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SOURCE: "What Life Is: The Novels of Martin Amis," in PN Review, Vol. 7, No. 6, 1981, p. 42-45.
[In the following essay, Powell provides overviews and analyses of three of Amis's early novels, The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, and Success.]
Success is a funny thing. In literature (as K.W. Gransden observed in an amiable poem on Poetry Now recently), there are those notable popular successes which turn up, still in their paper jackets but a little tatty, cluttering the shelves of second-hand bookshops a couple of decades later, their authors either forgotten or remembered merely as instances of the fickleness of reputations. Then there are the successes which enjoy a quite different kind of life, even though their 'literary' reputations may stand hardly higher than those of the first sort: books which are distinctively of their time and which, though by no means great works of art, succeed through accuracy of detail and of tone—as, for instance, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning does. And finally, there are the successes which endure, which are never to be found gathering dust on bookshop shelves, and of which the paperback spines, after a decent interval, change colour from orange to the dignified grey of the Penguin Modern Classics.
Martin Amis's three novels belong at present to the second category of success: but, such is the league-table logic of this particular game, they may be promoted or relegated, depending on the whims of fashion and that old common arbitrator, Time. Amis has certainly been the most praised and the most publicised new writer of full-length fiction in England in the past decade (the qualification 'full-length' is made necessary by the stories of Ian McEwan), and not without reason. Reviewing his third novel—called, of course, Success—Tom Paulin commented: 'His exploration isn't merely personal and neurotic—it is deeply sensitive to the mood of the late 1970s, and anyone who belongs to Amis's generation must recognise his understanding of where we are now.' Paulin is right; but his comment is as ambiguous, and in precisely the same way, as the novels themselves. In Success, which one would guess to be the culmination of this particular vein in Amis's work, the very title embodies a self-negating reflexive loop: if the novel is about the valuelessness of success in London in the late 1970s, then the success of the novel in London in the late 1970s is valueless.
The three novels—The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies and Success—have a great deal in common: each is a social and sexual satire in which an unlikely hero emerges as a precarious survivor while the beautiful and damned all around him go to pieces. Amis's preoccupation is with deception in all its forms, but especially self-deception: his extravagantly attractive and 'successful' characters (Quentin in Dead Babies, Gregory in Success) are destroyed—self-destroyed—with extraordinary completeness and extraordinary relish. Yet the novels are not simply fables about superficiality: the endings of Dead Babies and Success are, despite their apparent resolutions, ambivalent and pessimistic.
The Rachel Papers is the slightest of the three. Several charges may be brought against it: that it is unscrupulous, a piece of expedient hackwork; that it relies overwhelmingly on stereotypes and easy allusions; that it received attention and commendation mainly as the first novel by the son of an established writer whose own first novel had caused a stir, thus offering irresistible comparisons for reviewers between the relative irreverence of two generations. All these charges—and there are doubtless others—have some truth in them, but they do not invalidate the novel's two clear...
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qualities: the vitality (though it sometimes turns into twitchiness) of the writing; and the exactness with which Amis catches a certain manner of speech and, since this is a first-person narrative, thought—a style which is not naturally demotic but which is rather the style of people who unconsciously ape the media's versions of actual speech, at once spontaneous and stereotyped. Orwell once complained of sentences in which phrases are 'tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house': most of Amis's characters speak and think like that; and so, sometimes, does their author.
Charles Highway, the narrator of The Rachel Papers, is the prototype Amis hero: clever, articulate, self-conscious (he knows when he's speaking 'in idiomatic lower-middle'), determined to overcome what he sees as his personal deficiencies. These, typically, are the first things we learn about him:
I wear glasses for a start, have done since I was nine. And my medium-length, arseless, waistless figure, corrugated ribcage and bandy legs gang up to dispel any hint of aplomb…. I remember I used to have to fold the bands of my trousers almost double, and bulk out the seats with shirts intended for grown men. I dress more thoughtfully now, though not so much with taste as with insight.
That passage sets the tone of the book, both in its preoccupation with physical surface details and in its closing juxtaposition: The Rachel Papers certainly achieves insight at the expense of taste. Between seven p.m. and midnight on the evening before his twentieth birthday, Charles shuffles and reshuffles the experiences of the preceding months, in which two goals—Rachel and Oxford—are interwoven and achieved. He is vulnerable and absurd, given to translating his problems into an 'Anxiety Top Ten', complete with the patter of a disc-jockey and 'Last week's positions in brackets'. Sub-cultural shorthand is his characteristic mode: 'to be against the Beatles (late-middle period),' he reflects, 'is to be against life.'
But this intellectual level—though it serves well enough for his seduction of Rachel, and the discoveries and disappointments which follow from that—seems both feeble in a supposedly brilliant Oxford candidate and tedious in the narrative figure of a novel. When Charles tries to think, the results are discouraging:
Don't I ever do anything but take soulful walks down the Bayswater Road, I thought, as I walked soul-fully down the Bayswater Road.
Very well: demonically mechanical cars; potent solid living trees; unreal distant-seeming buildings; blotchy extra-terrestrial wayfarers; Intense Consciousness of Being; pathetic fallacy plus omnipresent déjà vu, cosmic angst, metaphysical fear, a feeling both claustrophobic and agoraphobic, the teenager's religion. The Rev. Northrop Frye fetchingly terms it 'queasy apocalyptic foreboding'. An Angus Wilson character terms it 'adolescent egotism', thereby driving me almost to suicide last Christmas. Is that all it fucking is, I thought.
I experienced thrilling self-pity. 'What will that mind of yours get up to next?' I said, recognising the self-congratulation behind this thought and the self-congratulation behind that recognition on the self-congratulation behind recognizing that recognition.
Steady on. What's so great about going mad?
But even that was pretty arresting. Even that, come on now, was a pretty arresting thing for a nineteen-year-old boy to have thought.
This style, though (like everything else in the novel) it testifies to Amis's understanding of the late-adolescent mind, does rather soon become wearisome. Near the end of the book, however, Amis artfully tries to distance himself from his narrator. Charles arrives for his Oxford interview, is directed to Dr Charles Knowd's room, and there discovers 'a pair of hippies'.
One of them presumably the doctor, waved his hand at me and said without looking up:
'The room across the corridor. Five minutes.'
There was a further hippie in the room across the corridor.
This further hippie, plainly a proto-Appleseeder from Dead Babies ('"What's your name?" "Highway." What's yours? Manson?'), informs Charles that Dr Knowd is 'About the coolest guy in Oxford' and goes on to discomfort him by dropping names like Berryman, Snodgrass, Sexton, Duncan, Hecht. Charles wonders: 'Who were these people? I had studied neither the Extremists nor the Liverpudlians.' But Knowd, despite his appearance, turns out to be the necessary corrective to the prevailing narrative viewpoint. He begins, 'Mr. Highway … do you like literature?' and goes on to analyse, concisely and ruthlessly, the faults of Charles's essays—which are, naturally, the faults of his first-person narrative. He concludes with a remark which must also be Amis's wry, concealed acknowledgement of what he's up to in the novel:
'I won't go on … Literature has a kind of life of its own, you know. You can't just use it … ruthlessly, for your own ends. I'm sorry, am I being unfair?'
In Dead Babies, 'we have gone on ahead a small distance in time'—about a decade, in fact, represented in an entirely arbitrary way by retrospective references to a 'battered '78 Chevrolet' or '1979 Moet & Chandon' and by such props as an 'I-type Jaguar' or a 'DC70'. The novel concerns the appalling inhabitants of Appleseed Rectory and their three American weekend visitors: the shift forward in time allows Amis considerable licence in constructing his frightful vision. The book is full of literary and other allusions: a novel of Iris Murdoch's is mentioned, reminding us that this enclosed country-house plot is a development or a perversion of a typically Murdochian world; Quentin's magazine Yes has 'won outspoken praise from William Burroughs, Gore Vidal, Angus Wilson—writers evidently among Amis's influences and his targets. On a different level, the idea of flower-power gone to seed is plainly suggested by 'Appleseed' (Apple was of course The Beatles' company) while it is no coincidence that the diabolical drug-mixer, Marvell Buzhardt, shares a name with the author of 'The Garden'.
The Appleseeders are a grotesque bunch. The sanest of them is probably Diana Parry, who 'spends a lot of time wondering what the hell she's doing in Appleseed Rectory' and who, before the final catastrophe asks: 'Don't you think we must have made a mistake a long time ago to end up like this. That something went wrong and that's why we're all so dead now … Baby?' Her boyfriend, Andy Adorno, is a pastiche of trendy machismo: keen on drinking, fighting and swearing, but sexually disappointing and the only character to respond in a conventionally 'sentimental' way to the bizarre death of The Mandarin, Celia's cat, which goes berserk after Marvell has drugged its food:
Andy returned for the last time to The Mandarin's body. 'I loved that cat,' he said unsteadily. 'I did.'
'It just checked out, man,' said Marvell.
'Yeah,' said Andy, breathing in. 'But Jesus I hate this no-good motherfucking chickenshit weekend.'
That provides a marginal degree of redemption for Andy. Celia is the least vividly realised of the Appleseeders, largely because her main function is to be married to the 'superman' Quentin Villiers ('The versatility of the fellow!') who is the presiding or at any rate the manipulating genius behind Appleseed Rectory and who
can talk all day to a butcher about the longevity of imported meats, to an air-hostess about safety regulations in the de Gaulle hangars, to an insurance salesman about post-dated transferable policies, to a poet about non-typographical means of distinguishing six-syllable three-lined stanzas and nine-syllable two-line ones, to an economist about pre-war counter-inflationary theory, to a zoologist about the compensatory eye movements of the iguana. Just so, he can address a barrow-boy in rhyming slang, a tourist in yokel French, a Sunderlander in Geordie, a Newmarket tout in genteel Cambridgeshire, a gypsy in Romany.
He is, then, a kind of Everyman. But we are warned:
Watch Quentin closely. Everyone else does. Stunned by his good looks, proportionately taken aback by his friendliness and accessibility, flattered by his interest, struck by the intimacy of his manner and lulled by the hypnotic sonority of his voice—it is impossible to meet Quentin without falling a little bit in love.
The two remaining residents are Giles Coldstream—perhaps the one real comic creation in the novel, endearingly neurotic and gin-sodden, obsessed with dentistry—and Keith Whitehead. Little Keith is the Court Dwarf, revoltingly obese, distinguished from the others by a background which might be called 'ordinarily' dreadful rather than modishly, affluently dreadful. He suffers and (therefore?) survives.
Even more grotesque are the three Americans—Marvell Buzhardt, Skip Marshall and Roxeanne Smith—who seem to be the forces of destruction, who frighten even Diana and Andy, and who more than frighten Keith. But they are merely catalysts: the real danger, and the source of the novel's thriller-aspect, lies elsewhere.
The hurtling, obsessive obscenity of Dead Babies—which I shall not try to illustrate here—is in the end, as it is intended to be, numbing: that, after all, is part of the satirist's moral. Yet, like all Amis's novels, the book has a soft side and strikes unexpected notes of wry gentleness: when the assembled company is 'a-wheeze with boredom' after watching 'unspeakable acts' (catalogued nonetheless) performed on film and Marvell promises something 'new' and 'different', the treat turns out to be a scene enacted with vintage Hollywood decorum. The point, of course, is that it is infinitely more erotic than the hard-core pornography. The watchers, attuned to a more brutalised world, are confused and astonished. But by now it is too late for redemption—as we have been told, in a passage of sudden dazzling eloquence, a few pages before:
Yes, it was seven o'clock and a pall of thunder hung over the Rectory rose-gardens. The formerly active air was now so weighed down that it seeped like heavy water over the roof. Darkness flowed in the distance, and the dusk raked like a black searchlight across the hills and towards them.
But pity the dead babies. Now, before it starts. They couldn't know what was behind them, nor what was to come. The past? They had none. Like children after a long day's journey, their lives arranged themselves in a patchwork of vanished mornings, lost afternoons and probable yesterdays.
Those two beautifully balanced paragraphs show Amis's writing at its best: in their context—they occur abruptly in the harshest section of the book—they are stunningly effective. However, that awkward 'Yes …' hints at a narrative weakness: the problem of tone is no more resolved here than it was in The Rachel Papers, and Amis's attempts at ironic or satirical detachment, employing updated Swiftian or Fieldingesque devices, are uneasy.
Dead Babies has an epigraph from Menippus: '… and so even when (the satirist) presents a vision of the future, his business is not prophecy, just as his subject is not tomorrow … it is today.' Success brings us back to today. It is a logical development: one novel implies the other. If the future is Dead Babies, then Success is the present which predetermines it.
Success consists of twelve chapters, each corresponding to a month of the year; and in each chapter the two alternating narrators, who share a flat in Bayswater, give their versions of the month's events—first Terence Service (short, unattractive, 'unsuccessful', but ambitious, a slightly less grotesque version of Little Keith), then his foster-brother Gregory Riding (tall, attractive, apparently successful, a self-confessed manipulator, a variation on the theme of Quentin). Most of Amis's characters have horrifying backgrounds but Terry's, like Keith's is explicitly working-class: it is this which seems to provide them both with their improbable resilience. Terry, though, is adopted at the age of nine by the philanthropic Mr Riding after his seven-year-old sister has been murdered by his father:
I don't know whether my father killed my mother; but I bloody know he killed my sister, because I was there at the time and watched him as he did so. (Suck on that. It's easy enough to see what it was that fucked me up. I go on about all this a lot. I make no apologies. It's just too bad, I'm allowed to go on about it, on account of it fucking me up.)
Gregory, by contrast, at first seems prosperous and secure, with his numerous girlfriends and boyfriends, his expensive car, his prestigious art gallery job. But Success is a see-saw, and it gradually becomes clear that Gregory's opulent world is a fabrication: 'It was a lie. I tell lies. I'm a liar. I always have been. I'm sorry.' And with Gregory's recognition of his own deceptions and self-deceptions comes his parallel recognition of Terry's increasing success:
And Terry. What is this with him now? No, don't tell me. Don't tell me he's becoming a success. No, don't tell me that….
But the yobs are winning. And Terry, of course, is 'doing well'. He is doing well. Of course. He has shown that he will perform what is necessary to succeed. He has shown that he is prepared to trade his days. He is doing well.
The contest, then, is between a liar and a yob: there's little to choose between them. Success is style, and style is everything. So, towards the end of the novel, Terry's 'chippy' aggressive manner gives way to something approaching Gregory's urbanity, which meanwhile collapses. Finally, Gregory's father dies; the foster-brothers revisit the 'rotting and near-worthless' Riding home; and Terry, not Gregory, returns at once 'down the unravelling track, on the look-out for London. I sip my drink. I'm going to be all right.' Gregory, on the other hand, is left to his childhood landscape and to a belated truthful confrontation with childish terrors:
I stand behind the row of birches. I'm cold—I want to shiver and sob. I look up. Something's coming. Oh, go away. Against the hell of sunset the branches bend and break. The wind will never cease to craze the frightening leaves.
The novel's closing pages are ambiguous: though superficially pessimistic, they look to me (this may be a wilfully bucolic misreading) to point in favour of Gregory's derelict state, to suggest that the terrors and the comforts of the rural world may be bleak but at least they have depth and reality. Here, at least, the future of Dead Babies seems avoidable.
