I guess if you had to sum the book up in a rhyming cliche–and you don’t–you’d say it’s about paralysis through analysis, the struggle to comprehend something as volatile as one’s self let alone a wife, a colleague, a past and how more effort leads to fewer results. But it’s silly to reduce the bear hug to such a clear metaphor for our narrator being stuck. That move isn’t about him, it’s about Antrim and what art can do and what it can’t do, which is to say what a mind can do and what a mind can’t do. In the bear hug is life at its deepest and shallowest–striving futilely, comically for something you can imagine but can’t create.

Sooner or later you’ll be set back down in the world and then where will you be?

Comment / Posted in 2013, Donalds, Fiction

Exhibit 26.22

Pynchon on Barthelme & Houston & Himself & Houston

But behind Barthelme’s own slick city-sophisticate disguise still lounged, alarmingly, this good old Dairy Queen regular in some conspicuous hat, around in whose backseat opened containers had been known to roll, harboring the mischievous daydreams of a Texas rounder, not to mention a lengthy stretch of DNA dedicated just to locating and enjoying various highly seasoned pork products. On the principle that you can take the boy out of the country but not vice versa, Houston, Texas, his hometown before New York, must have caused Barthelme some lively internal discomfort over the course of a love-hate affair with the place that went on, it seems, for most of his life. From what I remember of Houston at about that same time, it could have provoked the one emotion just as easily as the other, and in Texas-size quantities, too. The Astrodome was brand new in those days. Air conditioning in the city was ubiquitous. There were schemes afoot to put a dome over part of downtown and air-condition it, creating what today we would call a mall. Entire boulevards were dedicated to churches, side by side, one after another, allowing you to drop the family car in low and actually cruise places of worship. The nearest venue for dope, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll, then as now, was Austin. The new NASA space center out by Buffalo Bayou was hiring heavily, while from the marshlands around it, mosquitoes were busy spreading an encephalitis epidemic. Sir John Barbirolli had fashioned of the Houston symphony an exquisitely first-rate instrument, while teenage musical heresy focused on California surf culture — though the Gulf only had surf during hurricanes, all kinds of kids could still be observed driving around with some stick in some woody, flaunting boards that never caught a wave, as if trying to make it all be California. Anyplace but what it was.

From Pynchon’s introduction to The Teachings of Don B. You can read the entirety of the introduction right here. Highly recommended.

1 Comment / Posted in Donalds, Houston, Thomases

Exhibit 17.23

Royals Season Preview

(I know, I know. You don’t care. I’ll make it up to you. For the moment, just indulge me).

So this was supposed to go up yesterday, but the game in Chicago got preemptively rained/snowed/winded out so I thought I’d hold it back a day. Anyway, I know who to blame.

That’s right, Chicago’s own Tom Berenger:

At night, children in Chicago can still hear him singing.

By the way, if you took the under on the number of Tom Berenger references in the month of April, I’m thinking you lost. Sorry. I’ll now go back to my previous policy of never mentioning anyone from the cast of Major League.

And we’re back to baseball.

So last year my Royals season preview took them seriously enough to say they’d win 78 games (they won 75) but not so seriously that I didn’t spend the entire preview classifying the players based on The Sound and the Fury.

(By the way, Jose Guillen is much more of a Jason than I could have ever imagined. I swear he’s stealing Tony Pena Jr.’s paychecks and Tony is too scared to say anything about it. In Guillen’s defense, it’s not like Tony’s earning those checks either…)

This year, I feel like the team has earned something a little bit better. I don’t know if you noticed, but they finished in 4th place last season. If you don’t follow baseball, you should know that A) that’s out of five and B) it’s a very big deal for a team like the Royals. How big of deal? Well, let’s take a look at the box score of a game I went to in 2002. It was my first baseball game in a long, long time and something about how awful the Royals were that day made me want to start rooting for them again like I did when I was a kid. I mean, look at this kicked puppy of a lineup:

