Published in 1993, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Donald Antrim’s hilarious, disturbing, expertly-crafted debut novel is the third of the writer’s books to be recently reissued by Picador, which put out The Hundred Brothers, with an introduction by Jonathan Franzen (who calls the book “possibly the strangest novel ever to be published by an American”), and The Verificationist, with George Saunders, in his introduction, comparing reading the book to the feeling a dog gets from “writhing in pleasure on his back” in the grass. In the introduction to Elect Mr. Robinson, Jeffrey Eugenides recalls reading Antrim’s stained, onion-skin manuscript two decades ago in an Upper East Side diner. These pages, he says, pulled him into “the sunken world of a strange and marvelous book.” It is “a book without antecedents... a work of the utmost originality and artistic courage.”
Eugenides sets up the book tidily: “The narrator of the novel is Pete Robison, 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 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.”
Everything, Pete observes, is sinking, turning his nameless seaside suburb into 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.” This feared watery demise probably has something to do with the fact that his wife, Meredith, has lately begun slipping into an alternate state of consciousness in which she becomes a coelacanth.
Meanwhile Pete is absorbed in scatter-burying Kunkel’s dismembered body, throwing books at Claymore mines in the local park, trying to make love to his wife, or attempting to realizing other grand goals—starting a new school and holding elected office, among them—that run counter to his diminishing self awareness.
Violence is everywhere in this book and its impact is almost always sneaky. Pete shows his love of historical cruelty by building a 1:32-scale “Portuguese interrogation chamber” in his basement. In conversation, he makes off-hand remarks like, “Certainly, brutality has long been the order of the day, Jim.” An illustrated volume on Native American ceremonial violence is used to instruct children on “the virtues of tolerance and respect between peoples from diverse walks of life.” When blowing up books in the park, a group of men discuss the darkness in their hearts before agreeing that it is best described with the word “Rage.” And yet, this book is also almost always very, very funny. Though sometimes the laughs catch in the throat.
We spoke to Donald Antrim about treating books badly and writing the old fashioned way.
Did Pete Robinson start out insane or did he become that way as you wrote the novel?
He didn’t really start out at all, in any way. I didn’t start publishing until I was in my mid- to late-30s, and I’d started writing much earlier. I’d never written anything that had worked out. I was trying, for years, to write stories that I thought would fit in with the era, sort of realistic, calmly-told family and other kind of stories in which narrators had epiphanies. I was trying to do that and do that and it was just driving me into the ground. So I gave it up for a while and walked around in a depression. After about a year I sat back down again and started Mr. Robinson, and it looked like something that would be different. I didn’t really know what was what because I started out of a realization that if I wasn’t getting paid, and I wasn’t having fun, what was I doing? I wanted to have a good time writing something and I hadn’t had that for a long time. So I had no idea what it was going to be, no plan or overall goal or intention. It was very, very bit-by-bit and page-by-page, with the idea that the logic of the thing would be made up out of itself. Over several years, Pete became the conduit, not only for the narration, as it were, but for the larger, deeper psychological logic.
Pete feels that the essence of a culture is found in its artifacts. What do you think our artifacts say about us?
I think that a lot of our artifacts will be the devices that we’re using all the time. What do they say? It’s another way for us to seem to express our interiority through extroversion.
Books don’t fair too well in the novel. They’re burned, ripped, soiled, and blown to bits.
My father was an English professor, enough said [laughs]. I think in some ways that was a kind of somewhat rebellious, maybe a little self-defining, perverse love letter to him. I’m not eager for the destruction of books, but once I had the chance in those moments I kinda went for it with glee.
What are you working on now?
I’m trying to write some stories, and I have a novel that’s been in the background for a long time that I’m trying to work out. I’m trying to teach myself a little bit, to write a novel that kind of picks up where those left off. It doesn’t ignore what’s gone on in between. Those novels were a lot of fun to write. They’re very compressed and contained. I want to keep playing with the suspension of disbelief but also bring a little more personally felt experience of emotion to it.