Jeffrey Eugenides Hails Donald Antrim’s 'Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World'

Jeffrey Eugenides says you must read Donald Antrim’s unjustly overlooked novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.

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One bright New York day over two decades ago—1990 or thereabouts—in a booth at the Viand Diner, on Second Avenue and 86th Street, Donald Antrim handed me the first 20 pages of a manuscript that became, in the fullness of time, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. This was back in the waning days of the typewriter, Antrim’s model, if I remember correctly, being a slim Olivetti whose keystrokes left impressions on those onionskin sheets as delicate, airy, and stylish as the opening lines: “See a town stucco-pink, fishbelly-white, done up in wisteria and swaying palms and smelling of rotted fruits broken beneath trees: mango, papaya, delicious tangerine; imagine the town rising from coral shoals bleached and cutting upward through bathwater seas: the sunken world of fish. That’s what my wife, Meredith, calls the ocean.” At the time, I didn’t know that this paragraph commenced not only the manuscript I was holding but two others that would follow, comprising what came to be a trilogy of short novels narrated by pedantic, syntactically well-behaved, semi-insane middle-aged men. I had no idea that marine imagery would play such a large role in the novel (later on, Meredith’s self-induced “ichthyomorphic trances” become a barrier in her marriage to the narrator). All I knew was that, following the trajectory of those opening lines, I was suddenly pulled into a never-before-experienced realm: the sunken world of a strange and marvelous book. Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World is that very rare thing: a book without antecedents. To compare it to other books is to invite frustration: the templates don’t match up. The novel is satirical without becoming satire. It presents recognizable characters in a recognizably American suburb without conforming to realism. It projects psychological disturbance onto the external world without indulging in the gothic. It is a work of the utmost originality and artistic courage and it gets better, and deeper, each time you read it.

The narrator of the novel is Pete Robinson, an unemployed schoolteacher and medieval history buff. As the book opens, Pete is up in his “padlocked attic,” observing his hometown through binoculars. Things don’t look so good. The schools have closed. The ex-mayor, Jim Kunkel, has recently been drawn and quartered in retribution for his having lobbed Stinger missiles into the Botanical Garden reflecting pool, killing former constituents. In addition, town residents have dug spike-embedded “pits” outside their houses to protect themselves from neighbors. Two families are engaging in small-scale warfare in a city park. Meanwhile, “[e]verything, houses and stores, gas stations and banks, all the landmarks of my happy life in this place I love—everything seems to be sinking. How sad things seem then. I half expect to see reptiles emerging openmouthed from bay windows, snakes dripping from aluminum mailboxes and low gratings overhanging two-car garages. It’s a scene from dreams, a watery place familiar but not familiar, home but not home, dredged from within and carrying up intimations of loss, of desire, of my increasingly intense premonition of death by drowning.”

Pete describes the local disarray in the methodical voice of the “Town Scrivener” he happens to be. A running gag in the book involves Pete’s preoccupation with drawing up “lecture notes” in his attic redoubt. (He calls these notes “work God gave [him] to do.”) As readers, we never get to see these notes; what we get, instead, is this book, Pete’s account not only of how wrong things have gone but, more significantly, of what he plans to do to rectify them. Reviewing the events leading up to the mayor’s execution, Pete says: “I’d given a talk, only days before, on an array of such devices, at a Rotary lunch. My intention was to draw parallels between ancient and modern concepts of punishment and guilt, and to demonstrate a few ways contemporary society has internalized, even institutionalized ‘The Barbarity of the Past,’ which was the title of my talk.” Pete’s motives, as he understands them, are commendable; he wishes to enlighten, to instruct. But something always gets in the way. His lecture, for instance, serves only to get him nicknamed “Mr. Executioner” by the townsmen who seek his assistance in killing the ex-mayor, a request Pete, to his later regret, readily complies with, going so far as to suggest that they use “Toyotas and Subarus, in lieu of horses.” In a dying request, Jim Kunkel asks Pete to dismember his body and scatter its pieces in the manner of Osiris. Pete promises to do this, but instead stores Kunkel’s internal organs in his freezer, managing to bury only a foot, which bleeds onto some fig bars another character mistakenly eats.

