House of Meetings

Martin Amis’s father, Kingsley Amis, is chiefly known for his novel Lucky Jim (1954), a superbly constructed traditional comedy. Kingsley’s subsequent novels, and there were many, demonstrate how a talented author can work in traditional genres. Martin Amis’s career, in contrast, reflects his ability to explore different ways of writing fiction. His first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973), dealt energetically, honestly, and humorously with adolescent sexuality. The hero of Money (1984) is a bumbling British pornographer loose in New York. London Fields (1989) is a phantasmagoric look at the horrors of the future. Time’s Arrow’s (1991) time scheme runs backward. The Information (1995) is a rather bland story told in the present, perhaps to settle one of Amis’s personal grudges. One critic has labeled Yellow Dog (2003) a postmodern self-parody. In short, one never knows what Martin Amis is going to do.

House of Meetings does not disappoint. It is an epistolary novel containing only two letters. Most of the novel takes the form of a long letter written by the eighty-five-year-old unnamed narrator in 2004 to his twenty-four-year-old stepdaughter, Venus. The novel includes footnotes explaining the historical background of the events that shaped the narrator’s life, especially the deaths of Soviet leaders such as Joseph Stalin, Nikita S. Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev. (The readers discover near the novel’s end that these footnotes have been added by Venus, presumably for the reading public upon publication.) Because the novel is written in the first person, the reader has no authorial comments to verify the narrator’s statements, and because the narrator is garrulous and disorganized, the story does not unfold in a straightforward manner. The reader learns that the narrator has just been in Chicago, that he was in a Siberian gulag many years ago, that he is now returning to Siberia, and that he was once a flourishing capitalist in Russia. The narrator’s tale unfolds in swirling fashion, gradually zeroing in on the most important thing that he has to tell Venus.

Readers will find the story hard to follow, but in general it goes something like this: The narrator was born in 1919 in a Russian village; his brother Lev was born some years later. The narrator fought in World War II during 1944 and 1945. He admits that in the later months of service he raped many East German women. Soon after the war, a strange and desirable woman, Zoya, arrives in his village, and his brother Lev marries her. Shortly thereafter, the narrator is for some reason, or perhaps for no reason, sent to a gulag (a forced-labor camp) in Siberia above the Arctic Circle near Predposylov. Minor offenses could get one sent to a gulag: For instance, one of the narrator’s girlfriends was dispatched for arriving at work late on three occasions. Life in the labor camp is terrible. The inmates are divided into various ranks, each of which picks on the others. Packs of wild dogs roam everywhere.

Some time later, Lev arrives in camp. Whereas the narrator is forceful and determined, Lev is passive and poetical. When conjugal visits are allowed, Zoya arrives, and she and Lev spend a night in the House of Meetings, a shack partway up a mountain. After Stalin’s death in 1953, things change. The prisoners are released. Lev and Zoya are together, and the narrator begins to make good money as a television repairman, later as a creator of robotics in preparation for another world war. Zoya leaves Lev in 1962, and the narrator marries Jocelyn in 1969; the marriage lasts thirteen years. In 1983, the narrator receives a box containing Lev’s possessions, including an envelope with a long letter from Lev to him, a letter the narrator decides not to read until he too is near death. When Zoya visits the narrator in his Moscow apartment, she behaves provocatively; the sex they have could probably...

(The entire section is 1619 words.)