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On the Dangerous Joys of Astrally Projecting
in a Pancake House
Donald Antrim's The Verificationist

by Charlie Onion

Donald Antrim's stunning new novel, The Verificationist, is so...unusual that well-grounded readers might very well find themselves searching nervously for similarities to known, stable works. Slyly, Antrim welcomes such comparisons. The Verificationist starts out, for example, with the languid, familiar feel of a good, biting campus novel--Kingsley Amis, say, or maybe David Lodge, if they were Americans. At the suggestion of Tom, the book's verbose, highly intellectualized narrator, a group of clinical psychologists from the Krakower Institute are getting together for dinner at a local restaurant called the Pancake House and Bar. So far, so good. Art film lovers may wade a few pages further and likewise find comfort in another familiar work...My Dinner with André, right? After all, we've got a group of neurotic intellectuals gathering in a restaurant for a little cerebral give and take. You can just imagine Tom's part being read by Wallace Shawn, and you even may search the pages for the best character to give to André Gregory.

Don't bother.

The Verificationist's characters are more hostile than anything you'll find with Wally and André, and before it's all over, they're going to be doing stuff that Wallace Shawn's character wouldn't tolerate. And can you imagine Wallace Shawn astrally projecting himself to the Pancake House's ceiling--and beyond?

The Verificationist
Donald Antrim
Alfred A. Knopf
179 pp.
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That's right: astral projection. So let's drop the campus novel and the dinner-movie chats and ask a few questions.

Q: Why pancakes?

A: It was Tom's idea, so let's let him speak for himself:


What is a pancake? Cooked batter, covered in sugar and butter. Condiments are applied to it. It is food. But it is not as a food, not as a sustenance, that we crave the pancake. No, the pancake, or flapjack if you will, is a childish pleasure; smothered in syrup, buried beneath ice cream, the pancake symbolizes our escape from respectability, eating as a form of infantile play. The environments where pancakes are served and consumed are, in this context, special playrooms for a public ravenous for sweetness, that delirious sweetness of long-ago breakfasts made by mother, sweetness of our infancy and our great, lost, toddler's omnipotence. Look around. Notice, if you will, these lighting fixtures suspended from the ceiling like pretty mobiles over a crib. Notice the indestructible plastic orange seating materials designed to repel spills and stains. Notice these menus that unfold like colorful, laminated boards in those games we once played on rainy days at home, those unforgettable indoor days when we felt safe and warm, when we knew ourselves, absolutely, to be loved. We come to the Pancake House because we are hungry. We call out in our hearts to our mothers, and it is the Pancake House that answers. The Pancake House holds us! The Pancake House restores us to beloved infancy! The Pancake House is our mother in this motherless world!


Did I mention he's verbose?

Such parodic ponderings will doubtless prompt wags in the audience to shout, in movie-poster glee: Donald Antrim's The Verificationist does for pancakes what Thomas Carlyle's German idealist masterpiece, Sartor Resartus, did for clothes! But let's stick to the issues at hand, as it were.

Tom, you see, is having a few issues with his self-image as a grown man, as the professionals say today, and he apparently feels guilty--even repulsed--by his obsessive attraction to comfort foods that remind him of childhood. Let's listen in again, shall we?


We eat pancakes to escape loneliness, yet within moments we want nothing more than our freedom from ever having so much as thought about pancakes. Nothing can prevent us, after eating pancakes, from feeling the most awful regret. After eating pancakes, our great mission in life becomes the repudiation of the pancakes and everything served along with them, the bacon and the syrup and the sausage and coffee and jellies and jams. But these things are beneath mention, compared with the pancakes themselves. It is the pancake--Pancakes! Pancakes!--that we never learn to respect. We promise ourselves that we will know better, next time, than to order pancakes in any size or in any amount. Never again will we be tempted by buckwheat or buttermilk or blueberry flapjacks. However, we fail to learn; and the days go by, two or three weeks pass, then a month, and we forget about pancakes and their dominion over us. Eventually we need them. We crawl back to pancakes again and again.