Yet, for all this, Pete isn’t deterred. His wanderings through the blighted landscape are accompanied by thoughts of resurrection and renewal. He wants to run for mayor. He toys with campaign slogans: PETE ROBINSON FOR PEACE ON EARTH. PETE ROBINSON, A STEP TOWARD PARADISE. The title of the novel is itself a campaign slogan, and much of Pete’s verbiage has the ring of political rhetoric. He’s constantly explaining, theorizing, bringing history and cultural lore to bear on the immediate situation. Pete knows a lot of stuff—about The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Portuguese torture chambers, elementary school pedagogy—but nothing that he knows helps him understand his world. The sense that knowledge itself—history, the Western canon, you name it—is falling into ruin just as surely as the town pervades the novel, and since this, too, is a book, something of that decay gets imparted on your hands as you read.

Pete’s dreams of becoming mayor, like his hopes of opening a school in his home, exist in opposition to the decadence of the municipal, political, and educational systems. The tax-payers have defunded the schools. The former schoolhouse has been turned into a factory for the manufacture of talismans made from coral. Pete’s wife, Meredith, gives him one of these trinkets, signifying her membership in the growing fish cults. This seaside Florida town, in an unspecified location, in an unspecified year, has receded into a primitive condition where superstitions flourish and citizens understand themselves to be inhabited by invisible forces. The book’s narrative strategy perfectly suits this, for Pete’s own loquacity, his veneer of rationality, is a shell for dark forces within. Just why is he so interested in the Inquisition, anyway? Why, in his basement, is Pete building a “1:32-scale, exhibition-quality balsa-and- Styrofoam cutaway reproduction of a Portuguese interrogation chamber (circa 1600), complete with rack, miniature shackles fashioned from spray-painted costume-jewelry chokers and clasps, and Q-tips representing albino rats”? Though Pete considers himself the possible savior of the town, the fact that he wants to be mayor links him to the former officeholder, the deadly Kunkel. What mayoral duties does Pete, in his heart of hearts, want to assume? Who is he really?

Since the publication of Elect Mr. Robinson, dystopic fiction has become something of a fad. Antrim was there early, if not first. Certainly today, in the wake of 9/11 and the appearance of border militias, right-to-carry laws, and survivalist bunkers, this novel seems even more prescient than it did when it came out in 1993. But “dystopic” describes neither the madness nor the method here. The heart of Antrim’s enterprise, the thing that allows him to make credible his wild surmises, is his keen insight into social and marital relations and his masterful linguistic skills. Antrim sketches his characters—Rotarians, tennis buffs, suburban moms, way- ward teens—with indelible lines. They speak a perfectly rendered American argot. They go about their lives doing all the things comfortably domesticized Americans do. They attend potluck suppers, ogle one another’s spouses, chauffeur children to appointments, borrow plumber’s snakes, all in pursuit of happiness in a place where happiness can no longer exist. “The Clam Castle was crowded with taxpayers,” Pete says in typical fashion. “Jerry, Bill, Abe, Tom, Robert, Betsy, Dick, and many other business professionals including several of my old teaching colleagues: Alan, Simone, Doug; and all the spouses, too, along with a few children old enough to be trusted to stay quiet during open discussion; and Meredith’s mother, Helen, who hated the status quo and was apt to be vociferous; and, of course, Terry, whose generous all- you-can-eat-for-one-special-low-price deal was the reason we were convened at the Clam Castle in the first place.” The amount of information Antrim manages to pack into this sentence is amazing. First, we get Pete’s insufferable predilection for the comprehensive, as he reels off a genealogy worthy of Homer’s Iliad; next, we glean his secret misgivings about children (Pete and Meredith are childless) as well as his feelings about his mother-in-law; we get the blandness of contemporary speech (“business professionals”) as well as specifics about the participants’ ongoing interest, despite the town’s much larger problems, in economizing by eating fast food, a touch that ends the sentence on a note of high humor and reinforces the suburban realism. The verisimilitude enhances the novel’s surreality rather than detracting from it. In Antrim’s hands, scenes of elaborate fancy give birth to moments as emotionally telling as those in Chekhov. For instance, when Meredith “becomes” a coelacanth, cavorting with other coelacanths in the sea, Pete asks her, “Can I become one, can I come with you?” Meredith’s hilarious answer is also heartbreaking: “That’s the thing, Pete, you have to be there already, and you weren’t. I’m sorry, honey.” What better metaphor to describe the estrangement within marriage and the impermanence of love? This dual or triple register represents the chief characteristic of this unclassifiable book, and of Antrim’s fiction in general. Lots of writers can be, by turns, sad, funny, frightening, or ludicrous. Antrim does all these things at once. He infuses multiple shades of meaning into singular scenes, even sentences. This is why Elect Mr. Robinson is so hard to interpret. The emotional cues aren’t those we recognize from reading other novels. They happen here, and only here.