Amis's novels pose a number of general problems. The first, rather slippery one involves the distinction between pornography and literature: it seems to me that in all three novels—but most noticeably in Dead Babies—there are passages where the ironist's or satirist's distancing fails entirely. This is an aspect of the uncertainty of tone which so often weakens Amis's writing. Pornography fulfils a simple and perhaps necessary purpose; whereas literature is altogether more complicated. We need to distinguish between them not for censorious reasons but because the two things demand different kinds of intention and response. A work of literature may be endangered where the simpler level of intention and response gets in the way of the more subtle and complex one: such a confusion happens too often in Amis's novels and provokes those familiar comments ('Extravagantly sexual … highly enjoyable') which are quoted on the paperback editions of his books and in which reviewers, understandably enough, attempt to have it both ways. Among a novelist's desperate remedies, the gratuitous, knowing obscenity—like the one-line joke—is a stand-by to be used sparingly.
The second problem is related to the first. Because Amis's characters live in an echoing present ('The past? They had none.'), their allusions and their vocabulary belong to a world of crazily foreshortened historical perspectives. A central passage in The Rachel Papers presupposes a detailed knowledge of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; Andy, in Dead Babies, habitually adds a redundant 'is all' to the ends of his sentences; Terry, in Success, obsessively uses the word 'tonto', in italics, an extreme example of localised slang which seems to mean mad'. These are random instances of an overstrained contemporaneity: the cumulative effect of such things is drastically to restrict the potential range of the novels.
But what about the potential range of the novel? What effect is Amis's success, or Success, likely to have upon the language of fiction? In Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale, the final section is called 'What Life Is'. That too is a second-division novel, though a remarkably good one, and in its intention of providing a detailed record of two contrasting sisters' lives it has something in common with Success. Amis is in many ways the more polished and skilful of the two writers, but it is Bennett's 'life' which moves and convinces. Why? Not, I think, because life has changed (though obviously it has) but because, whereas in Bennett language is enriching, in Amis it is deadening, reductive. One has, in The Old Wives' Tale, a deep sense of both change and continuity in historical time, sustained by Bennett's allusions to real events of some importance and to alterations in the texture of life. In Amis, the resonance has gone and the language of fiction has become as formulaic and as ephemeral as last year's pop music. Stifled by its insistence on the present, by its pop and media allusiveness, and by its introverted slang, Amis's language becomes only of its time and lacks even the ambition of timelessness.
Except, that is, for those moments—the occasional patches of brilliance in Dead Babies, the end of Success—when Amis seems to reach out towards a larger fictional world: then one can see what a fine writer he could be if he were to allow himself a greater historical range, a deeper commitment to the enduring realities of time and place. I hope that his future novels will show a decisive break with (to borrow a line from Thom Gunn) 'the limitations where he found success' and will find him using his talent more positively, less defensively. But success is a funny thing, and it may take time to grow out of it.
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Martin Amis 1949–
(Born Martin Louis Amis) English novelist, critic, short story writer, editor, scriptwriter, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Amis's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 9, 38, and 62.
Regarded as a groundbreaking novelist, Amis satirizes the scabrous excesses of youth and contemporary society with an irreverent and incisive wit similar to that of his father, author Kingsley Amis. Employing fast-paced prose infused with contemporary slang and profanity, Amis portrays characters who are obsessed with sex, drugs, violence, and materialistic pursuits. Amis—who is commonly known as Britain's enfant terrible—has been the subject of strong debate for the past two decades. He has been lauded as an insightful satirist, but he has been dismissed by many critics as "gratuitously malevolent," according to Susan Morrison. Like such satirists as Jonathan Swift and Angus Wilson, with whom he has been compared, Amis is widely regarded as a moralist whose novels admonish the vices of his age. Jerome Charyn commented: "Amis is so horrified by the world he sees in the process of formation that he feels compelled to warn us all about it."
Born in Oxford, England, Martin Amis is the son of well-known British author Kingsley Amis and Hilary Bardwell Amis. He attended more than thirteen schools while he was growing up in Britain, Spain, and the United States, and underwent a variety of experiences in his formative years. After attending several "crammers"—special tutorials designed to help students prepare for university entrance examinations—Amis accomplished no small feat by attaining a formal first in English at Exeter College, Oxford. He later became a member of the editorial staff at the London Times Literary Supplement. At the age of twenty-four, Amis won the Somerset Maugham Award for his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1974). He became the literary editor of The New Statesman, wrote numerous articles, and produced two more novels: Dead Babies in 1975 and Success in 1978. He followed these achievements with Other People (1981), Money (1984), London Fields (1989), Time's Arrow (1991), and The Information (1995). A collection of essays and a collection of short stories followed while Amis was a staff writer and reviewer for the London Observer. Amis's extensive travels and rich personal experience of metropolitan London life have impacted the major themes in his works: greed, money, sex, alienation, and the human condition.
Amis's first novel, The Rachel Papers, is about a young man's passage from adolescence into adulthood. Charles Highway, the protagonist, is an egocentric English youth who relates his misadventures in graphic and humorous detail on the eve of his twentieth birthday. Dead Babies is a black comedy about a group of deviant youths who gather at a country home for a weekend of sex, drugs, verbal abuse, and physical violence. Success focuses on the relationship between two cohabiting foster brothers, one aristocratic and one working-class, and their comparative degrees of social, economic, and sexual success. The theme of rivalry between two protagonists reemerges in one of Amis's later novels, The Information. Money has been praised as one of Amis's best works. This ambitious novel explores such topics as greed, excess, self-destruction, cultural deprivation, sex, and love—all elements that have become standards in Amis's later work. London Fields, set in 1999 against a backdrop of impending environmental, economic, and military disaster, enlarges upon themes examined in Money and Success. Time's Arrow is about Tod Friendly, an American doctor who becomes progressively younger in Amis's reverse-time narrative. He ends up running a Nazi concentration camp, where he discovers himself to be "death doctor" Odilo Unverdorben. Visiting Mrs. Nabokov (1993) is a collection of sketches and essays detailing Amis's visits with various personalities, including Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Roman Polanski. The Information, Amis's most recent work, employs many of the themes and devices used in earlier works. The two central characters, Richard Tull and Gwynn Barry, compete for literary fame and glory in a rivalry much like the rivalries employed in London Fields and Success. Strongly autobiographical, The Information is a satire of London literary life. It serves as Amis's comment on the tenacious and competitive nature of the literary world.
Most critics have found Amis's first three novels—The Rachel Papers, Dead Babies, and Success—remarkably similar. As Neil Powell noted, "each is a social and sexual satire in which an unlikely hero emerges as a precarious survivor while the beautiful and damned all around him go to pieces." According to Charles Michener, The Rachel Papers is largely autobiographical, and Amis revealed to the critic that the novel is about the year he spent in "crammers" before attending Oxford. Powell contends that Amis made Dead Babies lewd and obscene in an effort to numb readers and that the author's "attempts at ironic or satirical detachment, employing updated Swiftian or Fieldingesque devices, are uneasy." He faults Amis for relying on the bombastic and sensational to sell his readers, and questions whether the author will ever outgrow his penchant for depicting the gratuitous and obscene. Time's Arrow has been faulted for both its confusing time structure and its controversial subject matter involving the Holocaust. Many critics focused on Amis's reversal of cause and effect in the narration of the tale, and took issue with his fictionalization of the historical record of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, commentators typically acknowledged that the satirical elements of the plot work effectively, and that the magnitude of telling a story in reverse presented Amis with special challenges. John Updike wrote: "Amis's ambitious concerns with inhumanity, time, and the unthinkable converge in Time's Arrow, a work of impressive intensity and virtuosity, albeit bristling with problematical aspects." According to Maya Slater, who found the narrative hard to follow: "Amis, by reversing the order of events, has deprived us of our ease of reading." Visiting Mrs. Nabokov is a collection of short essays and sketches written on assignment for various British and American magazines. Francine Prose noted: "[The essays] … move quickly; they don't ask much of us, or offend." Yet Chris Savage King found Amis's personal sketches to be tedious and pretentious. King wrote, "I used to find Amis an entertaining writer. I found this collection pretty miserable." The Information, which examines the subject of literary envy, has had a favorable reception. Calling the novel "… a study of envy and egomania that happens to play itself out in the world of publishing," Julian Loose has claimed that "the primary pleasure of reading The Information is that of being regularly swept up in … epic, frothy, digressions." Others agree that The Information is full of literary allusions and is noteworthy for its examination of life in the publishing industry. "The Information … comes to us under a storm of attendant publicity about its roots in real life," wrote Ed Morales. Many laud the novel as a culmination of Amis's strengths. Adam Mars-Jones holds: "[The Information] … has everything in common with Money and London Fields in terms of tone and territory." Pulling together several of the themes and motifs of his earlier works, The Information has been praised as a synthesis of Amis's work, but it has also been observed that the novel is a rehashing of his often used literary devices. Merle Rubin contends: "It may … strike many readers as perhaps a little too familiar-sounding if they've read Mr. Amis's earlier books."
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SOURCE: "The Wit and Fury of Martin Amis," in Rolling Stone, No. 578, May 17, 1990, pp. 95-99, 101-02.
[In the following interview, Amis discusses his work, literary influences, and techniques, and his reputation as a misogynist, among other topics.]
"Look, we're not running this."
That's what Martin Amis said to his London publishers when they showed him a proposed advertisement for his new novel, London Fields. Over a picture of a rancid meat pie crawling with maggots, the ad read: "Today, in London, the average man will think about sex 20 times. One man in three will masturbate. One person will be murdered within three days. A woman will be sexually assaulted every three hours. And five children will die from parental abuse within the week. London Fields … [is] a novel about ordinary, everyday life."
Amis wanted to lose the meat pie.
Long hailed—and heckled—as the enfant terrible of English fiction, Martin Amis is no longer an enfant (he's forty) and less terrible than ever (he changes diapers—"but only the damp ones"). Nonetheless, his sixth and most ambitious novel is a whopping nightmare of spiritual and planetary decay. What many critics have failed to point out, though, is that far from being a daunting or depressing nightmare of spiritual and planetary decay, London Fields is enormously fun. And funny.
Set on the eve of the millennium in Amis's own neighborhood of West London, the novel follows a frighteningly intelligent femme fatale named Nicola Six and the trio of clueless lunks that she has cast as accomplices in her own exquisitely art-directed murder: Keith Talent, the lowlife hustler who fills his days with lifeless sex and a viscous liqueur called porno; Guy Clinch, the ardent upper-class wimp so out of touch with his own drives that he hauls his Nicola-induced erection around third-world London like an unfamiliar crutch; and Samson Young, the terminally ill and terminally pretentious American narrator, who thinks he's stumbled across the perfect real-life murder to novelize. Along with Nicola and Sam (as in Uncle), the planet is dying, too, and Amis draws on his dazzling arsenal of sometimes soaring, sometimes lurching, always merciless prose to describe its last pathetic chugs and sputters.
The literary community has been split down the middle about Martin Amis for the better part of two decades, ever since the publication of his first novel, The Rachel Papers, a scatological swoon of wise-guy adolescent horniness. Saul Bellow, a mentor, has compared him to Flaubert and Joyce, and to his many lay fans he is nothing short of a cult hero. But other readers and critics, particularly among his countrymen, find him and his work gratuitously malevolent; the judges of Britain's Booker Prize last year snubbed London Fields, presumably for what some perceived as the novelist's bad attitude toward his female characters. Though he enjoys a close relationship with his father, Kingsley, the author of Lucky Jim, Amis is hardly a literary lion at home: The father rarely finishes the son's novels, complaining of their "compulsive vividness"; and Antonia, Martin's American wife of six years—"not by any means a fanatical fan of mine"—will only read the books he's written since meeting her.
At the time of this interview, Amis had been talking to the press about London Fields for six months, and though clearly ambivalent about the novelist's obligation to be a human Cliffs Notes, he was gracious, gentler than advertised and disarmingly polite. We met at his office—actually a paper-strewn converted bachelor pad draped with Indian print bedspreads—on the second floor of a tumbling-down Victorian house a mile from where he conducts his family-man life with his wife and their two young sons. Compact and well proportioned, and capped with what looked like a hastily self-inflicted haircut, he could have passed for a hard-living American college boy, in his tennis sneakers, hemmed jeans and white button-down shirt. He folds himself up tightly as he talks, and he says the word yeah often, drawing it out for maximum American street-smart effect.
Amis has done time as a reporter, and in an article about meeting Saul Bellow, he confessed that "as a journalist, you hope for lunacy, spite, deplorable indiscretions, a full-scale nervous breakdown in mid-interview." I had no such luck with Amis, but I did discover some things just as shocking, given his reputation as a sneering little tough guy: He cries at movies; he likes Lite beer; he drives to his daily tennis game in the family station wagon wearing a Fauntleroyish get-up of linen blazer, white shirt and shorts; and, most endearing, every now and then he lisps a little. Which isn't to say he's not acerbic, incisive, quick with a derisive laugh and fully capable of writing words that send the squeamish running for their Barbara Pym. And he says he has terrible tennis manners.
[Morrison]: In London Fields, the narrator makes the point that people would rather read about misfortune than happiness. Why?
[Amis]: As the narrator says, who else but Tolstoy could make happiness swing on the page? It's dreadfully difficult to write about happiness in a way that makes you smile. When everything's just fine in a novel or in life, we're usually thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah." It's like the letter home from the holidays: "Having a nice time" isn't what you want to read really, is it? What I am interested in is heavy comedy, rather than light comedy. It's a wincing laughter, or a sort of funky laughter, rather than tee-hee-hee. Sort of a hung-over laughter, where it hurts.
Reviewers often call your books mean spirited or misanthropic, ignoring the fact that they're also incredibly funny.
The comedy is the main thing, and I feel best as a writer when comic invention is flowing. There's a bit in London Fields where one of the characters, Keith, is sitting around with all these sachets of perfume that he's bought, and they turn out to be water; then he sells the water and gets counterfeit notes for that; and then he buys vodka with the counterfeit notes, but then the vodka turns out to be the perfume. And when I'm doing that, I think, "God, this is just great stuff. Where did it come from?" It just sort of flows. You're in a bit of trouble if you're trying to think up snappy one-liners. Humor can't just be a foam on top of things. It has to be an undercurrent and emerge naturally from the situation.
But you're dead right in that that is how I would like reviews to begin and end—with talk of this. If you start off with the premise of me being a comic writer, you are taking an interesting line because there are clearly things in my novels that shouldn't really be in comic novels. And there are people who don't like that, who just want the comedy. But I think that comedy never works when all it is, is comedy. Then it's just Fran Lebowitz.
What do you find funny?
Conversations with friends. I find my children quite funny. Children are, of course, very funny. I was very amused by this little piece about me in one paper that began, "Martin Amis is a vile little fuck who loves his children."
Do you laugh a lot?
Yeah, quite a lot. It's my theory that when you're about thirty-eight, your laugh divides—you have the big laugh, which is really you, and then you have this other laugh, the one you've developed for social occasions. And to my horror, I sometimes hear this second kind of chortle come out of me. But whenever you hear someone really laugh, then you're seeing them the way they truly are, the way you don't often see them. I like to think that I make myself laugh like that quite a lot. Laughter takes place in there [gesturing to his office]. But it isn't a polite chortle.
Are the writers who influenced your comic sensibility different from those who had the most impact on your writing style?
