DONALD ANTRIM'S NEW NOVEL, The Verificationist
, is set entirely in an all-night pancake house, where a clique of psychoanalysts from the local university have been meeting twice yearly for rounds of gossip, coffee, shop talk, and flapjacks. On the night in question, narrator Tom (an Object Relations Theorist who may or may not be impotent) finds himself the recipient of a "sordid, oddly lovely, threateningly intimate and utterly unexpected" bear hug from his oafish colleague Bernhardt (a Group Therapy specialist). This way-too-Freudian embrace incites in Tom a moment of apparent homosexual panic, which suddenly blossoms into a full-blown break with reality -- a polymorphously perverse flight toward the restaurant's ceiling, and simultaneously into the abyss of Tom's own acutely self-defined and auto-paralyzing self-consciousness. Tom is aware that his regressive fantasy of flight around the pancake house -- where he gazes down at the various mating rituals and professional conceits of his cohorts -- is nothing more than "a cluster of persuasive somatic sensations expressing sexual fantasies as externalized visual and auditory distortions, to be exact." This psychological clarity is brilliantly rendered by Antrim as a kind of hysterical ruse, a form of emotional obfuscation foisted off as clinical knowledge of self.
Antrim's satire runs deep: All those crippling legacies of Freud (hidden meanings in everything, erotic undercurrents everywhere, crises of identity as status quo) are lampooned in the obsessive minutiae of Tom's crack-up. Through the device of Tom's flight and his subsequently ineffectual psychobabble, Antrim, with wonderfully smooth prose, reveals the many ways in which contemporary diagnoses of spiritual sickness become just another symptom of the sickness itself. In the pancake house, as in the world at large, modern life is overanalyzed, malnourished, and a little short on love.