The Verificationist by David Antrim '81 (Alfred A. Knopf, 192 pages, $21).
BY SAMANTHA GILLISON '89
IDonald Antrim’s new novel concerns a psychologist who has a nervous breakdown over dinner at a pancake restaurant. Sad, funny, and marvelously surreal, The Verificationist introduces us to Tom, a seemingly genial therapist whose research theories focus on “reality and its dissolution through polite social conversation.” Tom’s been edgy lately about his relationships with co-workers and with his wife, Jane, who has been lobbying to have a baby. Despite his experience dealing with emotions or perhaps because of it he can’t stop himself from collapsing into a psychotic breakdown. Or rather, flying into it: Tom’s breakdown begins when he feels himself floating up to the ceiling of the restaurant where only moments earlier he’s been eating blueberry pancakes.
Donald Antrim’s playfully cerebral storytelling, which last year was noted in the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” Summer Fiction issue (along with Rick Moody ’83, Edwidge Danticat ’93 M.F.A., and Jeffrey Eugenides ’83), has been compared to that of Thomas Pynchon and William Gass. While Antrim uses traditional punctuation in The Verificationist, his third novel, there are no chapters and few reliable markers of time. The story never leaves Tom’s neurotic, stream-of-consciousness point of view; we experience his breakdown in real time. It’s a horrifying, claustrophobic thrill to watch a man who understands exactly what is going wrong with him slowly collapse.
Antrim’s plot is simple. Tom has invited a group of fellow psychologists from the prestigious Krakower Institute for a working dinner at the local pancake house. When Tom playfully starts a food fight with another table of psychologists, his irritated coworker, Richard Bernhardt, tells him to knock it off. Tom is surly in his reply, so Bernhardt grabs him from behind and locks him in a bear hug. This physically aggressive gesture and the surprising pleasure it brings upset Tom so much that he falls into a disassociative hallucination that lasts through the rest of the novel and culminates in his being taken to the hospital.
In his delusional state, Tom believes he has floated up to the top of the pancake house and, supported by Richard’s restraining bear hug, is flying around the restaurant. He also believes that Richard is sexually aroused by him; he comments repeatedly on his coworker’s erection prodding his back. From Tom’s odd vantage point on the ceiling, he reflects at length on his wife and colleagues, whom he observes as they eat, drink, flirt, plot, and despair beneath him.
Tom, like many heroes in Western literature, broods over his existence. And befitting a psychoanalyst lost in his own mental-health crisis, he goes into excruciating detail. Though perhaps not the most reliable narrator he is, after all, delusional Tom appears to be an acutely perceptive therapist who, like many intelligent and emotionally fragile people, seems to understand everyone but himself.
We see Tom in all his un-glory: he’s childish, selfish, and frightened, driven to collapse when another man’s embrace nudges his latent sexual desires a bit too close to the surface. While we don’t completely trust Tom’s observations, we do understand what they reveal about his troubled soul. He is haunted by what he sees as his inadequacy in work and in marriage. He feels especially guilty about the baby Jane wants and he doesn’t. “Why am I so afraid of children?” he wonders. “Is it because I want to be the child? I want to be the child!”
There is perhaps within The Verificationist an homage to the nineteenth-century Austrian doctor Daniel Schreber, whose book, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, was considered by Freud to be a model of psychotic thought. Freud analyzed the book and, like readers of The Verificationist, understood the symptoms of a scientific man’s mental distress better than the protagonist did. Freud saw buried beneath Schreber’s scientific jargon a man’s sorrow, anger, and suppressed homosexual urges.
Yet The Verificationist is hardly a grim book. Antrim’s signature farcical humor sometimes strays into slapstick but relies mostly on intellectual plays on words and ideas. When Tom picks up a handful of cinnamon toast to throw at a neighboring table of psychologists, one colleague comments, “Thomas embraces a revolutionary spirit in his work. . . Let him hurl these pieces of toast like new and radical ideas that must be cast into the world. Pieces of toast like angry children who will hit us and upset us and change our ways of thinking and feeling.” Like Woody Allen, Antrim makes us laugh by pointing out the absurdities inherent in psychoanalysis. And while Tom is much more disturbed than any on-screen persona Allen has ever presented, there is a similar esthetic between The Verificationist and many of Allen’s films, right down to the fixation on nubile young girls.