One and the same, really. The sort of haughty tone is definitely Vladimir Nabokov, who has a glacially haughty tone about everything. But only in a few novels is it allowed to lead the pack, and they're my favorites: Lolita, Despair, Laughter in the Dark. The Philip Roth of Portnoy's Complaint, Joseph Heller certainly—those sentences turning around on themselves that he did so wonderfully in Something Happened. Dickens has had a very deep influence on me—the Mandarin rhythms of his sentences. Even Wodehouse, Waugh.
Last fall Tom Wolfe caused quite a stir with an essay in Harper's magazine in which he chastised America's fiction writers for writing tiny and anemic novels of private experience rather than big realistic novels based on the kind of exhaustive reporting that he does. Do you agree?
I thought Wolfe's essay was one of those pieces where the writer is saying, "Everyone should be more like me." I'm sure lots of writers wish they were more like Tom Wolfe. But what is his ratio—that a novel should be sixty-five-percent research, thirty-five-percent inspiration? With me, it's now ten-percent research and ninety-percent inspiration, which I think is harder work, really. I keep meaning to research things, to go to prisons and child-abuse centers, but in the end I just make it up. You take a bit of experience and pass it through your psyche.
But Wolfe's emphases are right, society is your subject. Salman Rushdie wrote a piece in praise of George Orwell called "Inside the Whale," in which he says that writers can't live inside the whale; they've got to be out in the big sea. And Salman pointed out: "There is no whale. You are in the sea, whether you like it or not."
You have said that the thing that prevents your father from finishing your books is your love of a kind of postmodern literary prankishness—having a character called Martin Amis in Money, giving characters your initials in London Fields, and that sort of thing. How would you defend it?
Well, it all comes under the main heading of "Fucking Around With the Reader." My father thinks that there's an orderly contract between writer and reader, which has very much to do with his generation, and he's incensed by any breach of those rules. I would justify it very simply and pragmatically by saying that once a lot of writers have become interested in something, then it's useless to say to them, "Snap out of it; you're just annoying." Because it's clearly an evolutionary development, and this is what writers need to do. And this doesn't come naturally to my father. He's in the position of someone in fifteenth-century Venice or Florence saying: "You know, I don't like this perspective stuff. Get back to when we didn't know about perspective. Stop fucking around and get back to what we know." On the other hand, perspective was such an obvious gain for painting, whereas this kind of literary innovation is, even to me, not such an obvious gain. But it has happened, and it will last for a certain time before writers move on to something else.
It's funny that I have always done it up to a point, even in my first novel. I'm all for this intense relationship with the reader. I really want the reader in there. I don't know who the reader is, but I really want him close. In The Rachel Papers the narrator-protagonist says coyly at one point, Here come the sexy bits, Are you sitting comfortably? And suddenly the reader is not just reading but is individualized. My narrators have always been shadowy figures. I've always been a kind of shadowy figure hanging around my novels. Then eventually, in Money, I myself come in as a bit part. Actually, I think in my case, and perhaps this is part of the reason why all this happened, I feel a sort of guilt about creating characters, guilt about making them suffer.
So it is important for you to show that you're the puppet master, so that readers won't think that your characters are real?
I learned very early on that no matter how much you do to forestall it, the reader will believe in the characters and feel concern for them. That's an unstoppable thing. The reader is doing a huge job of assigning life to characters, imagining what they look like. Nabokov used to say that what the reader shouldn't do is identify with the character. What the reader should do is identify with the writer. You try and see what the writer is up to, what the writer is arranging and what the writer's point is. Identify with the art, not the people.
Do you start with characters? Theme? Plot?
I start with characters, really. Situations. I like to let my characters get up a head of steam and have a bit of life of their own. I like to let the characters lead me a bit. When I start, I know quite a lot about the beginning and quite a lot about the end and usually quite a lot about some key bit in the middle. And that's it. I do a lot of piecemeal doodling in longhand for a long time, for years. I do this scene. I try that. Bits from the end might be written quite early on. I write on the left-hand side of these big notebooks. The right-hand side is blank, and there I just jot down thoughts, good observations. Some are labeled "Beauties"—things I've got to get in, scenes that have to be fitted in at some time, things that may not have much to do with what's on the left-hand side. Then it's a huge job of transferring the longhand onto a typescript. By which time, there are still great holes in it. Then for a year I just do the last draft, adding a lot of new stuff and organizing it.
What are you working on next?
It sounds ridiculous in summary, but it's a novella about a Nazi doctor. The ridiculous thing about it—although I'm pretty sure that I have got something to say with it—is that it's done backwards in time. And I mean literally backwards. The whole physical universe is backwards. People walk backwards, wake up in the evening and then go through the day and then go to bed in the morning. What you're always looking for is a way to see the world differently. So you do it through the eyes of a drunk [as in Money] or an amnesiac [as in Other People]. With this one, the point is that moral acts are reversed if you reverse time. For instance, the giving of a gift is in fact the taking of a gift. Thus, by the time you get to Auschwitz, there's a miracle of beneficence. And the narrating voice of course doesn't see that it's all over, that he's going backwards.
After this is over, I'm going to write what feels at the moment like a light novel about literary envy. This will be a way of getting at the humorous end of self-conscious postmodern fiction. It's going to be about two writers who sort of love-hate each other and their varying fortunes. It's about (a) the writer's ego, which I'm afraid is a shamingly vast subject, and (b) middle age. My novels are really about what it's like to be a certain age—the midthirties in London Fields, the early thirties in Money, et cetera.
This literary-envy novel is going to be an awful lot about the subsidiaries of writing, rather than writing itself. These are giving interviews, being photographed, talking to TV crews, everything that gets in the way of writing. Of which there has never been as much as there is now. At no point in history has the writer spent so much time telling everyone what he's saying. I don't really think this can be terribly good for a writer, if only because it signifies a loss of innocence. Also, it tips the reader. It makes the reader concentrate too much on your so-called ideas. I don't have Idea 1 when I'm writing a book. I have a situation, and I have a preoccupation. But I don't have an idea about the end of the planet, nuclear weapons, any of that stuff. That's the stuff you talk about in interviews. It's a bit of lit crit from the author. But there's been so much of that, that by the time the reader—and this would include the reviewer—gets going, he thinks that what you're doing is trying to flesh out ideas with fiction. And it's not even the other way round. The ideas are just in your head. They're not part of an agenda or a program. They've nothing to do with what you're trying to say. You're not trying to say anything. What you're trying to say is the novel, that 470 pages of work. People say, "What did you mean by it?" I meant that [points to book]. I didn't mean something you could put on a badge. It's starting to screw up the emphasis of reading.
Why did the satirical British magazine Private Eye used to call you "Smarty Anus"?
Just because it sounds quite like Martin Amis, I suppose [laughs]. And, well because of the dirty stuff in the books. Here in England success is regarded with narrow-eyed suspicion rather than wide eyes. They had me as this guy with a word processor who was rattling out stories to get big advances. It seems to me a despairing view of the world. I think that's the depths of despair, to think that everyone is in everything for the money.
In Money and London Fields, there is a sense of real anxiety about money, the force of money replacing the class system. Do you think there's something comforting in the order of the class system that is slipping?
I have nothing but hatred and contempt for the class system. But it does have a redeeming feature, in that it directs you towards cultivation. When Magic Johnson or some other American sports star has got his ranch house and his three cars and all that, he is not going to feel that he is missing out on anything, because he lives in a money society, a pleasure society. But when one of our sports stars has got the house and the tennis court, and he may even dress up on weekends and ride a horse and chase a weasel or a rabbit, he still knows that there's an awful lot of ground to go. And this has to do with reading and not being ignorant, not having this terror of ignorance—the chasm where you have nothing to grip on to. So the class system is always directing you there.
Various critics have described this book as your most X rated, but in fact it's a long, long tease, and sex is conspicuously absent.
There isn't that much sex in my stuff. There's a lot of talk about it, but not a great deal of bump and grind. There used to be more. I would defend my interest in it, though. My father, for instance, says that sex is a dead end in fiction. But I think that just as you find out something about someone when they laugh—when they really laugh—you find out a lot by seeing them in a sexual situation. Almost the first thing I ask about a character that I am about to get going on is "What are they like in the sack?" Not "Are they good in the sack?" but "How in touch with themselves are they in the sack?" That dimension is always there. At the age of seventy, I can't see myself going on about it quite so much. I do expect there to be a natural evolution away from it.
So you think the fact that there's no real sex in London Fields is a function of your own—you used the term first—middle age?
Well, there's still too much of it in there to be … [Laughs] There's life in the old boy yet—from that point of view. Come on, I now find myself in the position of saying there actually is quite a lot of sex in the book. There is a lot of fantasy, a lot of necking and petting. Even if there were 470 pages of gross pornography, it still wouldn't be the real thing. It would still be all an act, an artifice.
When you do write about sex, it's always described as terribly self-conscious, solipsistic and even unpleasurable. During a sex scene in The Rachel Papers, the character Charles Highway says he wishes he could stop for "a cup of tea and a think." Your characters seem uneasy and preoccupied during sex, and they're mocked if they hope for any kind of transcendence. Is your view of sex so bleak?
It's part of a genuine idea about modern life—that it's so mediated that authentic experience is much harder to find. Authentic everything is much harder to find. In all sorts of areas of our behavior, even in the sack, we're thinking, "How does this measure up? How will this look?" We've all got this idea of what it should be like—from movies, from pornography. I'm interested in two extremes. The first is the idea that the earth moves, this great union is found, and the self is lost. That comes from D. H. Lawrence and Romantic poetry and is what we all devoutly hope for. The other extreme is sort of athletic—the hot lay, where the self is in fact not lost in the moment but is masterful and dominant. And that comes at us from another direction—from advertising and pornography and trash fiction.
You think that's the more prevalent view?
I think it is. Although I do think romantic love is the self's most urgent quest. Young Charles in The Rachel Papers is looking for love. Certainly, when I was that age, love was the quest. Of course, there was a slight suspicion that maybe you were really interested in love because you heard that you got better sex that way.
Again and again you've had to fend off the charge of misogyny in your work. How does it make you feel personally when people say that you hate women?
If it's a woman saying it, and she really means it, then I'm sad. I'm disappointed. But I wouldn't change a word of anything I've written or I am going to write. I would say that my first three books are not antifeminist but prefeminist. Gloria Steinem's book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions slightly changed the way I thought about feminism. Just her simple technique of switching the sex roles, saying imagine if a man could have a period, he'd brag about how long and how heavy it was, et cetera. All that is great, and I just assented to that. You've got to get past the idea that there are all sorts of risky, alarm issues in my books—rape, masturbation, pornography—and see what's really going on. Then the woman reader has got to look into herself and say, "Is there an undertow here of this guy despising women?" I think the opposite is true.
I consider Money my feminist book. The hero does start to see the light, and being the kind of person he is, he fails to move into the light. In London Fields another kind of novelist wouldn't have had two extremes like Keith and Guy. He would have had one character, half of whom wants to sexually enjoy and even abuse Nicola and half of whom wants to overvalue her and adore her. These are two warring instincts in every man. Even in the best love you've got in you, there is a defiling element.
In your earlier work there don't seem to be any sacred cows, but in London Fields you are newly politicized about the environment, about nuclear issues and about child abuse. Perhaps feminist readers are thinking, "Well, he's got some issues now. Why not feminism?"
The reason I write about nuclear weapons and about the environment in London Fields has nothing to do with an ameliorist attitude towards them. It's just that they excite my imagination. Feminism doesn't excite me in that way—although I am profeminist. The trouble is, it doesn't swing on the page. You know the old saw about "What is a feminist's sexual fantasy"? It's not that she's sitting in the desert when a sheik rides past and swings her onto the back of his horse, takes her off to some sumptuous cave and sleeps with her forty times in twenty-four hours. The feminist's sexual fantasy is that while she's having a cup of coffee in a cafe, she strikes up a conversation with a man who runs a kindergarten in Hampstead, they go to a couple of Bulgarian films, and then, when the time is right, they begin to have very caring sex. It doesn't really swing, does it, as a sexual fantasy? Give me the sheik with his glistening voice.
There is an implication in London Fields that the world isn't inherently screwed up but that we've screwed it up and that perhaps we have the power to fix it.
We've screwed it up. The earth is four and a half billion years old. Imagine it as a forty-five-year-old person. Nothing is known about the first sixteen years of his life. Last week apelike creatures evolved into man. Agriculture began at the weekend. In the last sixty seconds, industrialization began, and in that one minute we turned paradise into a toilet. Certainly it's man who's done it. But it may be that it's idle to do anything but witness this process. It may just be deeply and essentially human to self-destruct. It's our nature. But I would say also that that's a counsel of despair, and I don't see how anyone with children can believe it. You've got to love those who will come after.
What would be your prescription for fixing up the world?
As an experiment, I rather like this Vaclav Havel idea—rule by artists. I think that, particularly in America, the career politician is now such an atrocious figure that, as Gore Vidal said, anyone who is prepared to run for president should be disqualified from doing so. So I'd change the whole ballgame.
There's Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Vargas Llosa now in Peru. Who would be your philosopher-kings in England and America?
Not Norman Mailer. What a thought! You'd have gladiatorial games probably—a sort of Caligulan rule by men. No, it would have to be someone who's prepared to do it. And you don't want someone with too much vision. I wouldn't want to do it. I'd hate it. I wouldn't let my dad do it. Someone like [British novelist] David Lodge would be a perfectly good prime minister. Pragmatic. Good at administration. And for America, maybe David Mamet.
Though he's a Thatcherite now, your father was an Angry Young Man in the Fifties. Do you ever worry that as you get older, you'll become conservative, too?
I really do doubt it. He was a Communist, which I never have been; he was a member of the party. But the key thing about him and his contemporaries—these former Angry Young Men, all of whom tend to be rightwing now—is that while they weren't born into poverty, they didn't have much money. Then they made some money, and they wanted to hang on to it. And they lived through a time when the left was very aggressive and when union power made life unpleasant. There are many aspects of the left that I find unappealing, but what I am never going to be is right-wing in my heart. Before I was even the slightest bit politicized, it was always the poor I looked at. That seemed to be the basic fact about society—that there are poor people, the plagued, the unadvantaged. And that is somewhere near the root of what I write about.
I really do believe that people are nice, one at a time. Even Germans. I am surprised by it. The bigger the unit, the worse it gets. Small may not be beautiful, but big is crazy. I fear for loss of individuality. In any kind of socialist utopia, one that worked, writing would become a very dull business. Because writers thrive on disparity. The reason that this preposterous notion of communism had such a long run is because it's deep in the human heart to want equality, to want everyone to be happy. It's a disaster as a political system, but the desire will always be there. But human nature wasn't made for that. Human nature was destined for disparity.
Who intimidates you?
Philosophers do. Their style of mind is different from mine, and I admire it, although I don't understand it. My wife does philosophy. It amazes me, the sort of things she's dealing with. My wife's first husband was a prominent linguistic philosopher, so she has lots of philosopher friends who have become my friends. And anyone who knows more than I do about anything intimidates me. My wife's area is the philosophy of art. Those who know about fine art, who really feel and understand it, intimidate me.
You've written two books about the United States—Money and The Moronic Inferno—and you seem to have a kind of passionate ambivalence about the country.
I love America. I think it's great. Even Ronald Reagan is great—personally. On the other hand, it's quite right to say that for years he got away with this image that he never told a lie, that all he did was tell a blooper. No, they were lies, and he is a liar. But he's got charm, and I am not resistant to it, the sort of amazing American serendipity in it.
