Winter/Spring 2001Volume II Issue I

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portal to our archives

from the editors

failbetter presents

who we are & how to submit


Donald Antrim 
debuted upon the literary scene with his novel 

Buy a copy!

© Penguin Books

Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World, ...

His second novel,

 Hundred Brothers... order a copy from Amazon

© Random House

The Hundred Brothers was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award. 

 Antrim's latest novel, soon to be released in paperback, is 

© Random House

The Verificationist

Of it, The New York Times Book Review lauds: "It's a book that clatters and whirls like a Rube Goldberg device, spitting out, on every page, perfectly formed pellets of intellection, rude humor, grief and longing."

"Antrim's novels are so hilariously inventive," says Kirkus Reviews, "so audacious, and so full of unique blend of ideas and pratfalls that it's hard to find another contemporary writer to compare him to: Pynchon on lithium?  Barthelme on laughing gas?"


Author Annie Proulx proclaims, "Antrim is that rarest of birds, a virtuoso satirist.  In The Verificationist he plays the banal against the grotesque, sets a fool's reductionist logic grinding like a tiny wheel against the ceiling of a pancake house, finally opens the exit to the void.  Antrim's extraordinary imagination has invited comparison of his work with that of Italo Calvino, but Antrim has a sharper razor, a diamond eye drilling our culture and time.  In Antrim's pinball machine the reader ricochets from intellectual pleasure to anxiety to nervous laughter."

























 If you liked this interview, check out failbetter's interview with Michael Chabon

CLick Here For Chabon Interview

© Random House

 in our Fall/Winter 2000 Issue


with Donald Antrim

Donald Antrim's most recent novel, The Verificationist, is yet another step upon the bold literary path that Mr. Antrim is making for himself.  Satire, invention, intelligence, heart: these are the elements that Antrim utilizes to stand apart from the norm in American fiction.  It is a strange myth and one strangely familiar that he has weaved since his debut, Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World.  Neighborhood, home, and even the local pancake house are twisted and inverted and presented inside-out, giving us a fresh vision of  what is daily overlooked.  Mr. Antrim was kind enough to grant failbetter the following interview, which sheds some light on his dark and humorous world.  At a reading for your most recent book, The Verificationist, you were asked several questions which seemed more like statements, personal interpretations of your work. In the same vein, the few interviews that you have done are filled with more literary explanations and interpretations by the interviewer, rather than by yourself. How do you explain this? Do you find such interpretations flattering? Or do you ever find yourself openly asking: Really, is that what I meant?

Donald Antrim:  Questions about interpretations are never easy to answer.  Often, when I am asked about one or another of the books—in an interview or even in casual conversation—I have the sense that I am being asked to address or, possibly, support some vision of the work.  Occasionally this vision, or interpretation, is a surprising one.  There's not much I can do except nod my head.  If I understand your question, though, you're asking about something other than the nature of interpretations.  Is there something about these books, something which encourages people to wonder about the author's intentions?  This must be so.  To some extent, the novels function as fantasies.  They're not complete fantasies; and they may not, in the end, be truly fantastical at all.  But they are dystopic—they're like little, localized, psychological dytopias, in which bad things happen in funny ways that are mainly governed by rules inherent in the books themselves, rather than by the rules that might apply in our more normative-seeming, day-to-day lives.  Might this open the books up to questions about their meaning, or about my likely intentions?  My real intention is for them to be deeply enjoyable to read.  Perhaps part of the enjoyment, for anyone inclined to have fun with these books, is found in the state of mind in which the meanings of things remain ambiguous.  With regard to your latest novel, would you care to elaborate on the therapeutic value of the pancake? More specifically, what were the origins of your inspiration?

Donald Antrim:  One day when I was about halfway through the previous novel, The Hundred Brothers, the first sentence of The Verificationist—"The pancake suppers were my idea"—came to me, and I wrote it down and filed it away.  A year or so went by.  I'd wanted to write something using psychoanalytic material, and when, after finishing The Hundred Brothers, I came back to that first sentence, I either decided or simply realized—or maybe I had decided this sometime earlier—that these were the words of a clinical psychotherapist.  More than that I did not, I think, know.  As to the therapeutic value of the pancake, this topic is explored at ridiculous length in the novel.  In all three of your books, there is a similar sense of structure and story setting. When it comes to structure, for example, your novels do not have any chapters or section breaks. Your settings—a neighborhood, a household, a pancake house—are both very American and ideal for character interaction. Are these similarities solely stylistic, or do they imply a vision you have for the body of your work?

