Donald Antrim: “He Knew”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Donald Antrim’s “He Knew” was first published in The New Yorker‘s May 9, 2011, issue.

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Donald Antrim was named by The New Yorker in the magazine’s original top 20 young writers in America, in a massive fiction issue published June 21, 1991.  Despite that, I’ve only read a couple of his pieces published in The New Yorkerover the past five or so years.  I have not read, nor have I heard much about, any of his novels.  If “He Knew” is any gauge on his work, I’d say I’m missing out.

“He Knew” is based on a fairly simple premise.  It’s Halloween, and an older man named Stephen and his much younger wife Alice are wandering around the shopping area along Central Park East in Manhattan.  He’s an actor, between jobs, and she’s, well, she’s “also between things.”  But the way they hide from the truth is by constantly saying they are living their lives to the fullest.  The shopping, and who knows how long they can afford this, is all part of it.

When he felt good, or even vaguely a little bit good, and sometimes even when he was not, by psychiatric standards, well at all, but nonetheless had a notion that might soon be coming out of the Dread, as he called it, he insisted on taking Alice to Bergdorf Goodman, and afterward for a walk along Fifty-seventh Street, to Madison, where they would turn — this had become a tradition — and work their way north through the East Sixties and Seventies, into the low Eighties, touring the expensive shops.  He was an occasional clothes-horse himself, of course, at times when he was not housebound in a bathrobe.

Other than being Halloween, this particular night, though they enact it as a special occasion — or “tradition” — is really nothing other than a momentary escape from what is obviously a completely unfulfilling existence in their apartment.  They rely on each other for their own sense of esteem.  Though over the years they’ve frequently brought up a trip they’re going to take to their heritage (both are from the South, though he left before she was born), they will never take this trip.  They have no connections to that place anymore, no relatives.  But at the same time, the only thing they have in New York is each other, and even there it’s not much.  There’s some tenderness and affection, and they try hard to believe the words they say, but it’s all tinged with mistrust and a sense the other person doesn’t want to be there.  It comes out in little snaps of temper, though it is quickly covered up:

But she simply apologized for letting her anxiety get the better of her.  She said that she was also sorry for provoking him, in the restaurant, with her fear that he might yell at her if he didn’t eat properly.  She hadn’t meant to shame him.  She loved him.  She wanted them to have a fantastic time out in the world.  That was all that mattered.

I was also very impressed with the overall thematic development in this story.  The elements are nicely controlled — the costumes, the non-existent family, the sleep, the imminent vacation down South.  It was a very pleasant read.  I’m looking forward to any thoughts, as I think there is quite a bit here — for example, what to make of the title?

13 thoughts on “Donald Antrim: “He Knew””

  1. Kevin J MacLellan says:

    Hello Allen,
    I haven’t been able to read the story, but from what you’ve described of its characters I’m leaning to a theory: that “he knew”, as a title, is like a caption, beneath the story (imagined as a cartoon), not a part of it. But it distills whatever pathos can be found in such a scene.
    The male character is an actor–out of work. The implication is clear; he’s not a great one. But he is a good one; good enough to play the part of a successful man of the world to his captive audience, his woman.
    His acting skill carries the day, provides the play-space in which they can pretend to be happy, pretend to be successes, pretend to love. But somewhere deep inside of him he knows, he’s always known, ergo ‘he knew’==and yet he did it anyway. What did he do? He acted, he pretended, he falsified his life and their love.
    I wonder: am I close?
    If we take my premise as given, the question becomes–what, if anything, in the story supports the theses that, a) his life is at some level a sham, and b)his knowledge of this fact makes him culpable for the (what?) result.
    P.S. I love stories like that!

  2. Kevin J MacLellan says:

    Sorry, that salutation should be to RSS!

  3. Trevor says:

    Kevin, I wondered who Allen was! My name is Trevor, and welcome!

    I think you nailed the title, even without reading the story. It’s a very nice touch, I think: the story itself is tight, and the title makes it rather more devastating. We know that this sham has been going on for a while, we know it will continue, but to what end is a good question. At the beginning there is a question after indicating at Alice is young: “She did not know what life had in store for her. Or did she?”

    After your excellent insights so far, I’m anxious for you to actually read the thing : ).

  4. Kevin J MacLellan says:

    I promise to do that soon. I’m looking forward to it. I also want to look into his novel(s) as this is the first I’ve heard of him.
    Thanks for the ‘heads-up’.
    Regards
    kjml

  5. Trevor says:

    Ah, kjml, I should have put two and two together — now I recognize you from other insightful comments elsewhere!

