I can’t stand the title. I used to not mind, but there have been so many of late. The Book of Unknown Americans. Everything I Never Told You. All the Light We Cannot See. They are too fanciful. They promise too much too cheaply.
I am interested in the way Antrim moves back and forth between the present and the past. Sometimes it’s just a detail that will send him down a memory:
It wasn’t bad driving. The trench curved slowly around to the right, and then came to a straight section that reminded Billy of the Roman road that he and Julia had walked a length of during that difficult vacation in Italy, the winter before she left.
And then we are in Italy for a paragraph. The next paragraph: back in the woods by the creek. The paragraph after: the psychiatric hospital. I had wondered from my own stories if it was all right to jump around like that. Was it too jarring for the reader to be in one place and then another and then another? Could you only do a paragraph (or so) in the past before returning to the here and now? Otherwise, it would seem like you would need some sort of visual break, to center the reader back into the present. In Antrim’s story, all the action (even the current action) is written in past tense, so even the tense is not a clue.
At most Antrim spends three paragraphs at a time in a flashback (not counting paragraph breaks created by dialogue). Mostly he alternates: one paragraph there, one paragraph here, one paragraph there, two paragraphs here, etc. Maybe not leaving for too long is what keeps us readers located. At the least it mimics the way the past often floods the present, especially when that past is difficult, reminding us that our lives aren’t lived on linear tracks where we’re lost in memory for a few hours and then completely immersed in the now for the next few hours.
Others have written that they’re tired of getting a “back story.” They want the main action of the present to speak for itself, without all the muddled and purposely complicated context. I don’t know if I agree. The context is so much of the present; can the two be separable? Maybe in a different kind of story.
Antrim also plays with the fantastic, as he explains in his interview about this story. I had thought so. When Billy encounters the boy in the creek, I wondered to myself if it were a dream, or a fairytale. And then the beautifully decaying cabin in the woods with its two doors–was it not an Appalachian echo of the witch’s cottage in “Hansel and Gretel”? From the moment the boy finds Billy to the moment he leaves the dying woman, there is not a single flashback. Having a flashback there would have popped us right out of the fantasy, the dream, because in dreams there is no context. Yes, that’s right. In dreams and in dreams only there is just life.
Read “The Emerald Light in the Air” for free at The New Yorker website (February 3, 2014, issue).