The Verificationist book cover, Bookside Table, EM KeelerDonald Antrim’s The Verificationist is basically about a really long hug that makes a guy named Tom loose it and jump into the abyss of what seems like a prolonged nervous breakdown. Tom is a psychoanalyst, and the bear hug takes place at an informal meet-up (in a Pancake house!) of a whole university hospital department of analysts.

It’s a literally heady book, but headless too, because Tom is cognitively disembodied by this hug, and he floats up and away into the dusty rafters of the 24hr breakfast joint. He overworks his mind by tracing the map of intimacies, predominately sexual intimacies, between himself and his colleagues and his wife and the desirable young woman who has been their party’s waitress. In terms of plot, that’s pretty much it. But I think it’s a relatively successful exploration of a peculiar tendency of a culture steeped in the mumbo jumbo of psychoanalysis to develop a paralysis of self awareness, though it may in fact be more of a delusion than an awareness.

Tom is obsessed with the fulcrum point between what it means to be a son and a father, and he gets himself into the situation of the bear hug by being childlike and attempting to start a food fight with a group of child psychologists. The bear-like analyst that hugs him into submission is described as a figurative father, and Tom submits to a fantasy of being raped by this imaginary father rather than develop the maturity it would require to commit to becoming a father himself. They have an empty room in their house, and because The Verificationist is nothing if not an invitation to armchair psychoanalysis, he is afraid of painting it because he can’t commit to the idea of impregnating his wife. They fight about it. And so after the  pleasure of eating blueberry pancakes–a silly and juvenile food– he suffers a nervous down, aware that he chose the kiddish comfort food because his is unable to confront his fear of adulthood and reproduction.

And who could blame him? If he is professionally obligated to believe in Freudian bullhooey, how could he possibly choose to be the passive object of fear and hatred and homicidal feelings; wouldn’t you  rather have the active hatred of the child? Psychoanalysis, much like American culture, almost always places the higher drama and the primacy of representation in the development of the child rather than the agency of the parent. Antrim hints at this through having Tom imagine floating away to the scene of an important battle: that of the Americans against the (paternal) British. This is a site of embarrassment for Tom, and a site of mythmaking for America writ large. The battle is restaged year after year, and the trauma of separation, the shame of that original (and indeed, orginary) dependency, never quite goes away.

Antrim uses language clearly, and having the entirety of the story filtered through the obsessive lens of Tom even as he becomes fractured in the middle of his traumatic event (the hug) is fascinating, to say the least. Antrim manages to make you loath Tom as much as the character loathes himself, and you feel just as trapped by his obsessional and circuitous thinking as he does. Which is certainly a testament to Antrim’s skill, but at times I felt that the premise of the book was a bit too much of a trick. Even as it called Nicholson Baker and DavidFoster Wallace to mind, The Verificationist feels like a practice run. The idea is there, the formal constraints are set, but… What’s missing? I think it may be a sense of meaning–it maybe authenticity, on all fronts. Tom, so well versed in psychobabble, can only harken back to hollowed and cliched ideas from his discipline to give meaning to the experience of his breakdown, and because he does this in real time, it crowds out the readers ability to make anything of this extraordinary circumstance. This is not necessarily a flaw, in fact I suspect that it’s one of Antrim’s aims. It’s just that, from where I read,  Tom and the discourses of Jung and Freud are too overbearing to give you a chance read much into this story; it’s all there on the page, and doesn’t need you  at all.