The bit of America I've come to know best is the little-town America of Cape Cod and Wellfleet [Massachusetts]. My wife's father has a turkey camp there, which we take for a few weeks a year. It's full of the sort of couples that might be on the target list for a thrusting new magazine: "He is a child psychiatrist; she illustrates children's books." But there's an awful lot of general, everyday "I'm okay, you're okay" small-time American good humor. I love the exotic names on the mailboxes, these names that are all s's and j's and w's and k's.
Did your fascination with America begin during the year you spent in Princeton when your father was teaching there?
Oh, definitely. It was 1958 or 1957; I was eight. On Christmas Day, I looked at the presents I got, and I just thought, "This is an incredible country." My parents gave parties for the faculty crowd, and I'd get three dollars for being a drinks waiter. I had a crew cut. I had fat whitewalls on my bike. It was a great time. Also, I didn't spend my time watching junk TV. There were cartoons, but not the sort of stuff that kids watch now. Not Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, not Transformers.
Why do you live in London?
I don't want my children to be American children. One of the things I don't like about America is this ten-minute-childhood idea—that childhood lasts for ten minutes and then what you've got is a wised-up little monster who is six years old and no longer a child. I saw Batman with my wife, and we loved it. But she turned to me and said, "It would make me sick to think of a child of mine seeing this." And I know American five-year-olds who have seen Batman eight times. No, the hell with that. I want my children to have more innocence than America seems to allow.
You were an infamous bachelor. How has marriage and fatherhood changed you?
It changes things so completely that you lose your point of comparison. It's relaxing for the ego somewhat, to have something that you'd so gladly die for. You get out of the self a bit. The real reason that one does it is because it's just the next thing. Like leaving home—it might be very nice at home, but you have to leave and go on to the next thing. If you're going to do a job of being a human being, then you just do these things. And in my case, by the time you're thirty-something, you're ready, you're desperate, really. You've had enough of those middle years. What's so great about having children is that it's the ordinary miracle; it's the miracle that happens to everyone. Two of you go into that room, and three come out.
Of course, being married and having children does cut into your dating.
Has it been a burden to have been so precocious, to have been a boy wonder?
I hope to Christ I'm not an aging boy wonder. I am forty now. It slightly alarms me when people call me "the bad boy of English fiction." I'm not a boy. I don't mind the "bad" really. It's the "boy" that is embarrassing. And I feel that this "bad boy" stuff denies me readers. I think there are a lot of people who think that my work is just a stew of used condoms. I'm a bit more interested now in feeling that I am a middle-aged writer with a body of work. I still feel the same, though. I believe that we don't really change much. Time moves past you, but you're still the same.
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The Rachel Papers (novel) 1974Dead Babies (novel) 1975Success (novel) 1978Other People: A Mystery Story (novel) 1981Money: A Suicide Note (novel) 1984The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America (essays) 1986Einstein's Monsters (essays and short stories) 1987London Fields (novel) 1989Time's Arrow, or The Nature of the Offense (novel) 1991Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions (essays) 1993The Information (novel) 1995
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SOURCE: "Backward Steps," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 4, No. 170, September 27, 1991, p. 55.
[In the following negative review, Taylor discusses the time structure of Time's Arrow, calling the novel "an entertaining conceit wound out to extravagant length."]
The "time's arrow" metaphor has obviously been knocking around in Martin Amis' consciousness for a year or two. Nearly used as the title of what became London Fields, it now surfaces at the masthead of this ingeniously bulked out novella—one of those short books that have been artfully got up to resemble a medium-sized book, with a price to match.
The arrow in question points backwards: a man's life viewed in reverse by an observant but understandably baffled intelligence, defined as "the soul he should have had, who came at the wrong time, after it was too late".
The note of dislocation, whether actual or spiritual, is a constant. Our acquaintance with septuagenarian Tod Friendly begins on his deathbed (a hospital stake-out attended by levées of doctors) subsequently taking in a back-to-front recapitulation of his career.
As a conceit, it is meticulously done, each gesture and inflection fitting perfectly into the reverse tape loop, so that the general effect resembles a video on the rewind: the puzzling cars with their five reverse gears, the server's arbitrary pocketing of the ball that concludes a point in tennis, the bewildering ritual of eating out ("Rounding it off with a cocktail, we finish our meal and sit there doggedly describing it to the waiter, with the menu there to jog our memory").
Nervously joky at first, the narrative soon reveals a great deal of potentially disturbing baggage: the capering demons of Tod's dreams, the hint of a heavily camouflaged past, or rather future. And sure enough, having sped through Tod's time as a none too scrupulous American medic and his burdensome love life, the path stretches back, by means of aliases and subterfuge, to the unpromising chaos of central Europe—where, as a functionary at Auschwitz and Treblinka, "Odilo Unverdorben" assists in the destruction of the Jews.
Here the tape loop works its most chilling trick. The gas-chambers, naturally enough, have the effect of creating life. Enlightenment is urged on the alter-ego, "on the day I saw the old Jew float to the surface of the deep latrine, how he splashed and struggled into life …" The book ends somewhere in the wastes of early 1920s childhood, Odilo and his "soul" having parted company shortly before the second world war.
A reviewer should always declare an interest: here is mine. I grew up, in a manner of speaking, with Martin Amis. I read The Rachel Papers, covertly, in the school library, bought Success in my first term at university and thought Money the finest English novel of the 1980s. Even London Fields, for all its prolixity, still seems immeasurably better than the chaff that excluded it from the 1989 Booker shortlist. It is curious that Time's Arrow, despite its dexterous sleight of hand, the occasional elevation of its prose into something very near poetry and the conspicuous engagement with "maturity", should end up as a disappointment.
The explanation is, I imagine, half to do with Amis and half to do with the circumstances in which he writes; half to do with an awareness that the moral high ground that he occupies occasionally gets sacrificed to the joke, half to do with the whole postmodern prohibition of representational writing.
Here, for example, is an account of possibly the greatest act of inhumanity in the history of humanity, and it is done by means of a device—a telling and fruitful device, but a device all the same. All this is in keeping with the postmodern ukase, in which a supposedly extraordinary reality requires an extraordinary treatment. Or as Eva Figes once put it: "The English social realist tradition cannot contain the realities of my lifetime, horrors which one might have called surreal if they had not actually happened."
Novelists who continue to produce "realistic" patchworks of bygone experience commonly have critics lining up to inform them that it is impossible to write like that any more. Yet Time's Arrow, which employs any amount of modish trickery, has the odd effect of making the reader pine for a slightly staider technique—one which would provide an adequate vehicle for human feeling. With any luck, hindsight will show this to have been a halfway house between brilliant but flawed juvenilia and resplendent mid-period achievement. At the moment, it is only an entertaining conceit wound out to extravagant length.
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SOURCE: "From Death to Birth," in The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1991, p. 15.
[In the following review of Time's Arrow, Lehman focuses on the reversed chronological order of the book's narrative and the intent of Amis's technique.]
My 8-year-old son, an expert at videocassette recorders, wondered one day, "Why can't we rewind time?" The question in all its blunt naïveté suggests the imaginative conceit at the heart of Martin Amis's remarkable new novel, Time's Arrow. Mr. Amis explores how life would appear, how it would feel and what sense it would seem to make if it were a film running backward—if time's arrow were to reverse its direction and a recording angel, along for the ride, permitted us to watch history (which Lord Byron called "the devil's scripture") as it is unwritten, line by line, gesture by gesture, until the perpetrators of the 20th century vanish into their mother's wombs.
The vehicle for this experiment in chronology—you might call it a fictional deconstruction of time—is the backward narration of one man's life. Mr. Amis's protagonist is a shady character, a doctor known retrogressively as Tod T. Friendly, John Young, Hamilton de Souza and Odilo Unverdorben. There is a good deal of onomastic playfulness at work here, since "Tod" means death in German, a language of considerable importance in this short novel; "friendly" is life in America, land of benign forgetfulness, where no one inquires too closely about the suave European stranger in town; and "young" is what he gets to be as the book goes along.
Time's Arrow begins on Tod Friendly's deathbed in "affable, melting-pot, primary-color, You're-okay-I'm-okay America." Weeks go by. He is released from the hospital. Immediately he has a heart attack in his garden. Then comes a car crash, followed by "the first installment" of his love life, a fight with a woman named Irene, who tells him she knows his dark "secret" because he says it in his sleep. Irene visits more frequently. There are other women as well. Tod meets them where he works, in the offices of American Medical Services on a commercial strip somewhere in New England. It is clear that he is on the run. Every December he gets a letter in primitive code advising him that the weather continues to be "temperate" in New York. One year he reads that the weather, "although recently unsettled, is temperate once more!"
In time, Tod moves to New York, where he has an emergency meeting with a sinister clergyman who warns him of danger—the Immigration and Naturalization Service might act to revoke his citizenship. Backward he proceeds until, in the summer of 1948, he sets sail "for Europe, and for war." He continues to shed false identities until the narrative finally catches up with the horrifying secret deep in his past, which holds the key to the riddles in his personality and life: Odilo Unverdorben was a Nazi doctor, a dealer of death in Auschwitz, where he administered the poison gas used to kill Jews. In the book's relentless backward logic, he "personally removed the pellets of Zyklon B [from the shower room] and entrusted them to the pharmacist."
For the tale to have maximum impact, Mr. Amis needs an utterly naive narrator who is ignorant of modern history and unaware that backward is not the way things are supposed to go. Postulating a split in his protagonist's personality, Mr. Amis tells the story from the point of view of the man's alienated psyche or soul, condemned to witness events without comprehending them. There is pathos in the widening discrepancy between the reader's knowledge and that of the ghostly narrator. From the latter's warped vantage point, Auschwitz is a culmination, the one place where the world makes sense. Previously, the world was illogical. On American streets, adults snatch toys from children and sanitation workers dispense rubbish. People are "always looking forward to going places they've just come back from, or regretting doing things they haven't yet done. They say hello when they mean goodbye."
Doctors and hospitals especially, mystify the narrator, for—in backward time—patients enter well and leave sick, while mothers go to the hospital to return their babies. In Auschwitz, however, creation is accomplished, since murder, at reverse speed, appears to be the giving of life. Out of ashes and feces, the Jews are assembled—"the bald girls with their enormous eyes. Just made, and all raw from their genesis." Indeed, for the spectral narrator, Auschwitz is where the medical profession works wonders, undoing death on an unprecedented scale.
Mr. Amis's vision of the Holocaust undone is particularly moving. In Auschwitz, the gold is restored to the corpses' teeth: "To prevent needless suffering the dental work was usually completed while the patients were not yet alive." Then the bodies return to life in the "Sprinkleroom." In this version of history, on Kristallnacht the Nazis "all romped and played and helped the Jews." The racial laws are repealed; the Jews have the rights of citizens. The novel ends with the annihilation of the Nazi doctor's consciousness—not by death but by birth—concurrent with the restoration to health and prosperity of the Jews in pre-Nazi Germany.
Since the definitions of "verdorben" in German include "corrupt" or "fallen." Mr Amis's name for his damnable doctor takes on a double meaning. In an inverted world, "Unverdorben" might be the word for corrupt. But the word can also mean the opposite—innocent, unfallen, as if original sin could be undone. As his wordplay suggests, Mr Amis—the author of London Fields and Money and the perennial bad boy of English letters—is a writer of wit and post-modernist invention, who sets traps of ironies for readers to stumble into. But there is a moral purpose to Mr. Amis's experiments with narrative strategy and metaphysical possibility. The novel's inversions of causality and chronology seem perfectly in keeping with the Nazis' inversion of morality. In this sense, Time's Arrow implicitly warns us against turning the world of logic upside down or inside out—the very thing Mr. Amis does in this fiction.
The backward structure allows Mr. Amis to solve several narrative problems. As in a detective novel or psychoanalytic session, the climax occurs with the reconstruction of events that took place long ago. In addition, with his ghostly narrator Mr. Amis gets the benefit of both the first-person and the third-person points of view. The effect is like that of schizophrenia or, in the religious terms Mr. Amis seems to prefer, the divorce of the soul from the rest of a man's being. Most audacious is Mr. Amis's appropriation of erasure—the definitive motif of deconstruction—which he applies to the genocide of the Jews. The very instrument of revisionist history is put to the service of heartbreaking fiction.
In Time's Arrow, Martin Amis has written a book rich in poignancy and savage indignation.
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Diedrick, James. Understanding Martin Amis. University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
A study of the themes and features found in Amis's work. Discussion of Amis's artistic vision, his journalistic experiences, and overview of the characteristics that make Amis's work unique. The book includes bibliographical references.
Doan, Laura. "'Sexy Greedy Is the Late Eighties': Power Systems in Amis' Money and Churchill's Serious Money." The Minnesota Review 34/35 (Spring/Fall 1990): 69-80.
This essay compares power structures in Amis's Money to those in Churchill's Serious Money.
Harrison, M. John. "Speeding to Cradle from Grave." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4616 (20 September 1991): 21.
Compares the reverse-chronological time structure in Time's Arrow with several works by other authors that share the same organization, and praises the novel's originality and inventiveness.
Kermode, Frank. "In Reverse." London Review of Books 13, No. 17 (13 September 1991): 11.
Examines the time structure of Time's Arrow.
Kessler, Jascha. "Reads Like Lightning." American Book Review 14, No. 4 (October/November 1992): 24-25.
Kessler's review provides a brief plot synopsis and analysis of Time's Arrow in which the critic lauds Amis's "compelling narrative," yet asserts that the subject matter of the work is controversial.
Mars-Jones, Adam. "Looking on the Blight Side." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4799 (24 March 1995): 19-20.
Discusses similarities between some of Amis's previous works and The Information.
Michener, Charles. "Britain's Brat of Letters." Esquire 107, No. 1 (January, 1987): 108-11.
Based on an interview with Amis relating the author's views on his work, his life, and criticism of his writings.
Padhi, Shanti. "Bed and Bedlam: The Hard-Core Extravaganzas of Martin Amis." Literary Half Yearly 23, No. 1 (January 1982): 36-42.
An essay focusing on the lewd and sexual imagery in Amis's novels, where the critic is overly concerned with the "inappropriate" use of such material to sensationalize and commercialize the work.
Todd, Richard. "The Intrusive Author in British Postmodernist Fiction: The Cases of Alasdair Gray and Martin Amis." In Exploring Postmodernism, edited by Matei Calinescu and Douwe Fokkema, pp. 123-37. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1987.
This chapter focuses on a comparison between uses of the device of the intrusive author in Amis's novel Money and Gray's novel Lanark: A Life in Four Books.
Updike, John. A review of Time's Arrow, by Martin Amis. New Yorker LXVIII, No. 14 (25 May 1992): 84-88.
Discusses the merits and faults of Time's Arrow.
Wood, James. "Paradox Pile-up." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4724 (15 October 1993): 21.
Praises Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, commending both Amis's comic abilities and his powerful and concise descriptive prowess.
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SOURCE: A review of Time's Arrow, in Partisan Review, Vol. LIX, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 282-95.
[In the following excerpt, Bell dismisses Time's Arrow as "offensive" and maintains that Amis "fails to comprehend" what he has "exploited" in his story about Nazi Germany.]
