Post Road Magazine #14

Donald Antrims' The Afterlife

Laurie Foos

How do we recommend a book that’s haunted us? Do we simply say, “Go out and buy this book. It haunted me,” as if we are assuming that the act of being haunted is, in fact, a good thing? I’ve mulled this over again and again each time I’ve recommended Donald Antrim’s memoir, The Afterlife, and yet this is what I come up with every time: Go and buy this book. It haunted me.

And yes, I do think being haunted is a good thing.

There are a few writers whose next books we wait for, and for me, Donald Antrim is one. I remember first hearing about his memoir, The Afterlife, through a friend after reading one of the essays included in it in the New Yorker. I remember being intrigued by the way he’d handle nonfiction when his previous novels, all of them stellar, had such surreal premises (a man spends an entire evening having a disembodied experience in a pancake house in The Verificationist; ninety-nine brothers gather to decide how to dispose of their father’s ashes—one brother ismissing—in The Hundred Brothers). I also remember wondering whether the memoir would reveal, even in some small way, why he writes in a surreal vein and whether—and how much—he might examine his own roots as a writer.

I’m not sure whether my questions were answered, but I do know that The Afterlife manages to be as strange, dark, funny, and absurd as any of his fine novels. A series of essays, many of them having first appeared in the New Yorker, the memoir focuses on Antrim’s relationship with his alcoholic mother and on his role as “her man.” In an overtly oedipal essay, which disturbed me for days after I’d read it in the New Yorker and then again when I read it in the memoir, Antrim details, painstakingly and almost stoically so, the act of buying a mattress after his mother’s death from cancer. Parts of the story of Antrim’s buying the mattress are hilarious (he longs to “do some fucking and be free of that woman” and struggles over which is best, pillow top or firm), while others are eerie (he comes to see the mattress as his mother, trying to suck him down into death with her). The underlying question Antrim asks, with such deadpan poignancy is whether freedom for any child of an alcoholic is ever possible.

In other essays Antrim examines other members of the family—his uncle Eldredge, who stops just short of molesting the young Donald—as well as the men who drift in and out of his mother Louanne’s life. (Antrim, like both a lover and a disinterested party, always refers to his mother by her first name.) One of these men is S., the boyfriend of Louanne and himself a recovering alcoholic, who is convinced that a painting he acquired is a da Vinci. Many of the essays take on a Kafkaesque quality, as when we watch S. search obsessively to “authenticate” a painting and then just as suddenly drop his quest. Antrim also describes the bizarre, outlandish clothing that Louanne creates and how she sees herself as an artist, though it is clear both to Antrim and to the reader that these thoughts are delusional.One such garment is a kimono, which becomes a metaphor for the wrecked conglomeration of Louanne’s life, “a garment [he] often [sees] whenever [he talks] to [his] dead mother.”

Part of what makes this memoir so compelling—and to use my earlier word, “haunting”—is that Antrim uses none of what we think of as the conventions of the memoir. There are few details of Antrim’s life, save for the occasional reference to a college he attended, books he read as an adolescent, a girlfriend here or there, and any musings we get from the author are delivered dispassionately. This is not surprising, coming from a writer whose novels are marked by absurd but matter-of-fact happenings and deadpan humor, but to employ this technique in a memoir, essentially to eliminate the practice of self-examination, and still manage to reveal so much—I can think of no better compliment for a writer.

The Afterlife is filled with pain, rage, and most of all, loss. At one point late in the memoir, after detailing the ravages of cancer that Louanne endured, as well as the shame and guilt that she inflicted on her son, Antrim reflects on the nature of life as the adult son of an abusive alcoholic, a woman he has yearned to be free of and of whom he also cannot let go. “What happens,” he asks, “when the ordeal of abandonment is . . . life itself?”

It’s a question that continues to linger, haunting me. And I expect that itmight continue to do so, even as I wait for Antrim’s next book. 

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