My brain, poor flawed organ that it is, lacks the skill for close reading. Whenever I read a book, my eyes tend to skim the words erratically, focusing and drifting at random—often, without my realizing it, they’ll leap over whole paragraphs impatiently searching for something that will catch their attention. It’s a good way to read quickly, but a terrible way to read well. Like many children of the Internet age, I have a hard time appreciating (or even noticing) those subtle moments in fiction that bring more watchful readers so much pleasure; if a story’s going to grab me, it usually has to have major pyrotechnics. Maybe not explosions and a car, but something loud and flashy and showy.
of course I’m embarrassed by this! I’ve lost count by now of how many times my cheeks have flushed with shame when I read, say, a review of a novel by a more discerning reader who’s picked up on some fine-grained distinction or pitch-perfect detail or—worst of all—subtle shade of emotion or tension that my dull eyes had hopscotched over without even noticing. I’m not proud of my inability to read carefully. But these are facts. Best to admit them.
So that’s why I liked Donald Antrim’s story “The Real Manhattan,” published in last November’s New Yorker, so much. It may well have contained subtle moments of genius that I totally missed, but that doesn’t matter, because the overall story blares at you like a foghorn—the way Antrim orchestrates his frenzied portrayal of madness is so deft that it’s impossible not to appreciate it.
Now, the tricky bit is, it’s impossible to really excerpt a few paragraphs to show why the story’s so good—Jim’s horrifying relapse into his manic-depressive hell unfolds not quickly, but over a long expanse of pages. The art is in the build-up, not in any one sentence or scene. But, setting that aside, I wanted to highlight this one paragraph, which is mostly irrelevant to the main plot and themes, but did pull off a (none-too-subtle) effect that I enjoyed a great deal:
…Kate was marching around the apartment in her red platform heels, shoving items into her purse and looking in the usual places for her keys. She had to flee before Jim walked in. She could phone him from the street and tell him that she’d meet him at the restaurant. Going from Elliot to Jim to Elliot and Jim and Susan without a break was bullshit. But, seriously, where was she going to go? It was too cold out to sit on a bench. The bar next door to the restaurant was bleak and depressing, an old men’s dive, and the bar inside the restaurant would be a mob scene of people pushing for tables. She could stand idly flipping through magazines at the newsstand across Broadway, but that would mean accommodating the line of men squeezing past her to look at porn at the rear of the store. She slammed the apartment door behind her and started down the five flights of stairs. Too often in winter she failed to leave the apartment before sunset. It worked hell on her mood.
I’d guess that pretty much anyone who’s lived in a city apartment with a significant other can relate to this. At some point, you feel trapped in your cramped space, and you have to leave NOW—but where are you going to go? So you consider your old haunts, benches or coffee shop or dive bars that have served you well in other capacities but are now all totally inadequate for the moment. You need a private refuge, not a lively local neighborhood. And, because you know these places so well, you know exactly how they’ll fail you: “accommodating the line of men squeezing past her to look at porn at the rear of the store.” I get like this when I have to leave my apartment to work and don’t know where to go. That café will be too crowded and that one doesn’t have enough electric outlets and oy, that one plays the music too loud… Suddenly a city can feel very claustrophobic. I’ve just never seen a writer capture this so elegantly.
(Photo: “Toy Claustrophobia,” Erik Charlton)