  6. Betsy says:

    I echo your theme, Trevor, of costume in this story. Out on the street are children in Halloween costumes, and in the bar where the couple in this story finally take shelter, they are the only two “regular” people, everyone else being in costume. But they aren’t regular: their pretty clothes are only the costume of ordinary regularity. Alice has a history of attempting suicide and of being in a locked psychiatric ward. On the afternoon of this story, she has taken at least 5 valium and also has had at least an alcoholic drink and a half. She is in an uptown bar, but her clothes are askew, her hair is a mess from the wind, her mascara has run down her face from crying, her voice is slurred, and she appears to her husband, “like a drunk date” as they “wobble” up the street. In the bar, she is draped on her husband’s chest while he feeds her his drink.

    Her husband, although we are led to believe he is nattily dressed and distinguished, is a man who has only shaved for the first time in two weeks that morning, a man who is usually “housebound in a bathrobe”, a man who hasn’t worked in some time. And to complicate matters, along with his “anti-psychotics”, he has taken a least one valium, and has had at least one and a half drinks, although his bar tab of $60 suggests more. In addition, he has mistaken a random man for his former psychiatrist, only to slowly remember that the psychiatrist has been dead for maybe eight years.

    What I like about the story is the gentleness with which Antrim treats this very sick couple. Halloween is the appropriate setting for the story – ghouls and goblins abound, but no one “sees” the truly ghoulish among them – this couple. They are almost completely alone within their derangement, except that they have each other. What makes them unusual, in fact, is that they do have each other – – perhaps only because the husband “knows”. What is it that he knows?

    “Now he could hear and feel her terror, and he, too, began to feel frightened, because he knew where this fight could take them.”

    In other words, in the words of the story-title, “he knew” that she could try to commit suicide again. And he tries to protect them both, however ineptly, from such an ending. The ill husband treats his ill wife with as much respect and tenderness as he can, and the story’s power rests on this tender calm within the wreckage that their lives must be.

    Again, what I like about this story is the respect Antrim accords the couple. He does not doubt the seriousness of their “anguish” and their misery; he doesn’t mock them. But if you read between the lines, they are drowning in full view, with no help at the ready but each other’s. Of course, the story allows for other interpretations and questions, which is what lends it its power. Are they saving each other, as I suggest? Or are they destroying each other? Or both?

    There is also, however, the author’s final ghoulish thought: that the husband fantasizes giving his wife the pregnancy she wants. What a life that would be. Which is perhaps one of Antrim’s key points. What a life that child would lead. The story is strange and compelling, understated and spare. I liked it.

  7. Trevor says:

    “Ghoulish” is the perfect word to describe the last paragraph, Betsy. The more I think about this story the more I realize that I’m missing something by not reading Antrim.

  8. Ken says:

    I can only add to the incisive comments of Betsy and Trevor that I’m prone to a story like this which increases one’s compassion for others. It may not reinvent the wheel in terms of content-we’ve certainly had many portraits of mental illness and troubled relationships-but he illuminates the characters’ situation and creates empathy in the reader. I’m far more critical about a somewhat unoriginal story which makes us bathe in misery or nastiness for no purpose or which even betrays mean-spiritedness on the part of its author. Antrim’s style is also really impressive. He totally hooks the reader and never lets go. I’m glad he didn’t put any spaces in this story because it’s best read straight through without pausing.

  9. Aaron says:

    It’s instructive to me as a reader to learn that you guys enjoyed “He Knew” while finding it difficult to even finish reading “Deniers”; I had the opposite reaction. Antrim’s story is almost entirely artificial and without surprise (or substance): it is filled with bland sentences, useless descriptions, and a lot of non-committal phrasing (see the section where they encounter the two British people and their lion girl). This may have been intentional, so as to reflect the gloss that our two “heroes” are under (I’m not familiar with his other work), and given the Halloween (costume) setting and the title (which I think you guys nailed), I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But I’m left not seeing the overall point of such a fiction.

    On the other hand, while the same can be said about elements of Lipsyte’s story — the redemption of the racist (and I agree, there are some heavy-handed phrases there) and of the addict; the semi-survivors of today versus the real survivors of the past who actually had to struggle to live; nothing new! — I find his writing to at least draw me in. For each dud, there was something else that was compelling, and I found his story to take more risks, even as it ultimately meandered.

    I’m playing catch-up here, but I’m just craving for stories that push harder, beyond that anesthesized American sensibility in which everything must be dully ordinary, and playfulness must be scrubbed out, lest it contaminate the “greater” purpose. Read some Dubus: a story should surprise not only the reader, but the author, and the recent, heavily processed fictions of the New Yorker, rarely seem to be doing either.

  10. Trevor says:

    Always good to hear another view, Aaron — I find it instructive too.