For a slim book, written with some of the most beautiful, scrupulously punctuated, well-modulated prose you’ll ever read, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World is also one of the most violent. The violence isn’t ritualistic or softened by comic excess, as it is in the other two books of the trilogy, The Hundred Brothers and The Verificationist. Here, it erupts unexpectedly, corrosively. I can hardly think of another novel that turns the table on the reader so completely. For much of the book, you’re either smiling or laughing out loud, but as the story proceeds, and abruptly in its last pages (as we learn why Pete is locked in the attic), a chill sets in. Against all odds, this very funny novel becomes truly scary, and as though blundering into Pete’s own camouflaged pit, the reader falls onto the sharpened stakes of the book’s terrifying ending.

The dead ex-mayor comes as close as any character to naming what ails the little palm-shrouded town. At that same Rotary luncheon where Pete delivers his talk, Kunkel stands up to announce, “We’re all murderers here,” a piece of truth-telling that outrages his neighbors and leads, in no small part, to his demise. Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World makes a similar charge, attesting to the barbarity not of the past but of the present, and the response from the reader, especially the American reader, is likely to be just as uncomfortable, angry, and full of guilty recognition. In a reversal of Marx’s famous line about history in The 18th Brumaire, the major events in this novel occur first as farce and then as tragedy. Kunkel’s death scene, though creepy, is played mostly for laughs. His calling everyone a murderer is similarly charged with humor. But by the book’s end we realize the dread seriousness of the mayor’s words. It’s as if Antrim has wrung out every bit of comedy from the texture of his tale, leaving a poisonous residue.

Of course, the novel does much more than castigate. It is, after all, a work of literature, and provides a more classical catharsis than might be expected from a novel with considerable experimental qualities. Despite his oddness, we like Pete. In this altered world, he is our only guide. You can’t help wishing that Meredith would come back to him. You hope things go well for him on the first day of school. When they don’t, and when Pete’s true character is revealed, the reader experiences emotions every bit as intense and purgative as Aristotelian poetics stipulate: terror at what Pete does and pity for his victim, poor “little auburn-haired Sarah Miller.” You finish this book hollowed out, stunned by the lengths to which Antrim has gone to make real and palpable, in a piece of unrealistic fiction, the nature of evil. In addition, the reader’s sympathy with Pete, won little by little throughout the course of the book in such a light-fingered fashion that you might not even notice it, serves as a form of self-incrimination. Pete’s unawareness of the dark forces inside him has the effect of making the reader wonder how much this might be true of everyone. Finishing the book, therefore, you feel terror at, and pity for, your own self.

Despite its lugubrious subject matter and its acerbic estimate of human nature, this novel is the opposite of destructive, however. In its humor and deep sadness, and especially in the rigor of its prose and the intelligent flow of Pete’s thoughts, however loopy, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World delights as well as lacerates. With genuine artfulness Donald Antrim enacts something of the resurgence that Pete hopes to do by burying Jim Kunkel’s foot. “Indeed,” Pete writes, “it was as if it were not Jim Kunkel’s foot being buried, not Jim’s foot at all, but a flesh-and-blood vessel containing the Hopes of Men—Jim, me, anybody and everybody—for a better, wiser world that might spring from soil made fertile by blood and bone.” Despite the arch tone of that sentence, it nicely describes both Antrim’s intention and achievement. This necrotic book buries itself deep in your brain, and despite its purulent content, gives life.

“Introduction” by Jeffrey Eugenides from Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. “Introduction” copyright (c) 2012 by Jeffrey Eugenides. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission of Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.