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Donald Antrim and the Case of the Vanishing Epiphany

Faithful readers of 317am know I’ve been on an epiphany kick lately. What got me started was reading a story in the New Yorker a month or so back (“Ever Since” by Donald Antrim), a story in which that essential piece of short-story scaffolding, the epiphany, a device generations of readers grew up savoring, seems to have disappeared entirely. Upon rereading Antrim’s story I think I did find the glimmer of an epiphany. More about that in a minute, but what intrigued me is how a vital trope for writers had been invented and developed, how it had flourished and become the standard, and how it had faded down to a subtle nubbin of meaning, all in a bit less than 100 years – the period from James Joyce’s story collection Dubliners (1914) to Antrim.

Briefly summarized, the plot of “Ever Since” (that title, like just about everything in the story, is in the ironic mode) goes like this: the protagonist, a 30-somethingish urban male named Jonathan attends a book-publication party that his new girlfriend, Sarah, a publicist, is associated with. A desultory evening ensues. Much drinking, many aimless conversations, a lot of desperate gaiety.  The back story, we learn in the first sentence, is that Jonathan’s previous girlfriend, Rachel, has left not long before for another man. The rudderless Jonathan is described as:

….the sort of lurking man who, say, at work or at a party, mainly hovers on the outskirts of other people’s conversations, leaning close but not too close, listening while gazing out vaguely over their heads in order to seem distracted and inattentive, waiting for the conversation to wind down, so that he can weigh in gloomily and summarize whatever has just been said.

New Yorker magazine cover.

New Yorker in which Antrim's story appeared.

This, in my view, is fine stuff. In this-is-the-way-we-live-now fashion, Antrim nails what I’m willing to believe is a certain type of lost urban male. But the story’s lack of a clear-cut epiphany is disconcerting to some readers. As one commenter on the New Yorker site puts it:

What is the point of this story anyway? I don’t get it. I think that writing is meant to enrich other people’s lives. I find nothing enriching in this story. It’s about people who waste their time at meaningless parties.

So what did happen to the epiphany, both for the short-story form generally and for Antrim?

My theory is that epiphanies, useful and satisfying as they are in structuring a story, had two problems, almost from the beginning. First, epiphanies clash with realism. Joyce’s Catholic boyhood conditioned him to see the magical in the moment, a shining through of spiritual stuff into the every-day humdrum, but let’s be frank – how often does that happen for anyone?

photo of Charles Baxter

Epiphany skeptic Charles Baxter.

In a 1997 interview with the Atlantic, Charles Baxter, an acclaimed fiction writer, had this to say when interviewer Ryan Nally pointed out that Baxter had written an essay titled “Against Epiphanies,” and “yet the characters in your short stories often do experience moments of startling revelation – and, in fact, many critics identify your graceful use of epiphanies as one of your unique talents”:

I can’t reconcile them. Or maybe I’m like Huck Finn’s father, who has perfected his denunciation of alcohol during the day and his back-alley binges at night. I disapprove of epiphanies and their phony auras but I am besotted by them – can’t get enough of them in life or elsewhere. So sue me. Seriously though, as a person who was brought up with religious faith and then got out of it, I’m always looking for secular manifestations of the sacred. At the same time I know that when these moments are arranged – particularly at the end of short stories – they acquire an absolutely formulaic quality. I noticed it particularly a few years ago when I was reading an edition of Best American Short Stories and, just out of curiosity, I started skipping to the endings of all the short stories. It was an unsettling experience because in that edition I kept coming upon final pages in which there was a moment when a character stopped and looked off into the distance, and then a sentence the equivalent of “Suddenly she realized…” appeared…. If you’re trying to write a story with a beginning, middle, and end but haven’t found a way of tying it up dramatically, an epiphany will do the job. But it often ends up feeling like a shortcut, and besides, as I wrote in the essay, I’ve had so god-damned few epiphanies in my life that I’m suspicious of them. And most of them have been wrong anyway!

Second, it’s an ironclad rule in the arts that today’s cool new idea is tomorrow’s tired convention. For years now what is known as “the New Yorker short story” has been shrinking the epiphany.

In 2003 Ruth Franklin, in a Slate piece on McSweeney’s magazine titled “The 98-Pound Gorilla in the Room,” had this to say about that kind of story:

The type? One that rejects the very idea of revelation. The McSweeney’s story may share certain things with the sub-genre [Michael] Chabon identified as “the New Yorker short story”—it’s contemporary, it’s often quotidian, it’s certainly plotless—but it substitutes nihilism for epiphany. In an early issue, a set of facetious manuscript guidelines warned that “material possessing beginnings, middles, or ends will be read with suspicion”—which isn’t a bad description of the work of the young writers the magazine has consistently championed. … But their work replaces the joyful playfulness that characterized the experimentalists of the 1960s and ’70s with a lugubrious fictional haze in which ideas and images float unbound by anything resembling form or insight.

photo of critic Ruth Franklin.

