Donald Antrim: “The Emerald Light in the Air”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Donald Antrim’s “The Emerald Light in the Air” was originally published in the February 3, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

I’m sorry that I didn’t get thoughts up sooner than now. Last week was a big week — we bought a house on Friday! I did read the story early in the week, and I liked it but not as much as every one else seems to. That said, I am going to step back and let those who love it speak for it. Which brings us to Betsy, who got her thoughts to me very early in the week. My apologies for holding them back.

Betsy

Donald Antrim’s title “The Emerald Light in the Air” gathers much of his story to itself: it implies not only the other-worldly light of the Virginia summer forest, but also the other-worldly light of an on-coming storm, as well as the light of alluring, hallucinatory ideas. And, in the end, the title implies the lightning to the brain that an electric shock treatment provides — the relief.

Antrim conveys complexity not just with the title. He opens this story with a brilliant, information packed, 200-word sentence that is balanced, cohesive, and worthy of Hawthorne. Suicidal Billy French had twice checked himself into a hospital, where:

…three mornings a week, he’d climbed onto an operating table and wept at the ceiling while doctors set the pulse, stuck electrodes to his forehead, put the oxygen meter on his finger, and then pushed a needle into his arm and instructed him, as the machines beeped and the anesthetic dripped down the pipette toward his vein, to count backward from a hundred…

In that long, majestic, first sentence, we learn that for the past two years Billy French has been in a dangerous way: he has been sick enough that he’d been treated with electroshock therapy (the help of last resort for the suicidal). We know from this first paragraph that the deaths of his mother and father, very close together, were the first shocks, and they were followed by losing Julia, “the love of his life.” Grief abounds.

A little reading (here) tells me that electric shock therapy, while quite therapeutic in the short term, wears off. Then it must be done again; as Billy tells us, he’d had two series, about eight months apart. Now it is even later, a year after the last treatment.

It does not actually bode well for Billy that he cannot bring himself to say the actual words — electric shock therapy — that we must deduce the treatment from his description of the treatment. That the patient forgets the incident of the treatment itself meshes with his not using the word; that he might be near needing a re-up is something we might also deduce, but which he doesn’t mention. What he does mention in that first paragraph is that he had been looking for a box of ammo.

The entire story is so masterfully told that I couldn’t put it down. We learn that Billy has not slept the night before, that he’d been drinking “his mother’s drink,” and that he’d been going through the paintings his lover had left behind, that he’d called her, and she was alarmed at his drinking. Shortly into the story, we learn that he also has weed and Ativan in the glove compartment.

Here I must digress. Anyone who has had a friend or relative in Billy’s state learns pretty quickly that the emperor has no clothes. The mental health system, though well-meaning and vast, has an incomplete understanding of psychotic illness, is hampered by well-intentioned laws, and has, due to its lack of knowledge about the brain, only the most blunt of therapies to treat the sick. Patients find their own methods of comfort. It is not unusual for patients to mightily complicate their illness with alcohol and drugs of their own choosing.

So — what about that box of ammo? Most of us are very uncomfortable with the severely mentally ill; we are fearful. What is unusual about this story is Antrim’s vision. In a different kind of story, with a different sort of author, the mentally ill man looking for a box of ammo would lead to terror. The surprise of this story is the compassion with which Antrim imagines Billy and the journey he actually takes.

Billy, despite his gun, his ax and his saw, commits no horrific crime, unleashes no terror. Instead, his hallucinations lead him to an act of compassion — one which most of us wish we could perform.

Most likely, he actually does nothing but have a hallucination, although the storytelling is so deft that his experience seems as if it is real. It is as if Billy is lured into hallucination by an intense desire to “save” something (although Antrim never uses such a clumsy word) — and that is what the hallucination accomplishes.  He does some good.

