cover image The Verificationist

The Verificationist

Donald Antrim. Knopf Publishing Group, $21 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40822-9

In his first two novels, Antrim addressed the individual's place in society (Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World) and in the family (The Hundred Brothers). Now he challenges the very notion of the individual, in another darkly comic tour-de-farce that's at once attenuated and hyperkinetic. In a small and nameless northeastern city, a group of psychoanalysts has convened at the local Pancake House & Bar for a casual dinner and discussion of their shared specialty--significantly, ""Self/Other Friction Theory."" The dinner has been organized by the narrator, Tom, who seems stuck in an adolescent stage of development: he spits water at his colleagues, props trash cans against their office doors and, here at the restaurant, wants to launch a decisive food fight against the child psychologists. But before he can throw his cinnamon-raisin toast, he's confined in the monstrous embrace of Richard Bernhardt, the group's father figure. Hoisted in the air, Tom suffers a literal loss of self, as an out-of-body experience leaves him floating near the restaurant ceiling. From this vantage point, simultaneously self and other, Tom watches as the dinner evolves into a series of arguments and seductions. Tom details these scenes minutely--""It is my hope,"" he says, ""to make a picture of things as they were... and, through this process... say something worthwhile about what I call the verifiability of emotional experience""--yet there are tantalizing hints throughout that everything he's witnessing is an extended fantasy, all in his disembodied head. Antrim is a manic prose stylist, capable of balancing lush pastoral descriptions with outrageous turbocharged riffs on sex and marriage and psychoanalysis, and the novel hurtles toward its resolution at such breakneck speed that it's perhaps unsurprising when it ends on an abrupt and inconclusive note. Despite this minor letdown, Antrim has provided a striking meditation on the nature of self-identity and a fierce affirmation of the power of imagination. (Feb.)