Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)
Theodore Gumbril is tired of being a teacher in the English public school by which he’s employed. Sitting in the cathedral, listening to the Headmaster drone on, he’s only conscious of the hard bench he’s occupying. A sort of epiphany happens to him as he becomes aware that what church attenders really need are trousers with inflatable pads to sit on so that they’re more comfortable. The pants could be deflated under ordinary circumstances, but could be blown up during long, tedious sermons. So he immediately quits his job and moves to London to organize the start-up of his new company.
The first person he meets with is Bojanus, a tailor formerly in service to the Gumbrils, father and son. They reach an understanding as to the shape and size of the new trousers; Gumbril pays him a bit in advance and Bojanus gets to work. Meanwhile, Theodore visits his father in his “rachitic house”, an old four-story edifice decaying at a steady rate, but home to the elder Gumbril’s architectural models, featuring a reworked London and various Italian creations close to his heart. A flock of starlings inhabiting a nearby tree occupies a large portion of his time. Their comings and goings en masse, and their conversations, he finds fascinating. The flock will be silent for a long time, then burst out chattering to each other all at once, and then suddenly fall into silence again. Somehow, Mr. Gumbril believes, they must be telepathic.
Theodore visits with some of his friends at a local cafe. Shearwater is a biological researcher, fully occupied in his work to the total disregard of his wife. Lypiatt is a painter of the grandiose sort, almost a precursor of Gulley Jimson, in Joyce Carey’s “The Horse’s Mouth”, except not as good and more of the arm-waving type. Coleman is an aggressive negativist, forever riotously contemptuous and amused at ordinary human activities to the point of self-mutilation. Mercaptan (in addition to being the chemical added to natural gas to make it detectable), is an effete columnist with super-refined tastes and an acid-dipped pen. Myra Viveash is a belle-about-town, bored with the continual round of dancing, drinking and theater-going, and hoping for something exciting to occur in her life. Mr. Boldero, an advertising expert, who, in the course of developing a plan for putting Gumbril’s pants up in neon lights, gets thrown down the stairs by Lypiatt because of his mindless offensive and insulting proposals. These characters, plus some others who are barely mentioned (Piers Cotton, for example, who is only mentioned twice), are the central figures of the book. They spend their time sleeping with each other, imbibing strange liquors, and wasting time while participating in destructive and un-helpful activities that penultimately bore them and finally awaken a couple of them. Lypiatt comes to understand that he’s a bad painter; Shearwater realizes he has ignored his wife and lost her to others; Mercaptan becomes locked into his own birdcage without realizing it; and Gumbril never quite understands what life is, in his weak pursuit of his silly project, but at the end finds some sort of connection with Viveash, when they spend time together and decide to tour the continent.
I should mention Emily, a young girl Gumbril falls in love with, but inadvertently leaves in the lurch, being caught up in following Viveash around, visiting restaurants, saloons, friends, and theaters instead of catching a train to meet her in the country.
This book was described as “humorous and comic”, but either the definitions of those qualities have changed a lot in the intervening years (it was written in 1922), or it totally misfired. I suppose it was intended to be representation of the “lost generation” which was written about by many authors: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mansfield, to name a few… Huxley was interested, i believe, in finding the answers to some questions which many of us have pondered: what does life mean, how does one lead a meaningful existence, is there another level of consciousness, what does it all mean…? Many of these quandaries appeared in his subsequent works in different forms: science fiction, social dramas, individual struggles of different sorts… And i think his final work, “The Doors of Perception” was his attempt to provide final answers to them in one way or another. The latter work was undertaken after Huxley’s thorough investigation into the qualities and effects of various drugs, however, and although his conclusions might be illuminating, they are in no way verifiable or even communicable. I haven’t read “Doors” lately, although i did many years ago, but i don’t recall any memorable or mind altering revelations from the experience.
Anyway, “Antic” was not so much a book as a disorganized collection of anecdotes, tending to point toward what Huxley was thinking about, but not very enlightening in so far as leading into any kind of awareness or expanded understanding on the part of the reader is concerned.