    I love Dubus, at least what I’ve read, which has been a couple of handfuls of stories from his Selected Stories. Of course you’re right: compared to his best (father and son, actually) and a multitude of other writers, we haven’t been getting the best in The New Yorker lately, though I do think a number have been good to great to excellent if not revolutionary reads (including “He Knew”; even if the simple premise is nothing particularly new, I feel Antrim’s writing — for many of the reasons you disliked it — gave this story its quality) and have made me curious to read more of the author.

  11. Aaron says:

    I’m not saying a story has to be revolutionary; I’m just saying that we should be cautious that we are not suckered into accepting a lesser quality of fiction by dint of it being surrounded by even *worse* dregs.

    In any case, I go into further elaborations about these last three stories (and will hopefully soon catch up on the two recent stories from The Atlantic and Harper’s) here: http://thatsoundscool.blogspot.com/search/label/short-a-day

  12. Betsy says:

    Your careful comments, Aaron, about Antrim’s “He Knew” and Lypsite’s “Deniers” make me admit that my reaction to either author is influenced by factors extraneous to the stories. By admitting, I also mean I question my reaction.

    I am a fan of Lypsite’s father Robert, a writer who favors clarity and a generous stance towards humanity. His son’s sharp turn from both initially felt to me less like truth and more like rebellion. (Also, the brutal hopelessness in “Deniers” gave me the creeps. To close to home somehow, maybe.) In Antrim’s case, I am aware that he had a mother who was mentally ill and that he survived it. His writing has to me the authenticity of someone who has visited the underworld and come back. I am drawn to whatever Antrim has to say.

    Your comments are interesting in light of the May 30 NY article “God Knows Where I Am” about a homeless woman and the wider issue of psychiatric treatment in the United States. That article discussed the difficulties American psychiatry and our legal system have with people who do not understand that they are sick. It also deals with our very American question – whether they have a right to choose their own treatment, which both of these stories also deal with as well.

    To a degree, having been a public school teacher, I’ve met students and parents who were clearly unaware of their illness. (I’m talking serious suffering, violence, and weirdness here.) So the way the Antrim story and the Linda Bishop article addressed the issue of ‘crazy in plain sight’ just grabbed me. Antrim’s strength is a reflective distance. The Lypsite story felt more angry than reflective.

    At the same time, however, thinking of your comments, rereading “Deniers” makes sense: that story may be closer to the serious strangeness that I saw in some of my students and their parents and in Linda Bishop than I at first wanted to accept. When dismissing a story, serious strangeness is an artistic stance that has to be addressed.

    The editorial choices at the New Yorker satisfy me at the moment. (But I am new to trying to think about these pieces, as opposed to just enjoying the magazine as a wonderful diversion.) They have an interest in world politics that plays out in their fiction choices, and they have an interest in social issues that also seem to influence editorial choices. It’s a question of content and/or art. I am glad to have David Foster Wallace in the mix, and Safran-Foer, and Alice Munro, (etc.) but I also like these (somewhat)content driven choices. Taken together, for instance, Antrim’s fiction and real-life Linda Bishop make to me a riveting conversation.

    (Their editorial penchant for publishing fiction that coincides with an author’s new publication is a separate discussion.)

    But finally, your impatience with our “anesthetized American sensibility” grabs my attention. I want to argue with that, and yet I wonder if my preference for Antrim over Lypsite is just that – – a cowardly fear of the seriously strange. I look forward to reading your comments at thatsoundscool.

  13. Aaron says:

    Betsy, I would hardly think of you as a cowardly reader, and it’s hard to describe someone as anesthetized when they’re so actively involved in the discussion of a work: reading, re-reading, re-evaluating, questioning. I tend to get a little hyperbolic when it comes to fiction, largely because I have such high expectations for it, and (selfishly) I hate to read a story that I feel as if I might’ve seen or written in a workshop. (This is why I stay far away from poetry, which almost all blurs for me, and Tim, another poster here, has an interesting analysis of “Deniers”-as-workshop-piece.)

    I also admit, given how much fiction there is (and how backlogged I get with magazine subscriptions, which I tend to read cover-to-cover), I may sometimes be over-hasty in evaluating a story — i.e., I may miss the overall point in my efforts to pick apart the barebones *writing* of it (which is where my interests as a writer lie). That’s why I love dropping by this site and reading responses — especially ones like yours, laced with personal experience or related non-fiction stories: if I haven’t enjoyed a story, I can get a sense for whether there’s something worth grappling for — and if I still don’t enjoy it, I can really get down to brass tacks with my personal rubrics and define *why*. (And vice-versa: do I really want to defend “Deniers”? If so, why?)

    Anyway; I’m not sure if The New Yorker has ever really been consistent with the quality of its fiction . . . but at least it’s consistent with the publishing of said fiction, with giving us stuff to think and talk about, and that’s the whole point, innit?

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