Donald Antrim:  When  I began Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, I set out a few basic rules for myself. One was that there would be no chapter breaks.  This meant, for me, that all narrative action would have to grow directly out of itself; even a shift in time or place would occur as a function of the narrator's continuous, unbroken report.  This rule, I felt, was really a rule about a certain kind of logic, or about the growth of a logic that is produced through the narrator's voice, his psychology, and which comes to determine the kind of things that can and cannot happen as the story proceeds, as events pile up and the relationship between the characters acquire their own histories.  And the lack of chapters forces a kind of compression; and, given the compression, I felt that there might be an ideal length for the books—short.  As for the settings, it is true that they function as gathering places for large numbers of characters.  Everything in these books—the odd or improbable settings, the large, social groupings, and so on—is done for my pleasure and mental health, and for the pleasure and mental health of the reader.  To me, these books are like card houses.  They hold themselves together.  Their locales are useful and enjoyable to me, and while the books' various ingredients certainly have meaning for me—atavistic, private meaning—these elements are not necessarily chosen for their satiric or extraliterary value, or because they argue for some larger vision for future work.  I don't have anything mapped out.  Your recent essay on influences in The New Yorker is a departure from the dark humor of your fiction to the dark realities of your growing up—specifically the relationship between you and your family. Can you tell us—if at all—how your childhood and family affected the writing of your novels?

Donald Antrim:  Aspects of my childhood are incompletely described in the three published novels.  This description of childhood remains hidden in metaphor. I imagine that, as time goes on, this is how things will remain—mostly.  The piece for The New Yorker was an experiment.  I wanted to find out how it might feel to do something like this.  I imagine I'll write more along these lines.  Maybe, because of the lack of metaphor, the piece seems naked and direct in a way that the novels do not.  However, I suspect the novels may have more to offer, as complete works, than anything along the lines of memoir.  The memoir creates the impression of immediate identification between author and reader, particularly if it—the memoir—declares itself to be a confession of, or a testament to, something felt by the reader to be, on the one hand, universally experienced, and, on the other, intensely private and subjective.  But I wonder what our empathic identifications with autobiographers say about our relationships with books.  Do we read to encounter ourselves?  Am I a reliable reporter on my own life?  I don't know that I am.  As to how my family affected my writing—that's what I'm writing to find out.  Even for an acclaimed author who has been grouped among the "Top 20 Writers of the 21st Century," your work has, on rare occasions, been criticized by reviewers.  Do you read such reviews? If not, does feedback even matter once your work goes public?  Do you receive feedback during the writing process itself?

Donald Antrim:  I get a little feedback while I'm writing, especially during the early stages in a project.  The Marines have a few good men, I have a few good readers.  I seem to need a lot of reassurance that this or that idea is not too crazy or unwieldy—then, after a while, and after a certain point, maybe ten or twenty or thirty pages in, the story or novel becomes real to me.  It is as if the narrative acquires potential weight and solidity.  Reviews are another matter.  I say I don't read them, and for the most part I don't, and yet I do read a few, here and there.  The really bad ones I stay away from.  Unread bad reviews are little more than mild spanks in the hazing ritual around the publication of the brand new book.  The more you read reviews, the more important they become.  Unread, they remain what they are: book reviews.  Do you focus on one project at a time, or do you have future projects always brewing? Can you give us any forecast of what you have in the works?

Donald Antrim:  One at a time. I like the feeling I get if I have an idea for something to do in the future—this makes me feel safe.  When I'm working on something, my whole life seems better.  Unfortunately, I never have very many ideas. In fact, I never have ideas at all, in the sense that people usually mean when they talk about ideas.  An idea, for me, might be:  A book that starts out at a pancake supper.  Or:  A book about a lot of brothers. I generally start somewhere and hope for the best.  Recently, I've startled something new, and I can't say exactly what it is.  I'm hoping for the best