Toward the end of the book, Tom induces Rebecca, a teen dream of a waitress at the pancake house, to come fly around the ceiling with him. He is captivated by her beauty and youth and the promise of escape that she embodies. Of course, we aren’t sure if Tom has really spoken to her or if she has just been transposed into his increasingly weird fantasy. Tom fixates on a mole on Rebecca’s neck that he somehow believes is the dog from the famous Brueghel painting, A Woodland Road with Travelers. In the painting, the dog peers back at the road the travelers have just come along, “toward unseen things that have been abandoned or lost in the recent past,” Antrim writes. It is Rebecca and her mole that come to symbolize the kind of life that has slipped through Tom’s fingers.
After an elaborate scene in which he and Rebecca float out of the restaurant to a Revolutionary War site and then return to the pancake house, Tom’s delusions grow less pleasurable and more dreadful. It’s as though he himself were descending into a nightmarish Brueghel landscape. Poor Tom; the end of his road, it seems, is now in sight.
Samantha Gillison is the author of The Undiscovered Country.
REDNECK IN THE RAINBOW
Fresh voices in a divisive debate.
Friends and Family: True Stories of Gay America's Straight Allies by Dan Woog '75 (Alyson Publications, 324 pages, $13.95).
BY MICHAEL PAULSON '94
The debate over equal rights for gays in the United States is an issue that refuses to go away, but the issue often seems trapped in repetitive strains of reactionary political rhetoric. Recent developments, such as the decision by the Vermont legislature to recognize same-sex marriages and secure health benefits for partners, has kept the issue in the headlines. But debate on gay issues is always polarized: pro-gay and anti-gay forces lob invective at one another from deeply entrenched bunkers.
Dan Woog is a staunch advocate for gay rights. The author of two nonfiction books on the subject, Jocks and School’s Out, for years he has led workshops on gay and lesbian issues and talked to students about tolerance and his own experience growing up gay. (By way of disclosure, I have known Woog since 1993, when he offered me information about freelance writing and encouraged me to continue my own work.)
In his latest book, Friends and Family: True Stories of Gay America’s Straight Allies, Woog offers a refreshing change from the polemics of battle. The book focuses on the personal stories of people habitually ignored in this campaign: the straight allies of gay-rights activists. This collection of thirty-four true stories based mainly on interviews with the central figures provides a valuable introduction to the grassroots role heterosexuals have played in the quest for gay rights.
In several of these stories, personal tragedy provides the catalyst for change. AIDS fatalities and suicides spur surviving parents, siblings, and friends to combat ignorance, share a message of love and acceptance, and work in their cities, towns, and states to overturn discriminatory legislation. While the expected bastions of gay discrimination materialize in Woog’s book the U.S. military and schools, to name two he also takes us into the American heartland, where homophobia can thrive amid farming communities and Midwestern values. Some of the allies are surprising champions of gay rights: a Portland police chief, for example, learns that his daughter, also a police officer, is a lesbian; and Doyle Criswell, a self-proclaimed redneck from rural North Carolina, undergoes a change of heart after his son dies of AIDS. Each person has been influenced by a particular set of circumstances, and each story reflects the diversity of roads that can lead to the same conviction.
An ecumenical thread also runs through Friends and Family. Jews, Mormons, Catholics, and a cross-section of Protestants confront their religious homophobia. The stories of tolerant clergy and lay people are a welcome counterbalance to the Scripture-based fulminations emanating from prominent anti-gay groups. Only two chapters of the book, however, center on people of color, and the absence is noticeable in a work that otherwise presents a diverse spectrum of social and economic classes. Perhaps Woog thought the twin stigmata of race and sexuality were too much to handle in a single volume.
Written in a straightforward style that is free of statistical models and theoretical abstractions, Friends and Family is meant for a general audience. Woog’s narratives flow quickly and fluidly. He weaves background information into his interviews, and provides sufficient context for each chapter. The stories might lack celebrities or the stuff of screenplays, but it is precisely this unsung quality that makes the book a valuable resource. Friends and Family illuminates a too-often overlooked facet of the gay-rights movement. It moves the cause forward by demonstrating that everyday collaborations can lead to the acknowledgement of the civil rights of all Americans.
Michael Paulson is a graduate student in creative writing at Penn State University.