D. Sadler
N. Perez
C. Beltran
M. Sweeney
M. Tucker
R. Ibanez
L. Alicea
B. Mayne
C. Febles

Their leadoff hitter was Donnie Sadler–does anyone know what Donnie Sadler’s career on-base percentage is? It’s .262. In case you don’t know, even a less than ideal leadoff hitter should get on base at a .350 clip (at least). Not only is a .262 on-base percentage nearly unheard of for any regular position player, it’s suicide for a leadoff hitter. Oh, and his career OPS+, a measure of offensive ability, was a stellar 39 (100 is average). Maybe this will help to put it into perspective. That’s an article analyzing the worst leadoff hitters since 1957. Let me summarize it for you: Donnie Sadler, if he led off enough to qualify, would have been the worst and it wouldn’t have been particularly close (Sorry, Ivan DeJesus). Now I know what you’re thinking. Surely he’s fast, right? Nope. 25 career stolen bases over 8 years of irregular major league playing time. Okay, so he must be a defensive wizard at SS, right? Oh…this is the best part:

He was the left fielder!

That’s right, the Royals, in the 14th game of the season, led off the game with a guy who only got on base a quarter of the time. They also started a left fielder–traditionally a place to put one of your best hitters–who would finish his career with a 39 OPS+. And that was the same person! I may have been lying before. This may actually be the best part. The starting pitcher of the opposing team was:

Pedro Martinez!

The same Pedro Martinez who already owned 3 Cy Young awards and would finish 2nd in the voting that year. It goes without saying, the Royals got mowed down. Pedro pitched 8 innings, threw 92 pitches, gave up one hit (not, of course, to the valiant Mr. Sadler), no walks, no runs, and generally acted like he was bored. The Royals got another hit off of a token relief pitcher in the 9th, but it didn’t matter. For my first baseball game in about a decade, I watched my once beloved team throw out 5’6″ Donnie Sadler to lead off against the best pitcher of his generation. I watched them hit two singles. I watched them get shutout in about as lopsided a game as can be played.

I loved it.

It surely says something (not good) about me that if the Royals had trotted out a lineup of stars, destroyed some lesser team, and gone on to win the pennant that year, I probably wouldn’t have cared. But they were awful. I mean just unthinkably terrible, the sort of terrible that there are rules against in other sports. So naturally I started following along through the subsequent 100 loss seasons, the mirage of 2003, and the delayed promise of the Alex Gordon/Billy Butler era. It’s been a tough ride. I don’t need to rehash it all here, but let me just give you this example: for awhile in that stretch, their best pitcher missed a season for psychological reasons and this wasn’t even nearly the worst thing that happened.

Now for the first time since 2002, the Royals are actually poised to take a leap. They won’t win the division, but it’s not inconceivable this year. Gordon and Butler seem ready to make good on at least some of their promise, Greinke and Soria are locked up and ready to cement themselves as two of the best in the American League, and even Mark Teahen seems like he’s going to make this 2nd base thing work. Hell, even Kevin Seitzer is back as the hitting coach.

So it’s a good time to be a Royals fan, they’re just good and young enough to make you think they might finally do something but not so good that anyone can really know. That’s why I’m excited for this season. They could win 70 games. They could win 90 games. I really have no idea. I’ll hedge my bets and say 80, a 3rd place finish with Greinke and Soria going to the All-Star Game, Gordon leading the team in HR, and Jose Guillen punching at least one fan.

Here’s my best prediction: Donnie Sadler will not be in the lineup.

That should count as one win right there.

(In case it seems like I’m picking on Donald, let me say two things: 1. it’s not his fault the Royals used him in this way and 2. he really battled against Pedro, taking more pitches than any other Royal).

2 Comments / Posted in Baseball, Donalds, Seitzers

Exhibit 16.25

The Hundred Brothers

This is the first Donald Antrim novel I’ve ever read which is problematic as it isn’t really a novel. Or, at the least, it’s not what we often think of as a novel which is why it’s such a good novel.

