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The Afterlife by Donald Antrim
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The Afterlife

by Donald Antrim

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I thought, at first, that “The Afterlife” would be one of those memoirs of a dysfunctional childhood that, while dark and deeply disturbing, also provided humorous moments…ala “Running With Scissors”. (I think, for some reason, that this impression came from the cover photo of the author’s mother…smiling and looking down at the title of the book. But wait, isn’t there some adage about a book and its cover…?)

“The Afterlife” dances right up to the humor line but never crosses. This section about his quest for a bed comes the closest:

“I saw the crated bed by the door. I saw the sunlight coming through the windows. I saw myself standing there seeing these things. I was a man whose need for love and sympathy had led him to telephone a Swedish executive in the middle of the morning. Perhaps, at some point, the story of my mother and the bed becomes the story of my mother and father, the story that remains to be told, the story, you could say, of the queen versus the king.

The bed went away. I let it go. R was right. I could get another bed later. I stood in my empty room. In place of the bed was – shame? In place of the bed was a question – a question that is at once too simple and too complicated to answer.”

But in every memory, there is too much genuine pain, confusion and love behind the author’s words to find these stories funny. The raw emotion, the way Antrim is still questioning every emotion or thought he has/had about his mother, comes through every line, almost every word. His life is still tied up in hers, and in the end of her life. He is still unable to clearly define their relationship. Were they mother and son, or was theirs a more Oedipal relationship, or were they similar artistic souls…or? He is very critical of her at times, being too embarrassed of her to go out in public together, and then will flip to the fiercest kind of protective love.

“And when in the deep of the night my mother came into my room swaying, half conscious and with grey smoke from her cigarette wreathing her face, shattered by bourbon and white wine; and when she raised her hand to strike, and I easily batted her arm back, then stepped forward and quickly steadied her before she tipped…”

and also, “You may learn, too, as a defense against the absurd disappointments caused by fragile and unhappy parents, the crude art of sarcasm.”

and later, “I found myself repeatedly subjecting K. to antagonistic appraisals of my mother’s cultivation of fantasy. When K. went along with my negative assessments, I turned the tables on her and rushed to my mother’s defense.”

One of my favorite aspects of the book was Antrim’s acknowledgement of the vagaries of time and memory. So many things from our past seem so clear and indisputable…and yet when described to other people, those certainties start to break apart like a fragile web. He is constantly starting into a description of an event…and then second guessing himself…which for me, makes the memory all the more real. The past, tempered by time and by who we are in the present.

I liked, or certainly appreciated this book, but felt at times that it was too raw, too personal for me to be reading. Antrim’s thoughts seem so real, so genuine…that I almost felt like I was trespassing in his mind. Any memory involving his mother invoked my pity, and empathy.

The book does, though, give glimpses of other relationships, ones that are easier to read, ones that have the gentle patina of time…not colored by pain.

“Nonetheless I was attracted by my grandfather’s patience, by the care he took with this broken house. It wasn’t that I suddenly understood the value in a job well done. Far from it. It was that for a moment – a romantic moment destined to resonate and grow in magnitude over the years – I hoped (and this may have been a fantasy that I wanted to have about the man) that my grandfather had something to pass on to me, to teach me.”

At the end of the book, it is even clearer than at the beginning, that the author has not resolved his feeling towards his mother in the writing of this book. Far from it – the wellspring of emotion seems even stronger. I hope, for his sake, that further reflection or writing, helps.

“Near her life’s close, I lost the fortitude, the ability, the heart to be with my mother. For a time, I referred to her, in thought and in conversation with others, not as my mother but as Louanne….In thinking of her as Louanne, I pretended to an objectivity of perspective that I did not, nor will ever, possess, and, in doing so, I pretended to myself that the coming loss of her would not hurt, and in the absence of suffering I would go forward, a free man.”

Going back to old adages…one can only hope that the one about Time and old wounds proves true. ( )
1 vote karieh | Mar 7, 2008 |
Not as good as the review I read portended. Boring, with an I-don't-care element at times. ( )
  lollygag | Apr 22, 2007 |
I read a review of The Afterlife in the NYRB a couple months ago which set me scurrying to acquire Donald Antrim's entire catalog. I wanted to read this memoir so lavishly praised in my favorite periodical, but thought I should check out his novels first. Though fabulously written and often hilarious, there was a too pungent whiff of graduate creative writing program exercises about those books--something artificial and contrived marred the at-times scintillating imagination manifest in the text.

The Afterlife, however, is a magnificent success. Antrim's portrait of his mother attempts to get at her via multiple threads--he understands there's no such isolate entity as a "person," but only a Jamesian network of relations and perceptions involving primarily Antrim himself. He understands that a character portrait is exceedingly difficult, but moreso when attempted on an intimate relation of a mother's status, and that any portrait of her done by him must by necessity be a self-portrait too. Fine filaments of narrative line wind round and round the central subjects whose essences are best caught in a web of impressions.

Many of these impressions are distinctly unpleasant, others attain an aching beauty. Therein lies our existential paradox. The Afterlife is a very compassionate, honest book which exemplifies The Master's teaching: There is one point at which the moral sense and the artistic sense lie very near together; that is, in the light of the very obvious truth that the deepest quality of a work of art will always be the quality of the mind of the producer.

One gets the sense that Antrim has exorcised mighty demons with his small book. Where he goes next intrigues. ( )
3 vote ggodfrey | Aug 3, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374299617, Hardcover)

From "a  fiercely intelligent writer" (The New York Times), a wry, poignant story of the difficult love between a mother and a son
 
In the winter of 2000, shortly after his mother’s death from cancer and malnourishment, Donald Antrim, author of the absurdist, visionary masterworks Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist, began writing about his family. In pieces that appeared in The New Yorker and were anthologized in Best American Essays, Antrim explored
his intense and complicated relationships with his mother, Louanne, an artist and teacher who was, at her worst, a ferociously destabilized and destabilizing alcoholic; his gentle grandfather, who lived in the mountains of North Carolina and who always hoped to save his daughter from herself; and his father, who married Louanne twice.

The Afterlife is not a temporally linear coming-of-age memoir; instead, Antrim follows a logic of unconscious life, of dreams and memories, of fantasies and psychoses, the way in which the world of the alcoholic becomes a sleepless, atemporal world. In it, he comes to terms with—and fails to comes to terms with—the nature of addiction and the broken states of loneliness, shame, and loss that remain beyond his power to fully repair. This is a tender and even blackly hilarious portrait of a family—faulty, cracked, enraging. It is also the story of the way the author works, in part through writing this book, to become a man more fully alive to himself and to others, a man capable of a life in which he may never learn, or ever hope to know, the nature of his origins.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:49 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"In the winter of 2000, shortly after his mother's death, Donald Antrim, author of the absurdist, visionary masterworks Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers, and The Verificationist, began writing about his family. In pieces that appeared in The New Yorker and were anthologized in Best American Essays, Antrim explored his intense and complicated relationships with his mother, Louanne, an artist and teacher who was, at her worst, a ferociously destabilized and destabilizing alcoholic; his gentle grandfather, who lived in the mountains of North Carolina and who always hoped to save his daughter from herself; and his father, who married his mother twice." "The Afterlife is not a temporally linear coming-of-age memoir; instead, Antrim follows a logic of unconscious life, a logic of dreams and memories, of fantasies and psychoses. In it, he comes to terms with - and fails to come to terms with - the nature of addiction and the broken states of loneliness, shame, and loss that remain beyond his power to fully repair. This is a tender and even blackly hilarious portrait of a family - faulty, cracked, enraging - and of a man struggling to learn the nature of his origins."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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