Martin Amis's restless ingenuity trips him up in a more serious way in Time's Arrow, a laborious attempt to be "original" about the Holocaust—hardly a subject that lends itself to the artful devisings of literary contrivance, or the sardonic bray of satire that has characterized his earlier work. In his new novel Amis has literally bent over backwards to be different. Reversing the order of time, Amis's portrait of a Nazi doctor, assistant to Mengele in Auschwitz, begins with his death and ends with his birth, taking him from his final days in California through years of medical practice in Boston and New York, to hiding out in Portugal and Italy after the war, to Auschwitz, medical school, and birth in Solingen, where Eichmann, too, was born. Conversations run from end to start, seagulls fly in reverse, corpses come to life. Since the doctor is incorrigibly priapic, the sexual implications of the backward scheme are obvious.
Amis attempts to underscore the gravity of his undertaking by splitting the consciousness of his protagonist: The narrator is the soul of the Nazi doctor—the confused, jauntily colloquial voice of conscience, unaware of the murderous, unrepentant body that maimed and destroyed its victims in the camps. Through the separation of body and soul Amis tries to drive home his point that the conscience of the doctor was totally cut off from, and thus unable to comprehend or atone for, the atrocities committed by his physical being. But does the backward narration in any way intensify the evil of this doctor's life? On the contrary, what the reverse action makes dismayingly clear is the bag-of-tricks gamesmanship that inspired this grievously misguided approach to the Holocaust. We can only wince, and worse, at the gallows facetiousness that brings dead bodies to life with poisonous injections and fire. "I saw the old Jew float to the surface of the deep latrine, how he splashed and struggled into life, and was hoisted out by the jubilant guards, his clothes cleansed by the mire." Such manipulative "irony" denies the essential horror of Auschwitz, which is that the Jews struggled not into life but into death.
As he informs us in his afterword, Amis leaned heavily on Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz in writing Time's Arrow, or The Nature of the Offense. The subtitle is in fact Levi's phrase. Indeed, the only genuinely chilling words in this novel—"Here there is no why," which begin the Auschwitz chapter—have also been appropriated from Levi. In his memoir of the camp, Levi recalls plucking an icicle from a window only to have it snatched away by a guard. When he asked "Warum?" the guard replied "Hier ist kein warum." Those four simple words convey more about the Holocaust than all of Amis's backward-running narrative, which, in violating the order of cause and effect, trivializes what he has exploited but failed to comprehend. And that is the nature of his offense.
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SOURCE: "Problems When Time Moves Backwards: Martin Amis's Time's Arrow," in English: The Journal of the English Association, Vol. 42, No. 173, Summer, 1993, pp. 141-52.
[In the following essay, Slater points to problems that occur in the narrative of Time's Arrow as Amis attempts to tell a story in reverse.]
In his latest novel, Time's Arrow, Martin Amis takes up the challenge posed by Nabokov in Look at the Harlequins!: 'Nobody can imagine in physical terms the act of reversing the order of time. Time is not reversible'. Amis does perform this impossible task. His novel begins with the hero's death, and works back through his life more or less to his birth. The result is more eccentric than might be expected by readers familiar with flashbacks or works like Pinter's play Betrayal, whose scenes succeed each other in reverse chronology. For Amis moves backwards through time on a more fundamental level. We are given a minutely detailed account of the hero's life in reverse, as though we had pressed the reverse button on a video recorder. In the world of this book, people walk backwards to their cars, and the cars go off down the road backwards. Bunches of flowers are taken back to gardens, and reattached to plants. The plants grow smaller and finally disappear into the ground as seeds. Rain never falls, but is sucked upwards into the clouds. Collapsed piles of rubble rise as an earthquake shakes them, and in a trice become perfect buildings. This is how Amis puts it:
I live on a fierce and magical planet, which sheds or surrenders rain or even flings it off in whipstroke after whipstroke, which fires out bolts of electric gold into the firmament at 186,000 miles per second, which with a single shrug of its tectonic plates can erect a city in half an hour.
The novel, then, is set in a kind of science-fiction world in which impossible conditions prevail because a fundamental commonplace of our existence is turned on its head. Amis is not the first writer to exploit this sort of reversal. It was used by Lewis Carroll in his novel Sylvie and Bruno and there are visual examples of it in films such as Jean Cocteau's Le Testament d'Orphée, where we see torn flower-petals regenerate into a perfect bloom. But this novel is the most sustained example of the technique that I know of. It is interesting not only as an isolated, eccentric achievement, but also because the problems the author has to solve cast an unexpected light on the writer's craft. In particular, the technique offers unique linguistic possibilities. It is Amis's handling of these and his solutions to the principal problems posed by reverse narrative that I want to explore here.
The first problem is that of narrative voice. The implications of telling a story backwards must have a major impact on the personality and approach of the narrator, particularly if, as in this case, a first-person narrator is selected. Logically, the narrator of a backwards narrative should start off with a complete store of knowledge, and progressively 'unlearn' the facts of the tale as he tells it. This would eliminate suspense: past events hold no surprises for narrator or protagonists, so how can they hold major surprises for the reader?
Amis solves this problem by endowing his Narrator with an extraordinary series of characteristics. He is an insubstantial being who materializes inside the protagonist at the moment of his death. The novel, beginning at that moment, is like an enactment of the often-repeated assertion that when a man is drowning the whole of his life passes before his eyes. But in this case the past life of the protagonist, Tod, is relived backwards not before his own eyes, but before those of the mysterious Narrator, the internal observer who appears to be curled inside Tod's head, looking at the world through Tod's eyes. Tod remains unaware of his presence. Amis lays down a set of rules to explain why the Narrator's perception encompasses some elements but not others. The Narrator is given the power to share Tod's emotions and dreams, but not this thoughts: '… I am awash with his emotions. I am a crocodile in the thick river of his feeling tone.' This rule is not arbitrary, but is explained in terms of Tod's emotional state. Because Tod wants to suppress the memory of his past, he avoids thinking about it, and locks it away in a private part of his mind, so that the Narrator cannot guess what it is. Tod never discusses his past with anyone. From the start the Narrator suspects that Tod has a horrible secret, but has to wait to find out what it is, and the reader, of course, must wait with him. In this way, suspense is generated.
But having a strange being with no corporeal dimension as a mouthpiece presents a number of further problems. In the bewildering backwards setting, the rules governing the responses and attitudes of the Narrator have to be made clear to the reader. We cannot take the Narrator for granted, or make any assumptions about him, since he is outside our experience. So despite his lack of a physical body the Narrator has to be given a distinctive personality. He comes into existence fully mature, with his perceptions clear ('fully formed, fully settled'). He has firm opinions and a sense of humour. He also has a decent moral code: he believes in kindness, generosity, fidelity and love. In this, he is frequently at odds with Tod, who is a loner and a womanizer. In addition, the Narrator has a considerable store of acquired knowledge:
I'm not a complete innocent.
For instance, I find I am equipped with a fair amount of value-free information, or general knowledge, if you prefer. E=mc2. The speed of light is 186,000 miles per second…. I have a superb vocabulary … and a nonchalant command of all grammatical rules.
The Narrator also seems to have evolved some attitudes that specifically relate to Tod's past. For example, he has, from the start, an unreasoning dislike of doctors, which comes to seem all too appropriate when Tod's secret is finally revealed. For Tod was originally a Nazi doctor at Auschwitz. And it is from the memory of his own past that he is trying to escape.
But the Narrator's most essential characteristic is that he himself experiences life forwards, like a normal person. Imprisoned within a life that is moving backwards, he applies the logic and the powers of observation of a normal mind to the bizarre, topsy-turvy circumstances of his new existence. Amis, like many classic science-fiction writers, chooses to observe the unusual from a standpoint that is congenial and familiar to the reader. This device is not explained by Amis; but the reader has a powerful incentive to accept it, since the Narrator sees life as we do, and enlists our sympathy as we observe him reacting as we might do to a reversed world. The technique also enables Amis to describe the backward-moving world in detail, to extract the interest from it, rather than taking it for granted, because it seems so strange to the Narrator.
Furthermore, though we never learn why, the Narrator seems aware that he has readers, who need to have the situation explained to them. He assumes, too, that his readers are like himself, seeing things forward, experiencing backward speech as gibberish. Amis copes with the fact that all his characters talk backwards by first giving an example of backward speech, after which the Narrator explains how he is going to reproduce such speech in the future:
…. It goes like this:
'Dug. Dug', says the lady in the pharmacy.
'Dug', I join in. 'Oo y'rrah?'
'Aid ut oo y'rrah?'
'Mh-mm,' she'll say, as she unwraps my hair lotion. I walk away, backwards, with a touch of the hat. I speak without volition, in the same way that I do everything else. To tell the truth, it took me quite a while to realize that the pitiable chirruping I heard all about me was, in fact, human speech. Christ, even the larks and the sparrows sound more dignified. I translate this human warble, out of interest. I soon picked it up. I know I'm fluent, now …
The impact on the language is already apparent: if Amis were to take his approach to its logical conclusion, every word spoken would be in this kind of gibberish, and the novel would be unreadable. Instead, he sketches in the implications of backwards dialogue, and then moves on to use words forwards.
But despite this concession, language in this novel is not the language of ordinary narrative. The Narrator explains with scrupulous care how the reversed world works, as if realizing that it will be difficult for the reader to appreciate what is going on unless he spells it out. So his language is more meticulous, and events are described in more detail, than would normally seem acceptable. For example, here is a description of the process of backwards eating:
First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher … then you select a soiled dish, collect some scraps from the garbage, and settle down for a short wait. Various items get gulped up into my mouth, and after skilful massage with tongue and teeth I transfer them to the plate for additional sculpture with knife and fork and spoon … Next you face the laborious business of cooling, of reassembly, of storage …
Quite apart from the strangeness of the activity, the language used here is abnormally precise, detailed and scientific. Imagine the normal, forwards process described in the same sort of language:
You face the business of getting the foodstuffs out of storage, for dismantling and heating. I transfer them to a plate for division by knife and fork and spoon. I place various items in my mouth, and after skilful massage with tongue and teeth I swallow them. You settle down for a short wait, then dispose of the scraps in the garbage, take the soiled dish and then I stack the dirty plates in the dishwasher.
We see how inappropriate such language is for events that we take for granted in normal life. Reverting to the original passage, we can see that the concern to make the process completely clear to the reader means that the language is all wrong for a simple process like eating a meal. The words used are unexpected. They may suggest inappropriate contexts: 'reassembly' suggests a manufacturing process, 'sculpture' evokes the art world, 'massage' seems to involve the whole body. Or they may seem too impersonal and formal. It would be impossible in normal parlance to refer to bits of food on a plate as 'various items'.
The language that Amis has adopted to describe life in reverse, then, is idiosyncratic, over-technical, obsessional, the language of a madman. I suspect that reversed narrative imposes this sort of language. If one imagines a more ordinary account of eating, and reverses it, the result would be virtually incomprehensible. For example, I might say 'I cooked myself a scrambled egg, washed up and had a cup of coffee'. In reverse, this could be: 'I brought up a cup of coffee, dirtied up, unscrambled an egg and made it raw.' A novel written in this way, reversing ordinary language without adding any explanatory detail, would be unreadable.
Despite his obsessional style, the Narrator does not come across as mad; rather the reverse. I think this is just because his precision, his desire to make his topsy-turvy world clear to the reader, make him seem like the only sane being in a nightmare world. His language suggests a conscious attempt to make himself clearly understood by his forward-living readers. In a sense, then, the world of this novel is not truly reversed—it is a backwards world seen through forward-looking eyes. It is the Narrator's all too understandable estrangement from it, and his struggle to cope with it, that make it acceptable to us; without the Narrator the weirdness would become intolerable. The precision and unnaturalness of his language can also make the Narrator himself seem pathetic and vulnerable, a misfit doing his best when the outside world has gone badly wrong.
The Narrator himself occasionally gets things wrong, as though he were still writing from the perspective of one who knows which way the world should really be turning, and cannot come to terms with his predicament. His misinterpretation of what is happening can make him seem comical. This tends to happen when the complexities of his reversed world defeat him, and, by taking things far too literally, he misses something that is obvious to the reader. For example, he several times expresses annoyance at Tod's cleaner Irene because she comes in and dirties and untidies the flat. She is, of course, simply reversing the process of tidying and cleaning. At such moments we are induced to laugh at the Narrator, or alternatively to wonder at his failure of understanding, rather than finding his surroundings bewildering or distressing.
At other times, his inaccuracy in narrating an event backwards can endow it with a weird, haunting or nightmarish quality. For instance, the Narrator accepts at face value something that happens when Tod is practising as a doctor. The patients leave Tod's consulting-room, and as they depart, give us a strange and ghostly moment: 'They back off from me with their eyes wide. And they're gone. Pausing only to do that creepy thing—knocking, quietly, on your door'. The Narrator knows perfectly well that people knock on the door after leaving the room, since he is aware that the world is moving in reverse. He told us so at the start, commenting 'It just seems to me that the film is running backwards'. The weird, unreal atmosphere is created by the fact that we can both understand the original simple forwards action and appreciate the strangeness that results from reversing it.
Strictly speaking, the Narrator is not dealing honestly with us: sometimes he is a sophisticated observer who knows his situation, while at other times he plays the uncomprehending innocent. But this failing in his character enables Amis to include more vividly meticulous descriptions of processes in reverse. Much of the enjoyment of this book is in the detail with which the Narrator views the backwards world.
In his more lucid moments, the Narrator is well aware that language has to be used in a special way to render his surroundings. He comments: 'Apart from words denoting motion or process, which always have me reaching for my inverted commas ('give', 'fall', 'eat', 'defecate'), the written language makes plain sense, unlike the spoken.' This remark tells us two things. First, there is a complete dichotomy between the written and the spoken word. If you pick up a book in the Narrator's world, it will look exactly like a book from our normal world. The problem is, of course, that you are not free to read the book forwards; you must start at the end and read each word backwards. Amis has an amusing episode in which a Japanese delights the Narrator by opening his book at what an English-speaking reader would call the beginning. Another problem, and one which Amis neglects to tackle, is what you should do with the knowledge you have acquired during your reading. Strictly speaking, if you are reading backwards, you should start with your mind full of information from the book, and should progressively shed this as you un-read the book back to the beginning. When you finally close the book, you should have unlearnt everything it had told you. The Narrator does not do this: he builds up a store of knowledge about Tod's life as an older man as he accompanies Tod on his journey backwards through time. The Narrator's inappropriate knowledge results in weird anachronisms. For instance, at one point Tod is treating a child patient, and the Narrator wonders whether he recognizes this child from a point earlier in Tod's backwards life, that is to say, from long afterwards in real time.
The second point made by the Narrator in his comment is about the use of verbs. To repeat: 'words denoting motion or process … always have me reaching for my inverted commas'. This touches on the most crucial linguistic idiosyncrasy in this text. As all activity moves backwards, the verbs we would normally use for such activity become inappropriate. Here for instance is a description of Tod doing what in straightforward time would be giving a toy to a child:
He takes toys from children, on the street. He does. The kid will be standing there, with flustered mother, with big dad. Tod'll come on up. The toy, the squeaky duck or whatever, will be offered to him by the smiling child. Tod takes it. And backs away, with what I believe is called a shiteating grin. The child's face turns blank, or closes. Both toy and smile are gone: he takes both toy and smile. Then he heads for the store, to cash it in. For what? A couple of bucks. Can you believe this guy? He'll take candy from a baby, if there's fifty cents in it for him.
