The Verificationist by Donald Antrim
(Vintage, $12.00, 179 pages, paperback; published 2000.)
In what is really more a long short story than a novel, psychoanalyst Tom leads a group of his colleagues to a Pancake House for a social evening. During a fairly grim evening of "enjoyment", Tom, who is more in need of treatment than any of his clients could be, misbehaves childishly just once too often, and to stop his activities a colleague lifts him up in a bear hug. Squeezed thus, Tom undergoes an out-of-the-body experience (OOBE) that persists for the rest of the book. It is left moot as to whether the OOBE has any objective reality; it may perhaps be only a hallucination -- but, if so, it's a hallucination that apparently comes to be shared by some other members of the cast, who eventually join him in his flights both in and outside the Pancake House.
As Tom swirls about the prose does likewise, treating us to a portrait of various aspects of his existence, all of which seem to be not just on the point of disintegration but perpetually so.
The state of his marriage is fragile, due as much to his juvenility as to his frequent infidelities. He is never quite able to acknowledge that the support of his wife Jane -- who comes across as a complete saint (and martyr?) -- is all that is keeping him as much on the tracks as he is. He believes that he loves her, but seems incapable of comprehending what love actually is, certainly the full love that Jane offers him.
His sanity is likewise frail: his mind is full of impressive-seeming psychoanalytic theories that crumble apart into meaninglessness on a moment's examination. (It is one of the other characters who solemnly pronounces, "Maybe sexual hunger should be described as the terror in love at the beginning of death", but it could as well have been Tom.) The same goes for the program that is his pride and joy, the Young Women of Strength; it seems to have no real purpose except his own motives, which remain shrouded but, in light of his omnidirectional and almost infantile lusts, must be suspect.
By the end of the book, then, we are fully persuaded that Tom's existence lacks all meaning, that it is sustained only by an intellectual artifice that is itself in imminent danger of collapse. Whether this is particularly enlightening is another matter altogether; it is very tempting to suggest that The Verificationist shares the same unnecessariness that is its primary subject matter.
Nevertheless, there are some bright turns of wit along the way -- I more than once laughed out loud ("...for Rebecca must have known it was not likely that I would appreciate competition for her attention, especially from a charming drunk like Sherwin, who, regardless of his stated inclination to dodge the pains and sorrows of love, would waste no time getting his hands all over her tits") -- and there is a sort of cumulative growth of the true feeling of fantasy as Tom's OOBE, initially a solo effort, progressively complexifies as further people join in.
There is also a great amount of sex in the book -- real, imagined and sought -- as befits a tale set largely within the mind of a psychoanalyst. Tom's fellow analysts seem (unless he's misperceiving them) to be possessed of the urges of rabbits, with the same lack of selectivity. Much more interesting are his own relationships -- with his wife, where the intensity of feeling is too great for him to comprehend, and, although unconsummated, with the pretty young waitress of the Pancake House, Rebecca, who is the first to join him in the quasi-liberation of the OOBE. Tom's feelings towards Rebecca become a quagmire as he struggles between lust and responsibility.
Although it has several points of interest, in the end The Verificationist must be deemed a slight work -- but one that passes the time entertainingly enough.
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© John Grant 12 May 2001