Shortly before his most repulsive colleague gives him an erotic public bear hug that will last the length of the book, Tom, the narrator of Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist, meditates thus on pancakes: “What is a pancake? Cooked batter, covered in sugar and butter. Condiments are readily applied to it. It is food. But it is not as a food, not as sustenance, that we crave the pancake. No, the pancake, or flapjack if you will, is a childish pleasure; smothered in syrup, buried beneath ice cream, the pancake symbolizes our escape from respectability, eating as a form of infantile play. … The environment where pancakes are served and consumed are, in this context, special playrooms for a public ravenous for sweetness, that delirious sweetness of long-ago breakfasts made by mother, sweetness of our infancy and our great, lost toddler’s omnipotence.”
By the psych-talk and sex references, you may have already guessed that Tom is a psychologist, and by the cake described you may gather that the setting is a diner. You may have also inferred that Tom is a middle-aged man who is at a mid-life crisis point from which he can either grow or regress. The conceit of the book is this: The main character is unhappy, just like most financially stable, middle-aged intellectuals sans children or hair are supposed to be. Because he is considered childish by his colleagues, it is not surprising that he has chosen a diner for the friendly dinner with his colleagues at the Krakower Institute, where they study something called Self/Other Friction Theory together. He maintains that diners are essentially gigantic high chairs complete with colorful plastic covered everything where for the price of a few thousand calories you can messily and safely indulge your Oedipal hankerings.
After vacillating between menu choices, Tom attempts to instigate a food fight with the child psychiatrists and is restrained by his colleague, an overweight group therapy counselor, who wraps him in the aforementioned embrace and lifts him off the ground. Tom’s first reaction: “I loved this awful man, and he was deeply in love with me. In order to bear this knowledge and the attendant physical violation, our embrace, I had no recourse but escape into a transient psychotic breakdown and its exhilarating symptoms.”
The subsequent out-of-body experience sees the narrator depart the realm of the probable and fly around the restaurant enacting various childhood fantasies—the kind where some kind of power allows you to make the world stand still so that you can gratify your id without that meddling superego getting in the way.
As he flies around above his co-workers, Tom regresses into a childlike state where he can uninhibitedly engage his middle-aged fantasies of being the fly on the wall, the seducer of his young waitress and the sexual voyeur without social repercussions.
This stuff of idle school day dreaming is what occupies Antrim for the whole rest of the book. Because of the proliferation of psychologists almost everything is reduced to sex and childhood, but there are some identity issues that arise mainly from our narrator’s belief in such pandering sophisms as: “that the admission of infidelity, more perhaps than infidelity itself, is a violation of the marriage vows, and that any evasiveness during confrontations over fidelity and trust … can be seen as a generous and noble strategy.”
Throughout this extended, fairly tedious, satiric device, the prudes and prigs are shocked by his behavior “up there” while the libidinous and daring make an attempt at this psychotic state of the “toddler’s omnipotence.” Beyond the muddled Freudian/Jungian theory, what Antrim is trying to say is anyone’s guess. Essentially it is the lack of a discernable target that makes his satire go amiss. As a type, Tom is just shy of being pathetic, so what is there to lampoon? He claims that it is the vacillation between the banalities of life, in this example he can’t decide between eggs benedict and blueberry pancakes, that brings on his psychosis and causes his entire life to become unhinged.
I guess I just can’t sympathize because I don’t see breakfast choices as banal. To me, breakfast is the most visceral meal of the day, and to get out of bed not knowing what it is you want to eat is utterly irresponsible. The only way to keep off the shrink’s chair is to treat all your choices as essential, especially if you’ll be eating them.