One of the best essayists we have on one of the best writers of fiction we have in the New York Times Magazine:
Of the qualities that set Antrim apart from the group of writers he’s often casually lumped in with or excluded from — the Eugenides-Franzen-Lethem-Means-Saunders-Wallace cluster of cerebral, white-male, Northern fiction makers born around 1960 — it may be this predilection for characters “not necessarily redeemed” that offers the neatest distinction. It’s not that those other writers don’t ever do evil characters or antiheroes or that they all write tidy, hopeful plots. It’s not even that Antrim’s characters are beyond the pale in their badness, in a Cormac McCarthy manner — they aren’t psychopathic (except insofar as being human may involve being a little bit psychopathic). It’s more the case that Antrim’s fictional universe is different. It doesn’t bend toward justice, not even the kind that knows there is none but sort of hopes art can provide absolution. His universe bends — it is definitely bent — but always toward greater absurdity (in both funny and frightening guises).
Some critics have lamented over the years that his characters don’t really “change,” but they do; it’s just that they devolve, they go mad. Mr. Robinson, man and book, certainly does, in a closing passage that is both unprintable by this magazine and unwritable by any other novelist I’ve heard of, except maybe the Mississippi writer Barry Hannah in his early-1980s “Ray” period. That echo calls to mind another thing dividing Antrim from his better-known peers, that he doesn’t really come from the North, despite having made his whole career there, living in Brooklyn in a small apartment he calls “a good place to be for now for 22 years,” where he reportedly gives unforgettable dinner parties (great cooking, great stereo) throughout which everyone sits on the floor. He works in a spartan room with a plain, black desk and shelves of books, papers on the wall and a two-volume O.E.D. (the pretty one, with the little drawer for the magnifying glass).
From The Quarterly Conversations‘s Lydia Davis issue, published in March 2014:
I think influence is a complicated thing. I am influenced by a kind of writing because I am drawn to it, open to it. I am drawn to it because there is already an affinity between my own sensibility and sense of formal structure and those of the author I am reading or studying. I would not be influenced by a writer alien to me. I really see an ongoing process that starts in earliest childhood. The very first picture books and nursery rhymes have their effect, as do songs and the lyrics of songs. My sensibility as a child is affected by these and then my changing sensibility and sense of structure show in my writings, even the stories written as assignments in grade school. And of course the influences of interactions with family and friends and teachers continue to have their effect.
I certainly read Kafka very closely and constantly for a few years—though I was reading many others at the same time, of course, like Hawthorne, Melville, Evelyn Waugh, R.L. Stevenson, Malamud, Dickens, Mary McCarthy, Poe, Emily Dickinson, James, and slews of mysteries. Something drew me to Kafka’s work, and in turn I’m sure I absorbed something of his sensibility and style. Clearly something drew me to Kafka more than to James, for instance—the spareness, the humility (whether assumed or real, or a combination), the bizarre imagination. He was interested in the possibility of two hands suddenly alien to each other; James’s interests lay elsewhere. For years I found James hard to read; I found that his prose left me no breathing room. Now I admire him. But the affinity still is not there.
‘Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote’ by Jorge Luis Borges, one of the very best short stories ever written? And an opportunity for us to link to a website called Cold Bacon:
The visible work left by this novelist is easily and briefly enumerated. Impardonable, therefore, are the omissions and additions perpetrated by Madame Henri Bachelier in a fallacious catalogue which a certain daily, whose Protestant tendency is no secret, has had the inconsideration to inflict upon its deplorable readers—though these be few and Calvinist, if not Masonic and circumcised. The true friends of Menard have viewed this catalogue with alarm and even with a certain melancholy. One might say that only yesterday we gathered before his final monument, amidst the lugubrious cypresses, and already Error tries to tarnish his Memory . . . Decidedly, a brief rectification is unavoidable.
I am aware that it is quite easy to challenge my slight authority. I hope, however, that I shall not be prohibited from mentioning two eminent testimonies. The Baroness de Bacourt (at whose unforgettable vendredis. I had the honor of meeting the lamented poet) has seen fit to approve the pages which follow. The Countess de Bagnoregio, one of the most delicate spirits of the Principality of Monaco (and now of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, following her recent marriage to the international philanthropist Simon Kautzsch, who has been so inconsiderately slandered, alas! by the victims of his disinterested maneuvers) has sacrificed “to veracity and to death” (such were her words) the stately reserve which is her distinction, and, in an open letter published in the magazine Luxe , concedes me her approval as well. These authorizations, I think, are not entirely insufficient.
‘Brief Interviews with Hiddeous Men’, a short story originally published by the Paris Review in 1997:
#6 E——— on “How and Why I Have Come to be Totally Devoted to S——— and Have Made Her the Linchpin and Plinth of My Entire Emotional Existence”
And yet I did not fall in love with her until she had related the story of the unbelievably horrifying incident in which she was brutally accosted and held captive and raped and very nearly killed.
Let me explain. I’m aware of how it might sound, believe me. I can explain. In bed together, in response to some sort of prompt or association, she related an anecdote about hitchhiking and once being picked up by what turned out to be a psychotic serial sex offender who drove her to a secluded area and raped her and would almost surely have murdered her had she not been able to think effectively on her feet under enormous fear and stress. Irregardless of whatever I might have thought of the quality and substance of the thinking that enabled her to induce him to let her live.