Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Hundred Brothers, by Donald Atrim

Doug, the narrator of Donald Antrim’s darkly comic and utterly strange 1997 novel, The Hundred Brothers, is obsessed with blood lineage. In his spare time, he studies genealogy and traces his bloodline in an investigation to uncover “blood’s congenital inheritances, particularly in connection with insane monarchs.” He also searches for the histories of all the other “Dougs” who have come before him. The first recorded Doug, he tells us, died during birth in 1729. Following Dougs haven’t fared much better. One fell from a roof, while another drowned in a boating accident. Antrim’s Doug is determined to make up for the failing of his predecessors. But it is not the other Dougs of history, however, that this Doug should be worried with convincing of his worth. It is his own brothers, all 99 of them, each of whom seems on a path to stop Doug in all of his brilliance. The adult males of The Hundred Brothers quite literal title haze each other in a way that only blood relatives can, and it is this surreal fraternity who pose Doug the biggest threat. The brothers punch the weakest of their clan, argue violently over seating arrangements at the dinner table, and taunt each other over long held and mostly football related grievances, which translates to they simple act the way men do when there are not women looking.

To say that The Hundred Brothers is an unusual novel is an understatement. In his introduction to the newly released paperback version, Jonathan Franzen calls it “probably the strangest novel ever published by an American,” and there is evidence of this claim on every page of the slim novel. From the first, sprawling sentence (which ingeniously introduces the reader to each of the title’s hundred brothers), to its final psychotic tribal ceremony that closes novel, Antrim manages to do the truly outrageous, which is to convince the reader that every surreal moment is entirely plausible. The novel’s plot is remarkably simple: A family of brothers gathers together in their father’s slowly decaying grand library to find and dispose of “the old fucker’s” ashes. The novel takes place over the course of a single increasingly chaotic evening, and never ventures out of the decaying library where the novel is set. There is only a vague and slightly frightening mention of the outside world and no real referent to the time period. And there are no women to be found in this growling man-world, just the brothers and their alternating positions of love and hate for each other. Yet by keeping the plot and focus simple, Antrim is able to introduce the reader to a cast of 99 men (one of the brothers does not show), each of whom, however momentarily, comes alive in the course of the novel’s long and drunken night.

Antrim’s brothers, like any large group, vary in age and interest. Some of the men are presented as fully formed individuals, and it is a testament to Antrim’s skill as a writer that he is able to do so in such a succinct manner. There is Virgil, the meek younger brother, prone to panic attacks. There is Barry, the doctor of the bunch, who could make a practice based solely on his relative. There is Hiram, the oldest, of whom all the other brothers are frightened. There are also those whom we only see as nameless groups: the married men who seem to congregate near the porn, the football team intent on winning the next game, and the ones who gather in the dark, furtively cruising the library’s stacks for anonymous sex.

And then there is Doug, the novel’s tour guide through this singularly odd fraternity. Doug begins the novel as an acute observer of his brothers’ behavior, but grows increasingly unstable as the night gets longer. Anyone who has ever gathered in dread for family reunion can sympathize with Doug, who stays above the fray early in the novel, coolly describing the bizarre rituals we put ourselves through in the presence of those people we call family. But as Doug begins to interact with his brothers, he begins to fall prey to the patterns of intimacy: the long-held grievances, the buried emotions, and the moods and states of mind that are “no longer perceivable as moods, but as routine personality traits, shared attributes” than only families can hold. In the end, Doug slowly begins to succumb to his brothers and their shared history, decaying much like the library they are gathered in. “I’m not crazy,” he tells us early in the novel, in a statement reminiscent of most Poe’s heroes. But in the face of his multitude of brothers, even the best of defenses fails him. His introspections, that keep him insulated from familial lunacy, become lost in the presence of his brothers, and bleeds into true insanity. Nothing brings out our inner-freak like being trapped with those who know us the most, even for a single night, and The Hundred Brothers serves as a torturously comic reminder of this fact. Doug shouldn’t be worried, though. Much like the monarch he descends from, the craziness is in the blood.