Memoir from Antproof Case: A Novel by Mark Helprin. Recommended.
Like Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, Memoir from Antproof Case is difficult to classify (although Helprin helpfully gives it the subtitle A Novel). It has elements of magical surrealism, but falls short on magic.
In this sprawling fictional memoir, Oscar Progresso (not his real name, as though he were a real person) slowly and circumspectly reveals the cause of his pathological aversion to coffee, but first distracts the reader with red herrings like coffee’s allegedly toxic chemistry, the over-the-top portrayal of addiction to it, and its amphetamine-like effect on its purported victims.
The real cause is tragic but, given the tone of the novel, it’s hard to feel deeply for Oscar, the son of poor parents, graduate of Harvard University (and a Swiss mental institution), globe-trotting partner in an investment banking firm, WWII flying ace, and husband of a billionaire. The details of few of his stories are probable — how he killed two men, his life in the mental institution or even as a pilot during the war, the redundancy of the opulence of his life with Constance (how many kitchens is even a mansion likely to have?) or how she came to leave him. Then there is the drawn-out fall from power as an investment banker, from deciding the future of entire nations to being relegated to a carved wooden school desk in an unlit janitor’s closet and then to pointlessly shifting gold in the vaults with a class of unquestioning troglodyte humans; the culmination of this work is the most improbably event of all.
If there is any doubt about Oscar’s sanity, his reaction to being unable to find a larger antproof case should resolve it.
There are only two areas in which Oscar seems somewhat trustworthy. The first is the underlying story of his aversion to coffee, the story that is slowly and painstakingly revealed, and the other is his love for his wife’s son by another man, the boy he once was for only a short time.
I found myself wanting less of the whimsy and surrealism, imaginative and fascinating as it is, and more of the heart and soul that must inspire some of Oscar’s interjected and concluding thoughts, for example:
“Though the world is constructed to serve glory, success, and strength, one loves one’s parents and one’s children despite their failings and weaknesses — sometimes even more on account of them. In this school, you learn the measure not of power, but of love; not of victory, but of grace; not of triumph, but of forgiveness . . . With it [love, devotion, life as an device for the exercise of faith], your heart, though broken, will be full, and you will stay in the fight unto the very last.”
As with Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War, the voice is poetic and unique and the characters etched, while the events purposely stretch the credulity of the reader (if not the narrator).Memoir from Antproof Case tries to appeal to both the imagination and the heart, but, like its predecessors, sacrifices the latter for the former. This is unfortunate, because it has the potential to be the most human of the three. Instead of feeling for Oscar Progresso and his losses and lessons, I am left thinking he is a madman and an unreliable narrator who cannot escape the obsession and fantasy he has created and now clings to; my empathy remains uncertain and unclaimed. I cannot even be sure that the one story Oscar tells that rings true really is — the one of his childhood tragedy.
Helprin is close to being a great novelist but there is something cold and intellectual in his approach and style that prevents him from breaking through as, for example, Toni Morrison has. Although he has experienced life, it is rarely clear that he has felt it. Like Oscar and some of his previous characters, Helprin seems more observer than participant, which ultimately detracts from the magic and surrealism. Part of what make something magical is a belief that it could be possible in some way or some world; much of Oscar’s narrative is possible only in a madman’s mind.
Memoir from Antproof Case is worth the read, especially for Helprin fans, but it is more fancy appetizer than satisfying main course.
Aside: My copy of Memoir from Antproof Case is stained with coffee.
7 August 2005
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf