To me, Donald Antrim seems to have been the harbinger of a shift in American literature, and I’m sad that I’m only now reading his work, when it was published in the 1990s. His gutsy, insane, and unique book Elect Mr. Robinson for A Better World is an emblem for everything that is good about American experimental fiction. Unique and daring, Antrim’s language is striking in many ways, but to me, the way he can make words we all say and write on a daily basis sound so stylish and imaginative is his most awe-inspiring gift.
"What does that mean?" you might wonder. When I think about how I felt reading Hemingway for the first time— shocked, admiring, touched— I realize that’s the same way I felt about Antrim. Both writers share a simplistic style that belies the complexity underneath. While Hemingway’s complexity is emotional and interior, I see Antrim’s as being intellectual and psychological. And this difference, I think, is a representation of what has changed in American and experimental literature and what makes Antim’s books so great. The emotion and interiority hasn’t gone away, exactly, but it’s morphed into something more twisted.
Antrim has fellows in this kind of literature, and the first that come to mind are Ben Marcus and Karen Russell. Their books have a lot in common with Antrim’s books. Namely, those Hemingway-esque feelings that are so well-elucidated, inimical to their styles, and that readers can take for granted. All three writers can therefore focus on experimenting in dialog, plot, and language, and have been able to push experimental fiction forward in new ways because their writing is accessible and relatable emotionally.
They three have all done this by creating an alternate, parodic America in which we watch whiffs of the familiar become utterly unrecognizable. Antrim’s version is the funniest, Marcus’ the most meta, and Russell’s the most personal. The Flame Alphabet can veer into what we can see as Marcus’ sly commentary, and Russell’s Swamplandia! employs a microcosmic, individual approach to conveying her big ideas and themes. Antrim, though, is able to successfully navigate both elements of the strange, the inner and societal outer. The Hundred Brothers, for instance, is an example of strange introspection, the main character barraged with opportunities to interact, but choosing to hold court in his own mind.
Perhaps it is this tendency towards introspection, a writerly one, that is a common thread throughout Marcus’, Russell’s, and Antrim’s work, a sign that this brand of experimentalism is isolated and about communication at its heart. We try so hard to express ourselves that our best, most trangressive writers have gotten to the pinnacle of composition, but are still stuck in the minds of the characters they create. Donald Antrim’s legacy is his contribution to this peculiar Americana, an inverted literature, so singular in scope and execution that, in actuality, it speaks to our culture on a resounding, tender, and parodic level.