In forwards time, Tod has gone to a shop, bought a toy, walked towards a child and given it to him, and the child smiles when he gets it. You can see that the verbs are reversed: 'give' becomes 'take'; 'take' becomes 'offer'; 'buy' becomes 'cash in'.
Reversing the verbs can also produce much more subtle effects than merely turning the narrative back to front. For instance, in the above passage, after Tod has taken the child's toy, he 'backs away.' This is simply a reversal of 'he walks up'. But the verb 'to back away' is not synonymous with 'to walk backwards'. It implies a strong negative emotion. One backs away through excessive fear, shyness or shame. In forwards time, Tod walks forwards, smiling. In reverse time, his grin seems frightened or propitiatory. The subtlety of this is that it suggests a subtext of unacknowledged unhappiness and fear, which may be imposed by the language but which is only too appropriate since Tod is tormented by the memory of his Nazi past and of the torture he inflicted on innocent children. The most interesting of the reversed verbs in the text make one feel that there is something sinister hidden in their meaning, while yet being a perfectly logical reversal of the normal process. To give another example, Tod crosses the Atlantic to Europe (in reality, of course, he was escaping from Europe and his Nazi past to build a new life in the USA). The ship, as we would expect, sails backwards. In real time, Tod prefers to stand at the stern of the ship, watching the wake, looking back towards Europe. Reversing this, Tod is standing watching the way the ship is going, and the ship goes over its own wake as it moves backwards. The Narrator puts it like this: 'We are successfully covering our tracks as we sail'. This is literally true of the process of backwards sailing, but it also exactly corresponds to Tod's activities, were they to be described in forwards time. As we will discover, he escapes from Auschwitz and moves slowly across Europe, obliterating clues to his past. He hopes that by sailing to America he will successfully put potential pursuers off the scent.
Complex verb effects like this are rare: by virtue of being so striking, they would detract from the flow of the narrative. A more common technique is to try to find verbs that are not too peculiar, so that the reader assimilates the backwards narrative without its seeming over-strange. Very often, the verbs could pass in a normal, forward-moving account. Tod 'tools along' or 'trudges' along the street, perhaps 'tugging' a shopping trolley. A girl hurries 'in through the door and across the room towards' him. A cab 'pulls up'; a car 'weaves at speed back up the street'. Tod 'settles down … with whisky glass'. But it is difficult for the verbs to seem completely normal when they are expressing the opposite of normality. Instead, they tend to impart a particular atmosphere to the narrative. Take for instance the verbs for drinking. We are told that Tod sits 'quietly snorting and drooling into [a] brandy balloon'. He describes getting drunk: 'We went out into New York City and staggered here and there through the Village and drooled it all out in bar after bar'. As drinking backwards involves pouring liquid from the mouth into the glass, so these verbs for drinking, 'snorting' and 'drooling', provide a reasonably accurate account of the process. In addition, however, they have a pejorative flavour, so they introduce a nuance of contempt into the description. The overall tone of the narrative is detached scorn, mingled with sardonic humour. This effect is frequently achieved through the unusual verbs, which impose this mood on all the characters' actions simply because they are so unusual. There is good reason for this: we expect our everyday actions to be taken for granted, accepted without comment. If it appeared that someone was closely watching exactly how we set about drinking from a glass we would feel uncomfortable and under attack. If, in addition, the observer was selecting curious verbs to render our actions, we would feel as if we were being regarded as odd specimens, were being judged. At times, indeed, the Narrator does overtly judge Tod. But even in apparently unbiased descriptions there is an underlying element of criticism.
Perhaps because we are constantly measuring the descriptions of Amis's backwards world against our own, one effect of the reversed narration is to make us read particularly carefully. This attentive scrutiny is accompanied by a tendency to judge the text. The sheer sleight of hand required to tell a story backwards seems so difficult to achieve that one is constantly on the watch for the author to make mistakes, just as we watch a magician to try to discover the secret behind his tricks. During the course of Amis's particularly well-worked-out narrative, I did detect some wrongly described processes, where the verbs used clash with the apparent meaning. In the description of the reversed eating quoted earlier, Amis goes into the process of putting a dirty plate in the dishwasher: 'First I stack the clean plates in the dishwasher … then … select a soiled dish …' The word 'select' is wrong here. If he really were performing his actions backwards, Tod would not choose the plate from the dishwasher, but would lay his hand straight on it. (Imagine the normal, not reversed, everyday gesture of putting a dirty plate in a dishwasher: you remove your hand from it cleanly, without standing over it and deselecting it so that it blends in with the other dirty dishes.) It is as though the Narrator has simply tried too hard here, used too meticulous a verb for a casual process. Elsewhere, the verb is more strikingly wrong. Amis writes 'an ambulance … passes us and heads on down the street'. The ambulance should be 'backing', not 'heading', down the street. Although 'heading' involves facing the way one is going, this nuance scarcely impinges on a normal, forward-moving narrative. The fact that it sounds wrong when the narrative is reversed suggests that verbs in reversed actions will need to denote the precisely correct backwards motion. Any looseness of meaning will be noticed. With backwards narration, then, the author can expect an unusually attentive reading, an enhanced participation from the reader. I personally 'reran' much of the text in forward motion to check its accuracy. Felicitous solutions gave pleasure, and shortcomings were noted.
One respect in which Amis fails to exploit the narrative potential of his device relates to the magic of the world he has created. He invents an extraordinary universe whose laws can be logically worked out from our own. He arouses an exceptional degree of attention from his readers, focused on the words in his text. And yet, the overall mood is unemotional and flat, reflecting the emotionless world of reversed time, in which hope, anxiety and desire are by definition impossible. While this conveys the personality of the bewildered Narrator, clinging to logic to preserve his sense of reality, it fails to do justice to this new world, which is sometimes touched on rather than described, as if it were too disturbing to be detailed. At times, indeed, one can clearly see that a trompe-l'oeil similarity to our world is achieved at the cost of underplaying or even falsifying the magic of the Narrator's. To give examples: the magic is underplayed when you see Tod using a pen and paper. We are told 'Tod does his little stunt with the pen and pad'. What is actually happening is that Tod is un-writing. He takes a pad with a prescription written on it, puts his nib on the page at the end of the writing, and runs his pen back over the shapes of the letters, reabsorbing the ink into the pen. He finishes with a completely blank pad. To describe this as 'doing a little stunt' is not inaccurate but inadequate. This sketchy technique has one advantage: the narrative is not interrupted for the reader to wonder at the details of the 'stunt'. But an opportunity for describing something curious has been missed.
Elsewhere, the description is definitely inaccurate, and the mistake serves to make the narrative less strange and magical. For instance, here is a description of an old woman feeding the birds in the street, though backwards:
An old lady descends from the black branches of the fire escape every morning and wearily gathers it all up and clambers home with it in paper bags: the food left for her by the birds.
The conceit of the birds coming and leaving food for a poor old lady is charming enough, and like a fairy tale. But the old lady's gesture as she picks up the bread is wrongly described when Amis writes she 'gathers it all up'. If we replay her action, but forwards, we see her coming down the fire escape, then getting out her paper bags, and scattering the bread by throwing it down. So the reversed narrative should be much more surreal. The bread left by the birds should jump up from the ground of its own accord to land in her hand. Amis's 'she … wearily gathers it all up' gives no hint of this magical process. In Amis's restrained account of this action, half the magic has been suppressed, creating a play between banality and surrealism that would have given way to wonderment if a more accurate, hence stranger, account had been given.
Another category of language, in addition to verbs, lays itself open for close scrutiny in reverse narrative. This is the use of language to denote time, its passing and its sequence. Words like 'morning' and 'afternoon', 'before' and 'after', 'past' and 'future' take on new meaning in this novel. The reader is obliged to redefine them, and this may well give rise to reflections on the true meaning of such words. Take, for example, the following seemingly unexceptionable statement:
[Tod] has acquired a taste for alcohol and tobacco. He starts the day with these vices—the quiet glass of red wine, the thoughtful cigar—and isn't that meant to be especially bad?
Bearing in mind the fact that time is reversed, we deduce that Tod is in fact ending, not starting, the day with a glass of wine, so that the verb simply denotes an opposite process. The effect is a sort of dramatic irony: we see that the Narrator's anxiety about morning drinking is groundless because he hasn't understood the time reversal. Much more complex is the noun 'day'. The Narrator uses it to describe a period that starts at bedtime and ends in the morning, when the backwards world gets into bed. This gave me cause to wonder whether this was a correct use of the word. The first meaning given by the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] is 'The time between the rising and setting of the sun'. What Amis gives us, reversing the time sequence, is 'The time between the setting and the rising of the sun', that is to say, the opposite of day. So that we cannot take the most common of nouns for granted. Another feature of this passage is the fact that the language of reversed time is systematically camouflaged. The problematic words are inserted in a text which is written simply, and in which the sentiments and their expression seem familiar and even banal. The Narrator appears at first sight to be expressing the common opinion that drinking in the morning is bad for you, using cliched adjectives (the quiet glass, the thoughtful cigar). Until the passage is examined closely, the impression is that one is reading about something ordinary. If, instead of half-concealing the impact of time reversal, Amis had consistently brought it to the forefront, the result would have been interesting as a short experiment but unreadable as a novel.
This, then, is a novel that plays tricks on the reader. It adopts a superficially matter-of-fact tone which gives us the impression that we are reading it as we would read a 'normal' novel. In fact, we are doing something that is almost the opposite of 'normal' reading. Amis, by reversing the order of events, has deprived us of our ease of reading. We can no longer read casually, because the mass of what we normally take for granted as readers has been swept away. Our only defence is not to let our guard slip, not to let anything past without scrutinizing it first. Proof-readers seeking out errors sometimes find it helpful to read a text backwards: they can concentrate on each individual word without allowing their eye to run on to the next. Amis, by reversing the text before we ever get to it, has turned us all into proof-readers of his novel.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961
SOURCE: "Bits of Rough," in New Statesman and Society, October, 1993, pp. 39-40.
[In the following negative review, King calls Visiting Mrs. Nabokov "gossipy" and "egotistical," and dismisses the collection of journalistic pieces as "pretty miserable."]
Martin Amis excites hero-worship and resentment in equal measure. From male writers, this is often a symptom of wanting to be him. This new collection of journalism covers a range of subjects that include snooker, fiction and Martin Amis. Being female, I should, in Amis' view, be "less baffled and repelled" in making critical judgments. Here we go, then.
It wasn't his fault that he was born into the literati, and Visiting Mrs Nabokov abounds in literary gossip. When Burgess and Borges met, they chatted in Anglo-Saxon! Excuse me: what a pair of nellies. Here's Amis on Saul Bellow at a conference in Haifa: "He was in stalwart attendance … on the day I gave my paper …" Or Amis on his friendship with Salman Rushdie: "I often tell him that if the Rushdie Affair were, for instance, the Amis Affair …" How about Martin reporting from the set of Robocop II? "Here's cold proof of how hip and classy this outfit is: nearly everyone had read my stuff." Or scolding Polanski for miscasting Tess? "Polanski shrugged and disagreed, showing no more than mild disappointment."
Most writers have egos the size of Mount Sinai. Amis' ego and ambition have also been his tragedy. Paperback editions of his early work were plastered in the kind of covers that wouldn't have disgraced Jacqueline Susann's oeuvre, with prose inside to match. He was in that league, then.
The Moronic Inferno was less a comment on the US, perhaps, than a way of describing its author's inflamed consciousness. Still, in that earlier book, Amis surveyed Brian De Palma, Aids and Hugh Hefner, when finer British writers wouldn't touch them. He had fame, money, pussy galore. He was loved—yes, but not revered. Like the Krays, like Keith Talent in London Fields, he wanted respect. But not in Aretha Franklin's sense.
In 1984, Money—a trash classic—was passed over in that year's Booker Prize, along with Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus. Headmaster's end-of-term report: no refinement, no intellectual rigour. Frightfully smutty mind. Must try harder. Time's Arrow followed, eventually. Here was the big subject: the Holocaust! Here was the pointless technical virtuosity: writing it backwards. Amis was correct in his estimate of the Booker panel's solemn idiocy. Time's Arrow was duly shortlisted, but didn't win.
Still, wasn't Martin Amis—old rugged chops, literature's bit of rough—really one of us? In Visiting Mrs Nabokov, we see him as a rosy-cheeked youth attending Battersea Grammar School: "practically Broadmoor". He was saved from this ordeal only by being swept off to the West Indies for four months' film work. "How can they afford the five-star prices?" he cries now, surveying holidaymakers in St Lucia. "Are they all betting-shops nabobs or coin-op kings?" He is startled, on meeting the winner of the darts world championship, that the man isn't "half-drunk in some roadhouse, smothered in tattoos". He is astonished, in China, to discover a Watford player "on his way from the ballet to the opera".
In a more gallant mood, here's Martin Amis, girl-watcher, on "Tennis: the women's game": "Dynasty with balls, bright yellow fuzzy ones …" Or on topless sunbathing in Cannes: "I had never seen so many breasts in my life, and all nonchalantly bared to the breeze." His piece on Madonna is a soft lament for the time when sexual trickery was something men did to women—one-way traffic, apparently.
A young Amis prepares for a Stones concert by ordering up two girls, and sullenly equipping himself with earplugs. Add a mention of a "dusky bongoist" accompanying Charlie Watts, and you have the spit of whichever John Junor type fulminated against noisy yobbos way back in the sixties.
"I can read and write, and to a high standard," he insists. And Visiting Mrs Nabokov has its share of cute phrases and observations. Trouble is, you have to wade through an awful lot of dated stuff, before you get to them. None of these articles is as good as his recent defence of Philip Larkin in the Guardian. Yet what was that about? More nostalgia for uglier times, when callow white men could be as sexist, racist or snobbish as they wished. The only response would be a wry chuckle over the brightness of the offence, and—with any luck—literary groupies would sink to their knees in breathless admiration. Outsiders were excluded, in the terms of this testimony, by having the wrong dinner jacket or liking naff songs.
In Visiting Mrs Nabokov, Amis and his chums drive themselves to hysteria, being clever-clever for its own sake. They form shifty poker schools, then "go home and sob in our wives' arms". Dear friends of Martin and "my father" are ceaselessly interviewed, but the only one he makes you want to read is V S Pritchett. Martin's head is still in the 1950s, and Amisland is a literary fantasy. Anyone who wants it is welcome to it. He seems less a hip, classy Mr Vain, and more like Hardy's Little Father Time.
I used to find Amis an entertaining writer. I found this collection pretty miserable. In the final straits, I had to buck myself up with active humour (Denis Leary's No Cure for Cancer), live fiction (Shena Mackay's The Laughing Academy), real literary criticism (D J Taylor's After the War) and a brilliant mind in top gear: Robert Hughes' Culture of Complaint. I'm thrilled they're repeating Absolutely Fabulous. I long for the TV Buddha of Suburbia. Contemporary culture isn't ugly; it's rich and beautiful. And none of it has anything to do with Martin Amis.
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SOURCE: "Novelist at Large," in The New York Times Book Review, February 27, 1994, p. 17.
[In the following review, Prose lauds Visiting Mrs. Nabokov as light, unoffensive, and lively.]