Unfortunately, Tom--and, Antrim implies, intellectuals in general--aren't guaranteed freedom from neurotic obsessions merely because they can recognize and name them at ten paces, blinded. Thus, Tom's evening takes an hallucinatory turn for the worse when, having given his "Pancake House as Mother" speech, he thinks it would be funny to throw a piece of cinnamon-raisin toast at one of the child psychologists across the restaurant. An innocent gesture, as far as Tom is concerned, no more than a party lift, really. But before the toast can be tossed, one of the men at Tom's table--a fat, oversized father figure Tom despises--grabs Tom in a suffocatingly tight bear hug and lifts him clean off the floor. And it is from this perch (and higher) that Tom passes through the rest of the novel. Which brings us to our second question...

Q: Why astral projection?

A: Good question. As Tom would have it, it's rooted in the father figure's paralyzing bear hug:


At this point, I knew that I had gone into an emotionally disassociated state--exactly the kind of out-of-body condition that is seen among victims of trauma or abuse.

Bernhard [the father figure], whether alert to this fact or not, was attempting to destroy me, apparently through some form of metaphoric patriarchal rape. The intimacy between us was real and devastating. I was, I felt, in danger of a psychoneurotic splitting off--a costly form of self-protection--the proof of which was my thoroughly tactile appreciation of the man's proximity, of his body's pressure, its aggressive and hot contact with mine; and simultaneous with this recognition of our physical linking, my utterly convincing sensation of incorporeal ascension and a perceived flight, or something like a flight--a subjective projection of, I suppose, for want of a better word, the Self--out from my body, away from the hideous man, toward the restaurant's foam-tile ceiling, toward the roof and around the room. I say "the man" rather than "Richard Bernhardt" because I believe that, to a large extent, the threat to my sanity was not personal in the usual meaning of that word, but generic and rooted in unconscious life.

I loved this awful man, and he was deeply in love with me. In order to bear this knowledge and the attendant physical violation, our embrace, I had no recourse but escape into a transient psychotic breakdown and its exhilarating symptoms.


There--answer your question? Of course, as an added benefit to us readers, Tom's astral perch allows him to assess--mercilessly--his colleagues from a new perspective. Unexpected bald spots appear, as do previously unnoticed social (and sexual) dynamics. In a very real sense, Tom has become a narrator with seemingly unlimited omniscience. Which brings us to our final question...

Q: Is Tom--or alternatively--Donald Antrim crazy?

A: Tom's having a crisis, for sure. As one of his colleagues in the pancake house, taking the opportunity to teach his grad students something while Tom floats, says,


"Direct your eyes to the torrentially sweating hands and arms and the rashy contact dermatitis around the neck. Notice also Tom's violently labored breathing and periodic twitching, and the convulsing of the hips, legs, and feet. These are symptoms of a catastrophic anxiety disorder that is manifestly sexual in nature. The subject has regressed to a classically pre-oedipal position, in order to reorganize psychosexual reality and survive trauma. The fixation on unassisted flight and the collapse of subjective time are diagnosable side effects and, while not common, also not unknown in the literature."


--and who's to quibble with a professional's opinion, right? I don't think we should worry about Antrim, but then I've never seen him in a pancake house.

Having cast all other seeming similarities aside, let's say quickly--before we drift off into the referent-less ether with Tom--that The Verificationist's surreal absurdity is worthy of Luis Buñuel. Yes, I know, Antrim's starting to sound like a one of a kind, but the comparison with Buñuel may help to shed light on the manic hallucinatory quality Antrim gives his text. Here's the perfect example: think of Tom's dilemma in the context of the bourgeois partygoers who find themselves pathologically unable to leave their host's house in Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel. Now imagine the partygoers devolve into haphazard sex rather than existentially induced catatonia. Bingo: The Verificationist. Of course, Antrim's target is a more rarified category of Buñuel's despised bourgeoisie: the incompletely sublimated academic...hence the haphazard sex with which the novel ends (ah, now you're interested).

But even comparisons to Buñuel fail to convey completely the oddness of Antrim's novel. Truly, it must be read to be appreciated. And I promise you, it's the funniest nightmare you'll ever read.


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