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 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.