(Look, that’s just the way this post is going to go).

This is a book that the worst kind of reviews–like the one you’re reading, for instance–would call a highwire act. 99 characters, one room, one night, no chapters, 200 pages. It might not sound that difficult, but when I realized the restraints Antrim was working with, I started to worry. Up to that point the book had been names and physical comedy and enough buttoned-up aristocratic absurdity to keep things moving. It was at page 20 I realized the entire book was to be names and physical comedy and enough buttoned-up, aristocratic absurdity to keep things moving. Mercifully, the buttons eventually come off, but Antrim is masterful at holding it off until just the right moment. We know something is horribly wrong with the world inside the room, but we don’t know quite what until the end and, even then, maybe not.

99 brothers (one is missing) come to the library of their father’s house to find Dad’s ashes and give the old man a proper burial. They congregate in the mansion’s massive red library where they do just about everything but read (unless it’s Victorian-era pornography) or look for their father’s ashes (no one can remember what the urn looks like). Despite the premise, the sheer volume of brothers keeps us from knowing all but a few as characters. Mostly they are names with horrible flaws, an entomologist who puts his beetles on the dinner table, an anthropologist taking a drug he found in South America. The rest are simply names used to describe the chaos they are enacting in the decrepit library. A football game is played. A massive fire is started. Most of the brothers end up injured in one calamity or another.

The reader only really knows the narrator, Doug–the family genealogist and what we believe to be the most normal brother–and even then he surprises us when he throws himself at the feet of Hiram, who at 90+ is the eldest brother, and refuses to let go. From that point forward it’s simply a matter of waiting for the other shoe–or, in this case, the library ceiling–to drop. As Doug becomes less and less reliable and the gathering of brother spends out of control, it’s clear there’s no safety net for Antrim, that his book is not the result of some Oulipo rulemaking but is instead exactly the book he wanted to write. Chapters would ruin this book. Plot would ruin this book. Not because the premise is fantastical or absurd–plenty of books with those characteristics have such things–or because it aims for language games–the prose here is good, spare–but because rather than exalting the author’s cleverness, it’s a book meant to be read as if there were no author. It’s a novel of fever.

We’re so close to Doug that by the time we realize his flaws we’re already sympathetic to his plight. The library is an excruciating place to be both for him and the reader. It’s hard to overstate the impact of reading petty nihilisms and not being able to do anything about it. We might gleefully read about a nuclear bomb destroying Brussels, never batting an eye, but Antrim’s book picks at our most human wounds. It’s the kind of book a reader wants to shake because no one is putting down coasters. And it’s not because we care about fictional water stains–though someone probably does–but because it’s clear that these petty niceties are there to protect us from ourselves. Once they begin to slip away in the library, we know it’s only a matter of time before someone really gets hurt.

This is why the book works. You can’t end a chapter with a brother breaking a footstool and expect anyone to hold their breath until they turn the page. Chapter breaks would give us exactly what we most want–the ability to yell STOP–which is of course exactly what we least need. It’s a amazing how much losing any white space does to change the way a book gets read. Suddenly it’s a sprint, and Antrim is right there with us to make sure we keep going faster until suddenly we can’t keep up. It takes a stunning amount of control yet, when done well as it is here, we never get to see who’s pulling the strings. Like the dead father who has caused the brothers so much anguish, the author is leaving the people in the library to their work. It’s refreshing to read a book that feels so damn modern while eschewing any sort of textual or meta games that draw attention to the works own creation. Of course, this book is now over a decade old so maybe it’s more of its time than I know.

In any case, it makes for a book that’s surprising even though we know the twists. We might be able to guess how it ends, but we can’t guess what it means until we get there. It’s at those moments where the book works best, taking entropy and making it tragic, unstoppable, damning. We know the consequences, but we still want to see ourselves in ruins.

2 Comments / Posted in Books, Donalds, Fiction