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

Comments

  1. Dusty says:

    Okay you win. Your baiting has got me commenting on your blog. It’s sad, really, that you need to write a whole “book review” just for an excuse to call me a faggot.

    Laying down coasters to protect a wood’s finish from water damage isn’t pathetic, prissy behavior, it’s called taking care of things. It used to be a virtue. I’m sure Antrim never laid a coaster down in his life, and I’m sure his furniture looked like shit, and I’m sure he was known by visitors as a genius because of it.

    Such is the way of the world.

    (I suppose I have to mention that my Blogger-comment word-verification word right now is “prate”.)

  2. A. Peterson says:

    It’s sad that you had to comment just to give away my old email address.

    And yes, that was shameless Dusty Myers baiting. Although in my defense, you did put a coaster under my drink less than a week ago.

    And I’m glad.

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