Critic Ruth Franklin.

In some ways Franklin’s piece could be read as a prescient critique of the sort of story Donald Antrim likes to write. But in my view Antrim does offer the reader a kind of epiphany, though it is a small, quiet one.

At one point in “Ever Since,” well on in the evening, a well-oiled Jonathan slips outside, calls his old flame, Rachel, and receives definitive word that it’s over for them. She’s moving with her new guy to LA. The crucial lines of their conversation:

“Jonathan, we’ve been over everything. We don’t have anything to talk about any more.”

 “You’re right.”

“I was ready to marry you,” she said.

“Why are you bringing that up?”

“Because you were never going to ask.”

The conversation ends with Jonathan weeping and Rachel telling him, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” But the story continues for another page and a half of dense New Yorker type.  Has Jonathan learned his lesson? Will things be different with Sarah?

The epiphanic moment in this story comes when Jonathan gets down on his knees and curls a cherry stem around Sarah’s finger.

“What in the world are you doing?” she asked.

It was a good question – what was he doing? “What does it look like?” he said, and he wondered, briefly, whether he meant it, whether he would still feel this strongly about her after he’d sobered up. And he thought he would. Surely, he would. He had the idea he was seeing into his future, and he felt, quite naturally, at that drunken hour, that they would share it.

“Are you proposing?” Sarah asked.

He said, “I’m not sure that I can propose without a real ring. But at least you’ll know.”

“I’ll know what?”

But he was afraid to say.

He stood and kissed her on the cheek. Then he gave her a kiss on the lips. They came close and wrapped their arms around each other.

So there it is – that’s about all you’re going to get from Antrim in the way of epiphany. It’s hedged, deeply ironic, and provisional, but in my book still an epiphany. Will it lead anywhere? Will Sarah and Jonathan live happily ever after? I don’t think so.

Note: Donald Antrim’s story “Ever Since” appeared in the March 12, 2012, issue of the New Yorker. It’s a story the magazine makes available online only to its subscribers.

2 Responses to Donald Antrim and the Case of the Vanishing Epiphany

  1. epiphanies clash with realism. Joyce’s Catholic boyhood conditioned him to see the magical in the moment, a shining through of spiritual stuff into the every-day humdrum, but let’s be frank – how often does that happen for anyone?

    I think I can see much more clearly now why popular romance fiction really isn’t going to be to your taste. It’s a genre which is very, very strongly based around epiphanies; it wallows in them, usually with no irony at all, and guarantees happy ever afters. As Catherine Roach writes,

    The story of romance is the most powerful narrative in Western art and culture, sharing roots with Christianity and functioning as a mythic story about the meaning and purpose of life, particularly in regards to the HEA ending of redemption and wholeness.

    Angela Toscano suggests that the quasi-religious nature of romance fiction affects the language used in these novels:

    the categorical and metaphorical nature of language means that there are certain points where it breaks down, where it cannot go, where description is insufficient as a means of representing what is or what has happened.

    This is where the ineffable comes in. The ineffable is that which cannot or should not be uttered. It is no surprise then, that the two ineffable experiences or encounters common to humans become metaphors for each other. The divine is uttered in terms of sexuality, and sexuality is uttered in terms of the divine. Our inability to speak of these encounters, to convey in language the effect of that encounter upon our person stems from the seeming unique and singular nature of that experience. Ironically or paradoxically, cliché becomes necessary precisely in the moment that is most unique to the person experiencing it.

    Romance is a genre that deals in the ineffable—the ineffable nature of love, the ineffable nature of sex, of identity, of God, of beauty. Yet, how does one tell a story about something that cannot be uttered? How does one narrate the experience of, the encounter with the ineffable? [...]

    Cliché is not only performative but invocative. It is an invocation. It is performative not because it does what it says, but because it repeatedly does what it says. It is not limited to a single instance that can be regarded as a success or failure. It does not simply promise a happily ever after, but more completely, in the repetition of language is alters not itself but the story. Cliché does something not to its own various instances, but to the characters in the text as well as to the reader reading the text.

    In this way, it is liturgical.

    • Thanks once again, Laura. You’re providing me in your comments with quite an education in romance fiction, and the things you say actually do make me want to try more of it. I think you may have hit here on the fundamental mismatch between my sensibility and that of the romance-novel devotee – the genre’s absence of irony, which in many ways feels to me like an absence of authenticity.

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