Memoir from Antproof Case

In Mark Helprin’s ambitious novel, MEMOIR FROM ANTPROOF CASE, an American-born octogenarian who, while withholding his true name, invites readers to call him Oscar Progresso, writes, and carefully preserves in the antproof case of the title, a memoir intended for the eyes of his wife’s young son. A gift in itself, the memoir contains clues to the whereabouts of a treasure that may also give the boy the gift of choice. As the possessor of such a treasure, the boy could know a freedom enjoyed by few. Yet he can also choose to ignore the clues, reject the treasure, and live a life undistorted by the accident of great wealth.

In the memoir, in form a picaresque novel, Helprin’s hero looks back over a life that includes an education in a mental institution, wartime heroics, marriage to and betrayal by a billionairess, success and degradation in the world of high finance, and a grandiose robbery that also becomes part of a settling of accounts. The theme to which the protagonist returns repeatedly, not to say tiresomely, however, is his obsession with coffee, in his view a poison responsible for much that has gone wrong with the modern world. That this is the obsession of a man who has wound up in Brazil is one of the novel’s more obvious ironies.

An exuberant, risk-taking, and therefore, inevitably uneven work, MEMOIR FROM ANTPROOF CASE boasts both eloquence of style and richness of comic invention. In the course of its considerable length, however, the reader may grow impatient with the crankiness and crotchets of the narrator and yearn for a world less compulsively an extension of one character’s consciousness. Characters other than the narrator never assume a full life of their own, and the chain of episodes can appear arbitrary at times, as though designed to indulge the needs of the narrator, rather than to reflect the forces of an independently existing universe. The novel’s many threads, then, never quite form a satisfyingly integrated whole, but if the book’s delights resolve themselves finally into a brilliant literary exercise, rather than a fully achieved example of the novelist’s art, brilliance at this level deserves readers’ gratitude.