March 12, 2012

"Ever Since"

By Donald Antrim
~5900 words

Despondent over a recent breakup, a lawyer skulks about the periphery of a Manhattan cocktail party.

The story is told in the third person from the perspective of the thoroughly unsympathetic main character, Jonathan. Jonathan wallows in grief over his breakup with his previous girlfriend, Rachel—who he can't stop referring to as his wife—all the while stringing along his new partner, Sarah, who appears to be deeply in love with him, and scoping out new women at the party. Finally, after blubbering to Rachel on the phone, and dizzy from a mix of alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana, he grabs a maraschino cherry stem, wraps it around Sarah's finger, and proposes to her.

Good writers often turn characters you would never want to meet in real life into someone you're eager to read about. This skillful blending of unlikability (my term for how one would describe a person like Jonathan in the real world) and sympathy (the literary trait) is a hallmark of many of the best New Yorker stories. But it doesn't happen in "Ever Since." From the first paragraph, Jonathan is portrayed as the kind of guy—and character—you just wish would go away:
Ever since his wife had left him—but she wasn't his wife, was she? he'd only thought of her that way, had begun to think of her that way, since her abrupt departure, the year before, with Richard Bishop—Jonathan had taken up a new side of his personality, and become the sort of lurking man who, say, at work or at a party, mainly hovers on the outskirts of the other people's conversations, leaning close but not too close, listening in while gazing out vaguely over their heads in order to seem distracted and inattentive, waiting for the conversation to wind down, so that he can weigh in gloomily and summarize whatever has just been said.
Despite the main character's being so unsympathetic, "Ever Since" is a reasonably successful story. This is a bit of a paradox that's worth exploring, and I'd be interested in hearing others' opinions. My best guess is that because Antrim does such a good job of portraying the depths of Jonathan's self-pity, the reader derives a certain perverse pleasure from watching him piss all over himself, kind of like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I think it's the same reason I liked "Expectations," though the characters there are equally unsympathetic (if not more so). What do you think?


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