Any of us who have lived through a long death with a parent remembers the suffering we could not alleviate. It’s enough to drive you crazy, especially if there’s one death after another. Billy’s name reminds me of that childlike, helpless state, where nothing you do is enough to reach the parent who used to be — before the pain set in. Billy’s name also suggests to me the possibility he had not really made the leap to adulthood, had not really separated — his drinking “his mother’s drink” the biggest clue. Billy’s name also reminds me of Billy Budd, Melville’s mysteriously self-sacrificing sailor, though I don’t know quite what to do with that.

This story is magnificent: it captures the dislocation of grief, and it captures the yearning that must accompany psychosis. And it captures the desperation that would lead a person to consent to electro-shock therapy. In this story, shock therapy is the story, is the emerald light in the air. It is as if the story itself is the collapse and recovery surrounding the treatment, perhaps the delirium that can occupy the patient for the hour or so following the seizure. The story telling is deft; the slights of hand between reality and hallucination are fascinating. But the real magnificence is the compassion Antrim shows for Billy.

Billy’s girlfriend Julia is a painter; she says of her work:

I’m searching for something that isn’t quite there.

You could say that of psychosis; you could say that of Billy.

6 thoughts on “Donald Antrim: “The Emerald Light in the Air””

  1. avataram says:

    Wonderful story, the best in the New Yorker so far this year. Hallucinatory & fantastical, it demands a couple of readings at least.

    It reminded me of William Styron’s Darkness Visible – Styron’s memoir of struggling with depression and recovering from it. Styron quotes Dante to describe depression. Styron speaks of the way “The Inferno” begins:

    “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
    mi ritrovai per una selva oscura”

    Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself
    In dark woods, the right road lost. (Pinsky translation)

    And the way “The Inferno” ends:

    “e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle”
    And so we came forth and once again beheld the stars.

    Styron’s memoir and Antrim’s story seem to fit perfectly between these first lines and last lines of The Inferno.

  2. Ken says:

    This just blew away the last two months of stories and showed what a real short story is all about. As a tale of recovery–slow and with its slight epiphanies–this is profound and notice how much more gracefully he incorporates back story than does Antonya Nelson or Rebecca Curtis. The breathless pace–I like the lack of spacings in the text–grabs and catches you up as we take a journey into darkness and eventually light with the character. Long, beautiful sentences and great evocation of light and nature without overdoing the descriptiveness or using it to prop up weak material.

  3. Betsy says:

    Avataram and Ken – I couldn’t agree with you more. This story is simply great. How he makes it great would take a very long essay to explain.

    It is of interest, too, because Antrim is pointing the way. In the next twenty-five years there will be a revolution in the understanding of the brain: mapping, imaging, genetic studies and new technology will make the exploration of the brain and its magnificence one of the great eras of discovery.

    Trevor’s coverage of “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti” marks how far we’ve come. Back in the fifties, treatment was a blunt weapon, but even then, Milton Rokeach could reflect on his work and deduce that their psychoses gave each of these men comfort, something this story echoes.

    Antrim’s compassion for mental illness is remarkable, but his skills allow the story to soar above the ordinary. I agree with you both. This is a great story.

  4. Archer says:

    I wasn’t quite as high on this one as you guys were (at times, it seemed to me like a slightly watered-down George Saunders story), but I agree that it’s the strongest fiction piece TNY has published in a while: intelligently formed and emotionally convincing. Beautifully written too.

  5. Jan Wilkens says:

    the story was beautiful on several levels. I needed to read it several times before I saw that the journey into the woods was indeed a hallucination. What was the distraction was that when Billy sets out on his mission to get rid I of his ex-wife’s art work, he is feeling pretty up; pretty hopeful. He is reconnecting with a former friend who is kind and familiar, he is ready to let go of some of the past and he is active and mobile. On my first reading, the encounter with the dying woman reminded me of the William Carlos Williams poem “Complaint” where a country doctor with limited resources, comforts “a great woman” who is suffering through another unwanted birth. Like the doctor, Billy is a witness to the quiet drama of isolation and pain. So, was one if the young boys a manifestation of a young Billy?
    The story is one that calls for another reading, and another…
    An excellent NYorker selection.

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