1 April 2011

Donald Antrim, The Hundred Brothers, 1997

This bizarre novel has a superb opening sentence that takes up two pages, in which the highly unreliable and self-deceiving narrator Doug introduces his ninety-nine brothers (aged from 30 to 93) and explains what they plan to do over the course of a single night in the collapsing library of their late philandering father’s decrepit mansion. Of course, it doesn’t go exactly according to plan, instead it ends up the way these gatherings always do, in a squall of fights, exhibitions of puerile insecurities and generally asinine behaviour. It’s a black comedy of manners in which little gets resolved, a skillfully crafted and often surreal work that’s set in the present day, although at times it’s given a historical feel largely through the Rabelaisian extravagance of the brothers’ caricatures, done in a way that makes it feel as if one’s viewing an animated Hogarth sketch. But The Hundred Brothers is also as conceptual as it is comedic as the brothers’ childish antics are played out in sections of the library that allude to the loftiest aspirations of Western thought, and it will inevitably appeal to fans of Robertson Davies largely because of the comic intelligence with which it’s written. The cover notes go in for things like “the Marx Brothers - times twenty-five - performing a Harold Pinter play”, but the most succinct is the pull-quote “A mad wrestling match of a book”, because that feels exactly right. We could certainly do with reading a few more erudite comedies like this largely because they set a very high watermark indeed.  PY


No comments: