About a Blurb
February 01 09
A friend recently made me a gift of The Afterlife by Donald Antrim. It's a good book. Antrim offers a painfully restrained and methodical portrait of his family, touching precisely for its lack of sentimentality, the way a Dardennes brothers movie is touching, or a novel by Henry Green: that is to say, in the manner of artists who have understood that a document or an artefact, the "round, unvarnished tale", offers its own emotional potential. While the book could have stood some editing to remove repetitions that arose from originally being a collection of articles, it is without question a good memoir, successful because Antrim is thoughtful, objective, and unsparing - even of himself.
How then to explain this explosive passage on the cover, quoted from a review in the Guardian: "Think Virginia Woolf stoned, Faulkner on acid, Nabokov on speed..."? It's not that the blurb compares Antrim's quite conventional non-fiction to experimental modernist fiction - the intention is clearly to survey the experience of reading rather than to categorise the work - it's that the experience and its description are so different they could be unrelated.
Many of the people Antrim writes about in The Afterlife are drunk or on drugs, but the style of this work is not a "drugged" style, by which I mean that to discuss intoxication is not necessarily to work in the subjective manner of the intoxicated. Put aside for the moment the fact that different drugs offer different encounters, that a book somehow comparable to modernism on acid should be very different, theoretically, to one that evokes modernism on speed. Instead, think simply of intoxication: the increased subjectivity, the altered association with the external.
Now set Antrim by Faulkner: both writers are Southern, and they share a focussed concern with family history, albeit at different removes. Besides that, it seems difficult to place The Afterlife in the same genus as a work by Faulkner.
The styles are particularly dissimilar. This section of a paragraph (I stopped transcribing at the first period I encountered) is chosen at random from Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!:
And she (Miss Coldfield) had on the shawl, as he had known she would, and the bonnet (black once but faded now to the fierce muted metallic green of old peacock feathers) and the black reticule almost as large as a carpet-bag containing all the keys which the house possessed, cupboard closet and door, some of which would not even turn in locks which, shot home, could be solved by any child with a hairpin or a wad of chewing gum, some of which no longer even fitted the locks they had been made for like old married people who no longer have anything in common, to do or to talk about, save the same general weight of air to displace and breathe and general obvious binding earth to bear their weight-That evening, the twelve miles behind the fat mare in the moonless September dust, the trees along the road not rising soaring as trees should but squatting like huge fowl, their leaves ruffled and heavily separate like the feathers of panting fowls, heavy with sixty days of dust, the roadside undergrowth coated with heat-vulcanized dust and, seen through the dustcloud in which the horse and buggy moved, appeared like masses straining delicate and rigid and immobly upward at perpendicular's absolute in some dead volcanic water refined to the oxygenless first principle of liquid, the dustcloud in which the buggy moved not blowing away because it had been raised by no wind and was supported by no air but evoked, materialized about them, instantaneous and eternal, cubic foot for cubic foot of dust to cubic foot for cubic foot of horse and buggy, peripatetic beneath the branch-shredded vistas of flat black fiercely and heavily starred sky, the dustcloud moving on, enclosing them with not threat exactly but maybe warning, bland, almost friendly, warning, as if to say, Come on if you like. (Pages 174-175; 1964, New York: Random House.)
Here we have the experience, not the topic, of intoxication: the subjectivity, the disparate obsessions (with locks and poultry, for example - everyone has to take his own trip), the meandering near-incoherence that is nevertheless fixated. Anyone can recognise this: simply to read it is to grow woozy. The effect is perhaps not surprising. Faulkner was intoxicated much of the time, even if not (always) specifically while writing. The brilliance of his work lies to a great extent in creating and sustaining the convincing otherworldly atmosphere such a passage exhibits.
Compare this with a paragraph, also chosen at random, from The Afterlife:
I visited the shop in 1993. I was thirty-five. Ten years had passed since my mother's last alcoholic collapse. My father was living with his new wife in southwest Miami. My sister had moved far away from South Florida to the Pacific Northwest and begun her own family. And I was living alone in Brooklyn. My mother, with help from the insurance company and her father, had relocated from a condominium that had been torn apart by Hurricane Andrew, the year before, to a one-bedroom apartment with partial views of the Miami River. And she had opened a shop. Its name was Peace Goods. (Page 102.)
Alcoholism is mentioned, but the approach is sober, accurate, explicative - "just the facts, ma'am" - and, finally, it is the accrual of "just the facts" that will give The Afterlife its power. If there is any larger conclusion to be drawn from The Afterlife, it is not that modernism has gone wild, dropped a tab or done a line. It could perhaps be argued instead that the "information age" has given us (whether necessitated or engendered is the central question) a new method of making emotional judgements based precisely on the calm, disciplined presentation and accumulation of data, autobiography gone digital: all ones and zeros, no half-steps and no excess. To examine such an idea would be the basis of a fantastic review, but it would probably engender no blurbs - few publishers are likely to quote "Think Virginia Woolf using a spreadsheet".
This does not, cannot, make you think of Faulkner on acid: on any drugs, in fact. A comparison with Nabokov or Woolf will offer as little evidence of writing (or reading) under the influence. Clearly, the reviewer has written something not objectively accurate - except that this is not the case: anyone reading the review will notice immediately that the quote has been taken greatly out of context. Antrim's previous books - three works of fiction - are compared to a drug experience specifically in order to contrast them with the tone of The Afterlife. Whether you approve the description "Faulkner on acid" in and of itself, it was specifically not written to describe the book for which it has been used as advertising.
This surely seems like a lot to say about a single line from the cover of a deserving book, but reviews and reviewers are important. They help focus the lens of our culture, drive the public debate, influence sales. When their work is used carelessly or even deceptively, the whole endeavour threatens to leave all of us staring, as a group, in the wrong direction. Now and again it is worthwhile to take a longer look, to examine exactly what we have been shown.