Written for British newspapers like The Observer and American magazines like Vanity Fair, and as an apparently welcome respite from writing fiction, the articles in Martin Amis's latest collection of essays have the range and appealing ragbag variety of work done on assignment. Indeed, as he writes in the introduction to Visiting Mrs. Nabokov: And Other Excursions, the only thing that unites these pieces is "getting out of the house."
In his forays away from his desk, Mr. Amis goes to China with a rowdy British soccer team whose patron and mascot is Elton John; he talks to Salman Rushdie in hiding, interviews Graham Greene in Paris and, in "one of the pillared public rooms of the Montreux Palace Hotel," visits Vladimir Nabokov's widow, Véra. He also attends a Rolling Stones concert, the Cannes Film Festival and the 1988 Republican National Convention, watches world championship chess and women's tennis matches, and plays poker with David Mamet and snooker with Julian Barnes.
Much of this is amusing, and it's perversely gratifying to see Mr. Amis irritated or horrified by things that we feel might annoy or appall us too: by the grim corporate architecture of Frankfurt or the crush of fans being herded into a rock concert. ("Once inside, panic and claustrophobia jockeyed routinely for one's attention…. In the high tradition of all the best rock concerts, you were treated as if you'd come to sate some vile addiction rather than simply to exchange cash for entertainment.")
Several of the more successful essays are written in a tone strikingly unlike the ironic jeremiad we've come to associate with Mr. Amis's most recent novels, London Fields and Time's Arrow. Among these sympathetic studies is an incisive, rather loving essay on the brilliant, less than lovable poet Philip Larkin, who was a friend of Mr. Amis's father. An interview with—and appreciation of—J.G. Ballard makes one want to rush out and buy all of Mr. Ballard's novels.
In his introduction, Mr. Amis tells us that "writing journalism never feels like writing in the proper sense. It is essentially collaborative: both your subject and your audience are hopelessly specific." In fact, the most specific of these pieces are the strongest. There's a lively essay on the filming of Robocop 2 and our eerily detached fascination with the Robocop films' bloody-minded bionic charm. And it pleased me to learn that Vladimir Nabokov was a "compulsive tipper" at the hotel where he lived, and that his widow insisted on picking up the check for drinks with Mr. Amis.
The blurrier pieces—including one on the nuclear weapons establishment in Washington—mean well enough, but keep tripping over grand statements and slightly awkward bons mots, like this observation occasioned by Mr. Amis's meeting with the chief scientist on the Strategic Defense Initiative project: "He is about Can Do. I am about Don't Do."
Such moments make one understand why Mr. Amis occasionally seems to chafe against the limits of his "hopelessly specific" subjects and audiences. Partly it's a problem of form, partly of expectation. The literary or celebrity interview, the 3,000-word article—these genres demand (that is, we readers demand) wit at the expense of depth, more facility than profundity. If some of the nonfiction collected here is clever and not much more, one understands that Mr. Amis was writing on assignment.
The essays in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov are bright; they move quickly; they don't ask much of us, or offend. And isn't that just what we're looking for as we lunge for the magazine rack on the airplane? In an essay on an alarming emergency landing during a flight to Spain, Mr. Amis describes himself as "a nervous passenger but a confident drinker and Valium-swallower." Those of us who don't much like to fly have always understood that there is something worthwhile—merciful, one might say—in writing something that pleasantly passes the time 30,000 feet above the ocean.
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SOURCE: "Martin Amis: Between the Influences of Bellow and Nabokov," in The Antioch Review, Vol. 52, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 580-90.
[In the following essay, Alexander discusses the influences of Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov in Amis's work, focusing on London Fields, Money, and The Moronic Inferno.]
Martin Amis's novels feature heroes of playboy fantasies, unscrupulous upwardly mobile yobs, and charismatic murderers. With a mixture of anxiety and fascination, Amis chronicles the "cheapening of humanity," a phenomenon he attributes partly to the uniquely twentieth-century prospect of total annihilation and partly to the fact that much of American (and more lately British) life is dedicated to televised "event glamour"—a phrase borrowed from Amis's mentor, Saul Bellow. Both writers maintain that popular sporting/religious extravaganzas give a false sense of collective life experience. Moreover, says Amis, channel-hoppers skip through tabloid journalism shows, cursory reports of sex scandals and riots, and mini-series on serial killers, delighting only in unsavory special effects. "It's a distracted age," Amis notes gravely; "the narrative line in human life is gone," and with it, he suggests, human decency.
Because the "decline of the West" is Amis's subject, he has earned an unfavorable reputation for playing the social critic, or if you prefer, for being a quixotic champion of bygone values. Amis's end-of-the-millennium novel, London Fields, tries but fails to explain how the nuclear threat has led to a disintegration of human decency, and Money: A Suicide Note tries but fails to prove that the distracting influences of fast food, pornography, and capitalism contribute to increases in gratuitous crime.
Trying to provide one's readers with advice on life may be a rather puerile inclination. Nevertheless, his statement regarding "the narrative line," of which the vicious and moronic are supposedly deprived, is intriguing. He proposes that people profit, intellectually and morally, by reading fiction, by gaining a sense of order and justice. He himself writes because he likes to impose order on chaos. But this is a limited explanation. What does Amis mean by "the narrative line"? Does he mean the narrative? Does he mean the human story, which once had an omniscient author, God, and a fairly well-contrived plot called Providence? I think he does. According to Bellow, his important advisor on the subject, distraction is a by-product of nihilism. Bellow, too, has spent much of his career giving his readers advice on life, most particularly encouraging the belief in the human soul.
The condition of distraction, for which Amis seeks a remedy, explains only Amis's motivation for writing. It does not explain why Amis, after offering Answers to big social problems, later rescinds them by stressing the fact of fiction. Amis, obsessed with apparent world-randomness, arranges things the way he wants in his novels. At the same time, however, he is aware that his arrangement is only fiction, and he reminds readers of this by employing certain "postmodern" techniques such as involution, the inclusion of the author himself in the novel. Amis takes this cue from Nabokov, the renowned illusionist. In Strong Opinions Nabokov writes, "What I would welcome at the close of a book of mine is a sensation of its world receding in the distance and stopping somewhere there, suspended afar like a picture in a picture: The Artist's Studio by Van Bock" ("Van Bock" is an imperfect anagram of Nabokov).
Amis's aesthetic and moral principle, a queer hybrid of Nabokovian and Bellovian world-views, can be stated as: It is man's natural tendency to fictionalize, to bestow some kind of order—it is sometimes his comfort, sometimes his affliction, and at all times a quality of being human—but he should not deny the false truth of the narrative he creates.
Because Saul Bellow's narrators speak too closely to his own "truth," he could not discredit them by stressing the gap between fiction and reality. To Bellow, a venerable author has the power of vision, whereas Nabokov and Amis are quite happy to be characterized as illusionists or artists.
I spoke with Amis in 1993 about his two influences. I did not ask what bearing, if any, his "myth of decline" had on practical politics. Of more interest to me were his influences and the dynamics of faith/doubt and idealism/realism, which are a source of energy and artistic expression in his tragicomedies. At the time, Amis himself seemed heedless of his paradoxical situation as a writer who believes in the value of faith, but has none.
Amis once said a writer is like a god—a predictable sentiment given the redeeming potential he attributes to literature. In an interview with Ian McEwan on "Writers in Conversation," Amis said he became a writer because "[Life] is all too random. [I have] the desire to give shape to things and make sense of things," and he added, "I have a god-like relationship [with] the world I've created. It is exactly analogous. There is creation and resolution, and it's all up to [me]."
Amis and I discussed the writer's essential business, whether it was the artist's function to "discover" meaning or to "give" meaning. Amis believes the artist "rearranges things to give point and meaning." He explained, "The difference between In Cold Blood and The Executioner's Song, say, and Crime and Punishment is that Capote and Mailer are just given the facts and cannot arrange them to point up a moral—or just arrange them to point up various ironies. What they're left with is life, which I say is kind of random."
Amis wrote about Truman Capote and Norman Mailer in The Moronic Inferno. From "a piece of event glamour"—that is, the execution of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore—Mailer assembled The Executioner's Song, a work of "fictoid" filled with "factoids," according to Amis. Mailer's work followed Capote's nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, which describes the pointless murder of the Clutter Family in Kansas. The American authors are not "artists" according to Amis's definition because neither has Amis's "god-like" control over material. The "narrative line" is absent from the "fictoid" genre because its "resolution" is not author-contrived. As Amis says, these facts "are given." Amis's preference for his own aesthetic model may prevent him from fairly judging the "true-life" novel. He has definite scruples against confusing life with fiction. Amis writes, "What is missing, though, is the moral imagination, moral artistry…. When the reading experience is over, you are left, simply, with murder—and with the human messiness and futility that attends all death."
Among Amis's designated "moral artists" is Saul Bellow. Any discussion of Martin Amis must include the Nobel-Prize-winning author who has greatly influenced Amis in terms of both subject and style. In Saul Bellow's "Jefferson Lectures," delivered in 1977, the John Self character is delineated in his description of "modern man":
This person is our brother, our semblable, our very self. He is certainly in many respects narrow and poor, blind in heart, weak, mean, intoxicated, confused in spirit—stupid. We see how damaged he is, how badly mutilated. But the leap towards the marvelous is a possibility he still considers nevertheless…. He dreams of beating the rap, outwitting the doom prepared for him by history. Often he seems prepared to assert that he is a new kind of human being, whose condition calls for original expression, and he is ready to take a flier, go for the higher truth. He has been put down, has put himself down too, but he has also dreamed of strategies that will bring him past all this distraction, his own included. For he knows something…. He is (or can be) skeptical, cant-free, heedful of his own intuitions.
This excerpt is so close to the story of John Self it could serve as Money's synopsis. Amis acknowledges the collective influence of Bellow's work on the writing of Money.
Amis has written several articles on Bellow and his work. They have appeared in television interviews as a kind of twosome. Bellow looks ready to bequeath his literary mantle to Amis, who in turn seems eager to carry on a great tradition. Only upon further inspection does one begin to anticipate a "father-son" parting of the ways.
In The Moronic Inferno, Amis favorably reviews Bellow's The Dean's December; but, in fact, Amis modifies Bellow's perspective on a writer's essential business to suit his own. One gets the sense that Amis is slightly embarrassed for Bellow's sake when Bellow discusses transcendentalism, anthroposophy, or the existence of the human soul. Amis is something of an agnostic. For him, the writer is an artist-creator of a fictional world; whereas Bellow, whose strong faith pervades his writing, hints—warily sometimes, but more often with nerve—that the writer is a kind of prophet, visionary, or to be more precise, a medium who interprets this world.
The hero of The Dean's December, Albert Corde, like Bellow and Amis, is a writer concerned with the decline of social values and rise of gratuitous violence. Journalist Corde declares that "chronic lead insult" in urban populations has resulted in laziness, low intelligence, irritability, a predisposition to violence, insanity—social decay. Like a "new journalist" Corde is given the facts of his "story," but Corde notices the poetic coincidence that for centuries "leaden" has described the degenerate, and he insists the coincidence has metaphysical significance. Thinking objective facts could not communicate the oracular ramifications, he uses metaphor and poetry to communicate the deeper truth behind the report of chronic lead insult.
When discussing the writer's essential business, Amis made a distinction between the writer who "finds meaning" and who "gives meaning." It is debatable here whether Corde discovers meaning in the situation of chronic lead insult or invests it with meaning. I disagreed with Amis when he insisted that Corde's vision should be interpreted as "poetic" rather than "prophetic," an assertion that Corde is really a representation of an artist-creator, not a visionary-medium. In Bellow's Nobel Lecture, he clearly states his belief that great literature is not merely poetic. "There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which, without art, we can't receive."
Bellow insists upon "visionary truth" in literature, which, he says, "has always referred to a world beyond the threshold." With this in mind, one can assume Corde is supposed to be seen as a kind of prophet, who does not merely invest a situation with his own meaning, but who discovers a truth.
In Amis's review of The Dean's December, he writes that prior to 1976, "Bellow's heavy emphasis on illusory otherworlds had left him open to charges of crankery and self-indulgence"; however, in "Late Bellow," claims Amis, "transcendentalism has found its true function, which is Yeatsian—a source of metaphor." Amis redefines transcendentalism as "a system of imagery that gives the reader an enduring pang, a sense of one's situation in larger orders of time and space."
This definition seemed to suit his own writing more than Bellow's. Later, Amis elaborated, "What religion used to take care of was to give one a sense that one wasn't just living in a meaningless present, and that there were greater contexts. Religion won't quite do this for us anymore," said Amis. "If we're to believe in perfectibility or even improvement, then we need to be able to think of the human soul as an imperishable image of our potential and our battered innocence."
While Amis uses "soul" as a metaphor, he concedes that for Bellow the soul is not just a metaphor. It is a real belief in Bellow's case. "It's a rather weaker belief in my case," said Amis, "Not … a belief, but a kind of inkling, or suspicion."
Amis's other great influence, Vladimir Nabokov, claims a novelist is a "rival" to the "Almighty" and "must possess the inborn capacity not only of recombining but of re-creating the given world." Both writers betray a certain arrogance, likening themselves to gods. In fact, Amis confesses his ego is infinite; but it goes beyond idle boasting. The proud omnipotent writer duly exhibits his artistic prowess, and the nature of the novel is changed. Amis and Nabokov both emphasize the fact of fiction via involution. Amis includes himself as a character in Money, a character who is actually responsible for designing the plot. The reader's willing suspension of disbelief is discouraged, his awe of the artist-writer encouraged.
Amis has suggested literary otherworlds as tropes can do what religion no longer can, that is, "give a sense of one's situation in larger orders of time and space," or "a sense that one [isn't] just living in a meaningless present … that there [are] greater contexts." Ironically, in his fiction an intruding author rescinds the offer. It was all fiction, a sleight of hand. The author bows. John Self is left in a meaningless present.
Why does Amis do this? Out of maliciousness? To suggest that our sense of "greater contexts," like Self's, is, too, an illusion? Perhaps the temptation to reveal himself to his creation (to wink at the readers, to show off, really) is too great to resist. Or perhaps he feels he has a moral obligation to his readers à la Shakespeare's rustics in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Whatever the reasons, involution commonly occurs in the literature of postmodernism.
It should be obvious to the most gullible of readers that fiction is not "real life." So why bother? Given Amis's perception of the world as chaotic and brutal, one understands his compulsion to act as a kind of god. It is harder to understand why Amis restores randomness at the novel's close. At the end of Money, Amis reveals the author who explains "the game" to his tragic hero. In a very Nabokovian scene, the author figure and Self play chess. Amis forces his opponent into a suicide move, and Self finally realizes who has been controlling him all along.
The reasons Amis has given for including the author seem inadequate: "Many writers have started doing this, it is the way the novel has evolved." This is the explanation of an unthinking writer. Pressed further, Amis acknowledged Nabokov's influence, and he added, "It just feels inevitable that the illusion is broken, that one reminds the readers they are reading."
Nabokov maintained the reader should identify not with the characters of a novel, but with the author. The reader should always be aware of the author's intention. Amis said, "Perhaps involution is a way of making this unavoidable, making the reader constantly aware of the author's voice and personality." In other words, the writer should never let the reader suspend his disbelief.
It is true that credulous readers cannot fully appreciate an ironic novel. In Money, Self's tragic flaw is his credulity. He has been novelized by Amis and has undergone a willing suspension of disbelief. In the end, Self admits it all happened because he "wanted to believe." John Self is like any man who—to quote Bellow, as Amis is so fond of doing—"appears on the face of the Earth and doesn't know how he has come to be human." Naturally, he hopes that his existence has meaning, but at the same time he fears some agent controls his life.
