old Type: Where did you get the idea for The Verificationist?
Donald Antrim: I've rarely had the feeling that I was working from any particular, concrete idea or ideas. That said, I suppose the idea that began The Verificationist was the idea of the pancake suppers-or, more to the point, it was an idea about a character who has an idea about pancake suppers. This idea (mine, not the character's) came shortly after I had begun The Hundred Brothers, and so was abandoned for a long time, while I finished that novel. Finally, I got around to Tom and the pancake suppers. Everything went very slowly until I got a few new ideas (various characters coming into the restaurant, a hospital in the distance, a wife named Jane waiting at home). Eventually, a world began to take shape, and I was able to play around in this world. I don't know if I've answered the question at all.
BT: Okay, I have to ask-why a pancake house?
DA: There are a lot of plainly obvious reasons to set a book in a pancake house, and I don't need to go into these because they are, I think, fairly self-evident, at least to most people. However, I will say that I sometimes lamented the whole high comedy/low comedy/pancake and egg situation, again for all the obvious, painful reasons that everyone in this country can easily imagine.
BT: What made you want to take on the world of psychoanalysis with this book, and did that involve any research into its various factions and theories?
DA: I never set out on a course of specific research. Nor did have it in mind to use the situation in the pancake house as a way of poking fun at psychoanalysis-not as an end in itself. I'd been reading psychoanalytic literature for several years, and had, when I began The Verificationist, a basic appreciation of the history of psychoanalytic thinking, and of the ways various theories and movements shaped analysis in different countries during different periods of time. My intention was never to satirize, in any pointed way, the experiences common to analysts and analysands. In fact, there are very few references in The Verificationist to anything like formal analytic writing or work.
BT: Tom seems to share certain characteristics with the narrators of your previous novels. How do you see The Verificationist in relation to Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and The Hundred Brothers?
DA: The Verificationist is the third in a more or less related series of novels. The novels concern themselves with aspects of American life-small town politics; fraternity and patriarchy; psychoanalysis and sex. The books are meant to be enjoyed as excursions into familiar or unfamiliar territories and situations, and as meetings with characters whose lives, however strange, are at least a little recognizable. The three novels have in common male narrators whose chief symptoms are wary confessionalism and unwitting grandiosity; an intensity of moral feeling and the need to report interpretations; and, most important, some determined inattention to others' lives-relieved, now and then, by bright flashes of empathy and a sudden, heartfelt willingness to take the kinds of actions that cause people to get hurt.
BT: Tom specializes in "Self/Other Friction Theory." What is that?
DA: Well, it doesn't exist, of course. And beyond that, I don't know much about it.
BT: The setting for The Verificationist is a familiar yet unidentified American town. Did you have someplace specific in mind while writing the novel?
DA: No, no specific place. The town in this novel is used mainly as a backdrop for Tom's meditations on civic and domestic life. It's a hilly, medium-seized, mid-Atlantic city with a river running through a revitalized downtown. Its Revolutionary War history places it, I suppose, somewhere between Washington and Boston. A few place names are taken from towns I've lived in.
BT: What made you want to incorporate a revolutionary battle site as a key physical and historical place in this novel?
DA: The scene in Battlefield Grove came about through certain kinds of accidents in the writing. What I mean is that, during early stages of writing, I was unclear about how to use the battlefield. This location might not have been used at all, had there not been a need, near the end of the manuscript, to get Tom-and, with him, the action of the story-out of the pancake house, if only for a few pages. For me, the battlefield is a necessary alternate location, a place for Tom and Rebecca to work on their relationship. Since Tom and Rebecca are flying when they leave the restaurant, they can go pretty much anywhere they want. But it makes no sense for them to fly toward town. Landing in a population center risks complicated technical problems at a moment when it is necessary to simplify things. If Tom and Rebecca make their way to town, they run the risk of meeting new people, or, worse even than this, finding their way to another indoor location. They've been indoors all night! I realize that I've not explained the particular significance of the Revolutionary War in The Verificationist. Maybe it is enough to say, simply, that the battlefield is part of the world Tom lives in, and that it has a role in the development of Tom's relationship with Rebecca. I admit that I regret not putting the old music academy for orphans to better use.
BT: In this novel you talk about "Reality and its dissolution through polite social conversation." How do you mean?
DA: As the book goes along, Tom announces or, in some cases, briefly describes various theories of his, regarding such matters as the effect of bad weather on sexual functioning, the significance of men's baldness patterns in relation to balding men's relations with one another, and so on. Your question refers to a "topic" mentioned by Tom, though not outlined in its specifics. Nevertheless, I think this notion, however vague and undefined-reality succumbing to polite social discourse-is somehow embedded in The Verificationist (and maybe in the previous two books) as a whole. It may be that the line you refer to is also a note I wrote to myself, early on, to keep in mind something about Tom's psychology and the world he inhabits.
BT: Tom spends a good portion of his evening reflecting on his marriage to Jane and the chances of scoring with Rebecca, his waitress. What made you decide to have his evening culminate in a rather traumatic experience in the arms of another man?
DA: This is a good question, but one that I am reluctant to try to answer. It asks me to interpret the book, which I feel in some ways unqualified to do. The progress of Tom's night in the pancake house is largely a function of a kind of interior, psychological logic particular to Tom. What I mean to say is that the story is largely an expression of a characterological condition. I try to remain sensitive to this condition, and to the problems it creates in the lives of the characters in the pancake house-and this means avoiding hard and fast decisions about the possible meanings of specific events or the work as a whole. I don't want to speak too emphatically about what I might or might not have had in mind, because-and this is especially true now, with the book out of my hands-even when I had deliberate hopes or intentions, these hopes and intentions should finally become a little irrelevant; it should be possible for any reader to find his or her own meanings, or, maybe, no meanings at all. So I hope you won't mind if I resist this question and leave things open.
BT: Do you think it's possible to have an 'out of body' experience?
DA: I suppose it must be, though I don't know what it would mean, necessarily, to have one. I wouldn't rule out the possibility.
BT: Critics have compared you to many different writers. Are there any writers you would site as particularly influential?
DA: Donald Barthelme is a frequent comparison. I can't object to that. I read his stories in college. He was one of the writers who made me want to write. Pynchon is central. John Cheever. Grace Paley. For a while it was playwrights. Harold Pinter. Joe Orton. Orton was, I think, a hugely important writer for me. Other novelists? Fielding, Smollett, Faulkner, and, more recently, Henry Greene.
BT: People have described your novels as being very funny. Is the humor intentional?
interview by Gabrielle Brooks