In the opening pages of Money, Self exhibits superstitious behavior. He says, "Something is waiting to happen to me. I can tell. Recently my life feels like a bloodcurdling joke. Recently my life has taken on form. Something is waiting. I am waiting. Soon, it will stop waiting—any day now. Awful things can happen anytime." When he "chances" to meet Martin Amis, Self gets "the creeps." Throughout the novel, he intuitively refers to people on the streets of New York as "bit players," "extras," and "actors." Self is generally paranoid and is equally distracted by significant or random daily events.
Incidentally, Amis has similar "inklings." In The Moronic Inferno, he says coincidences make life feel "like a short story." Amis is visiting Bellow in Chicago; they will meet at the Chicago Arts Club. The art-supply store just outside Amis's motel window bears the sign "for the artist in everyone." Back at his motel after a day of discussing the nature of Art, he notes, "the black, bent, bald shoeshiner who slicked my boots with his fingers (he had his name on his breast, in capitals) was called ART." Vaguely suspicious at first, he decides his own preoccupations gave significance to unrelated particulars.
Amis's novels reflect a real condition; the average person often feels that he is in a novel, feels manipulated by an "author." Actually, "the common form now," said Amis, "the universal form, is television rather than [the] novel. People feel they are in some soap. That is the mild delusion that most people are suffering from." Amis called this a kind of modern superstition or credulity.
After surviving a heavy dose of pills, Self is finally "awakened." In the last section of the novel, he says, "My life is losing its form. The large agencies, the pentagrams of shape and purpose have no power to harm or delight me now." Amis explained, "'The large agencies' are the ones that control the novel in which he has been enmeshed. Self has escaped the novel. He has escaped control of the author figure, me. The last section is in italics because it is, in a way, outside the novel. He really was meant to kill himself, but he screwed it up, as he screwed everything up. So, he is in a poorer but more controllable kind of existence."
Although Self is finally a crack-toothed, impoverished drunkard, according to Amis it is "a happy ending." Is Self happy because the "form" he lost was imposed or false? Self says, "Before my life was rich, now it's just present." Amis explained that Self feels that his existence is poorer "because it is without form. It is more random, but that does suit him more or less. At least he is not being manipulated." The "all-too-random" present must suit the author too since it inspires him to write.
In 1990 Amis told Rolling Stone he felt a "God-size hole" in his life, the terrible prospect of human mortality and insignificance. Amis said if the hole were filled one could "get through, but He's not available anymore." "Modernity," as Amis has described it, is this "poorer but more controllable kind of existence"; it is chaotic, godless, but has room for the gods of fiction to practice their art.
In Nabokov's Pale Fire, a novel that depends upon coincidences for its effect, the hero's brand of skepticism is particularly intriguing, perhaps because his name, "John Shade," seems playfully indicative of the author's other self, just as "John Self" seems suggestive of his author. Shade, who during a near-death experience sees a vision of a fountain, reads about a woman who had the same vision; however, he visits her and finds there was a misprint. She saw a "mountain" not a "fountain." Shade writes:
Life Everlasting—based on a misprint! I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint, And stop investigating my abyss? But all at once it dawned on me that this Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme; Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream But topsy-turvical coincidence, Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense. Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind Of correlated pattern in the game, Plexed artistry, and something of the same Pleasure in it as they who played it found.
It seems to suffice Amis to try and "find some correlated pattern in the game," which is, after all, the very thing a fiction writer does to temporarily fill that "God-size hole."
The "vein" of Nabokov that influenced Amis most includes King, Queen, Knave, Despair, Laughter in the Dark, Lolita, and Transparent Things. At first, it was hard to understand what Amis meant by "vein." The first three books mentioned were originally written in Russian, the last two in English. Too many other novels fall between these to make it a chronological "vein." Finally, I realized they have themes in common, the same themes that pervade Money: sexual deception, perverse greed, insane cruelty, and, in three of the four, murder.
It is worth noting that Martin Amis parts company with Vladimir Nabokov over several issues. First, Nabokov writes fiction because it is "an interesting thing to do…. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions." Second, Nabokov loathes social satire. He has "neither the intent nor the temperament of a moral or social satirist. Whether or not the critics think that in Lolita I am ridiculing human folly leaves me supremely indifferent. But I am annoyed when the glad news is spread that I am ridiculing America." Third, Nabokov doubts that "we can postulate the objective existence of a 'modern world' on which an artist should have any definite or important opinion."
Amis was criticized for his insistence upon the truth of his "myth of decline," whereas Nabokov was able to comment with impunity. Although he did not satirize philistines, perverts, and vulgar Americans, he did parody them. He abruptly explained, "Satire is a lesson, parody is a game." Nabokov knew the danger of applying the rules of a game of fiction to an everyday world. His "rules" work in a well-constructed tale, but bend and break in ambiguous, amorphous "reality."
Nabokov's villains, in fact, are artists-at-large who treat life like a game, who invent and enforce their own rules. Consider Hermann in Despair, whose art form is murder. Consider Kinbote, failed poet, exiled king or madman, who appropriates and distorts the meaning of John Shade's poem. As Martin Amis points out in "Lolita Reconsidered," Humbert is a failed artist who imprisons a child in his fantasy: "Humberts, because they cannot make art out of life, make their lives into art."
Perhaps this is all the explanation we need of why Amis underscores the fact of fiction at the end of his novels. He himself does not want to be an artist-at-large. He wants nothing in common with the self-deceived charismatic murderers, unscrupulous yobs, and playboy-fantasy heroes who populate his novels. Although Bellow is something of a well-meaning artist-at-large, he recognizes the risks of credulity when corrupt beliefs are involved, and he has argued Hitler was an inhuman artist whose medium was politics. Amis admittedly has less faith than Bellow, and in good conscience can only make art out of life, not life into art.
Martin Amis's father, the prolific and knighted author Kingsley Amis, detests the modern elements of Money and candidly informs reporters that he has never been able to finish it. He told Esquire that he blames "one of Martin's heroes—Nabokov. I lay it all at his door." He believes Money loses its artistic merit because of the author figure. "Martin Amis comes in, breaking the rules, buggering about with the reader, drawing attention to himself," complained Amis, Sr. to a New York Times Magazine reporter.
As a rule, Martin Amis plays down his father's literary influence. He said, "As a member of the same household and as a reader of his books he has influenced me. It is more a kind of humour really than anything else. I've always thought that if our birth-dates were transposed then he would have written something like my novels, and I would have written something like his."
Critic John McDermott claims that in Kingsley Amis's Anti-Death League, God's role is as a "sub-human joker responsible for catatonic states, limbless children and women's cancers." According to Martin Amis, this shows his father's birth-date is 1922 (his own is 1949). "A much more godless period," said Amis, "so I don't tend to think in that way. Although it is natural for him to do so."
As far as Martin Amis is concerned, today a Divine Being does not deserve the role of sub-human joker; the author does. As intruding author, Amis is always "buggering about" with Self. A supreme example occurs when, near the end of Money, Self begins to realize, "I'm the joke. I'm it! It was you. It was you."
Throughout the novel, Self yearns for his author's advice. Self says: "I long to burst out of the world of money and into—into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I'll never make it by myself. I just don't know the way." In an unlooked-for act of prudence, the would-be social critic/author does not tell Self the way, and in the end, Self is left outside the novel to fend for himself, like you and me, in the all-too-random world.
Although Amis has not been overly dependent upon his father for literary counsel, throughout his career he has relied heavily on his two mentors for guidance, instruction, and respectability. I found his latest collection of journalism, Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, and Bellow's new collection of journalism, It All Adds Up, lying side by side on the book store counter. To bolster his reputation as a writer, Amis has quoted Bellow and Nabokov and borrowed their phrases. Amis's choice of title for his most recent work makes one think of Amis hovering around the widow, hoping to come into possession of some of Nabokov's wisdom.
Amis has decisively positioned himself between both the cool, evasive Nabokov and the passionate, outspoken Bellow. Influenced by both great authors, Amis's writing exhibits the tensions between disbelief/belief, illusion/vision, which so far have provided for great comedy and marvelous energy in his writing. But his kind of high-strung comedy does not recommend him for the Nobel Prize, and Amis's ambition is to win the Booker and Nobel Prizes. When he stops trying to emulate his writing heroes, when he is in full possession of his own fame and his own wisdom, then he may develop his potential.
With the publication of his latest book, It All Adds Up, a title that sounds like the final equation, Bellow prepares for his death, getting his works in order, and modifying the tone of his lifelong message; rather than complaining about distraction, he encourages attentiveness. Coincidentally, Amis's reflection has turned to himself. Perhaps he is taking a final piece of advice from Bellow—to concentrate on his own attentiveness and not obsess about the world's power to distract. Recently, Amis has grown resigned and cautious, and if he has not lost his intensity in the process, perhaps his greatest work is yet to come.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1056
SOURCE: "Energy and Entropy," in New Statesman & Society, March 24, 1995, p. 24.
[In the following review, Kaveney asserts that The Information is a "generic" Amis novel, and claims the book to be "the overpriced sale of second-hand shoddy."]
Nervous energy is not enough. Martin Amis has built a successful career on, and out of, fear of failure. His interest in that fear, like ours, is wearing thin. Sexual rebuffs in The Rachel Papers, having your credit cards cut up in smart New York restaurants in Money—these were intense moments because they are anti-sacraments, outward signs of an entire gracelessness thus far concealed.
The vehemence of this self-distrust underlay the obsession with bodily functions, which critics called Swiftian. Admit, pre-emptively, acne and dandruff, and people might stop at criticising your skin and your hair. Self-distrust also helped Amis produce interesting, if self-serving, responses to feminist critiques of male attitudes. Admit to this sin or that and you might get to plea-bargain the rest. He could be attacked for getting it wrong, but not for dodging the issues.
This was made easier by his interest in formal game-playing, derived from Nabokov, and his use of unreliable narration as the literary equivalent of dodgy alibis—I wasn't there, it wasn't me who did it, and I was drunk at the time. The crooked sexist slob of his best novel (Money) may be called Self, but there is a character called Martin Amis in it who wanders around virtuously observing; so that's all right, then.
The Information is the first clear example of the generic Martin Amis novel. It is an auto-pastiche in which old themes are endlessly enumerated to exorcise once and for all the demon of failure. Like Success and London Fields, its protagonist is split. Failed novelist Richard Tull has demonic Others in the shape of the glib, successful Gwyn Barry and demented criminal Steve Cousins. As in London Fields, the narrative is periodically broken off so that Amis can tell us about the astrophysics books he has been reading—an updating and inversion of the pathetic fallacy. If there is chaos and entropy in the life of Tull, it's because the universe is going to fall apart like a used tissue.
Richard, given an ultimatum by his wife about the sacrifices she has made so that he can write his increasingly unpublishable and over-technical novels, decides to punish his oldest and best friend Gwyn for success. Each attempt goes as wrong as Wile E Coyote's efforts to catch the Road Runner. Indeed, Richard inadvertently ensures Gwyn's greatest triumph, a major literary prize. Meanwhile, we realise that Gwyn has come to hate Richard and enjoys humiliating him. Gwyn too over-reaches and accidentally saves Richard from the worst consequences of his own actions.
This is an extremely formal plot, which must at some point have been laid out in Amis' head like a diagram. However, if you are writing a formal plot, whether tragedy or farce or this odd mixture of both, the form must impose disciplines. A sonnet, if you want to write one, had better have about 14 lines that (more or less) rhyme. The faults of The Information lie in just this area of high technique.
Specifically, Richard tries to ensure that Gwyn does not get the Profundity Requital award (Amis' ear for awful American pomposity, and villain's demotic, has deserted him) by privately telling each of the impeccably liberal judges lies about Gwyn's political attitudes. Unfortunately, the sexual harassment expert he tells about Gwyn's seduction of college servants is turned on by the darkly passionate heroes of Harlequin romances … One of the difficulties of comedy is knowing which jokes will run and run. When Amis repeats this gag with racism and public hanging, we learn—as he should have done—that this is not one of them. It would not have worked even from his father, who at least believes that all liberals are hypocrites.
Part of the plot turns on the fact that Gwyn's upper-class wife Demi has a trick of speech. Rather than do the old-fashioned thing of showing this in action over many scenes, Amis tells us about it. When Chekhov said you should not fire a gun in the third act unless you had hung it on the wall in the first, he did not mean that you should surround the gun with flashing neon lights and a sign that says Ceci n'est pas un fusil. But Chekhov, unlike Amis, did not have postmodern technique available as an excuse for laziness.
Amis has chosen to lack such old-fashioned virtues, and it's this lack that lands him in so much new-fangled political hot water. Demi is a sexist stereotype not because she sleeps with black coke dealers, but because she does so without any hint of inner life. Martin Amis will be accused of treating her as a sex object because he chose to treat her merely as a plot function. None of the women ever gets to be more than a funny voice, or a sexy one. It's not a matter of asking Amis to place Demi and the rest centre stage; just that, without some depth, their role in motivating the men—in whom he is more interested—is arbitrary.
Of course, there are splendid things here as well. Richard's relationship with his twin sons is admirably touching. Typically, one of them has a mild handicap in respect of understanding narrative. Richard writes short notices of vast biographies, and the running jokes about the horrors of literary life are funny. The descriptions of Richard's and Gwyn's books make one amusedly glad to be reading any other novel—even this one.
This is the novel Amis always feared he would eventually write: one in which the tricks and gambits that had always served him become threadbare, while those traditional virtues to which he had paid lip-service as reviewer become apparent by their absence. The Information is a very busy book, skipping between joke American publishers and joke pub quiz machines and joke HIV-positive punkettes. The nervous energy has to go somewhere and it is no longer going into technical control. No reviewer should blame Amis for making a lot of money. We are entitled to express concern that a brilliant career has come to this: the overpriced sale of second-hand shoddy.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976
SOURCE: "What Little Boys Are Made Of," in The Observer Review, March 26, 1995, p. 17.
[In the following predominantly negative review, Ratcliffe discusses some of the "bad writing" that is present in The Information, noting that while parts of the tale are sincere and "diversionary," much of the novel is "self-laceratingly autobiographical."]
There are three ideas in Martin Amis's long and lugubrious revenger's comedy.
The first is that writers are, on the whole, a nightmare and, while he's sorry about that, it's much, much worse for them than for their nearest and dearest. The second is that men have a terrible time simply keeping up with other men, never mind the eternal struggle with their girlfriends, daughters and wives. (Women will ask questions so.) The third is that the universe is a pretty big place, and getting bigger all the time.
This is the worst news of all, because it means that, sub specie eternitatis, with an infinite cosmos of cold, hostile matter waiting to kill us out there, neither of the first two problems matters a toss. No wonder Amis is always photographed looking so solemn, moody and mean, the handsome face not even attempting to conceal some dreadful kind of inner crash.
I promised I wouldn't write about Amis the phenomenon, the face or the hype, since this is a review of The Information, the book, and not part of some imagined, miserably British campaign to break the brightest of British sons on a wheel of hysterical envy. But near-hysterical envy is the generating passion of the novel itself, and whether you will want to read about it for nearly 500 pages depends on your appetite for male menopause-frenzy and for writing which is sometimes brilliant and funny, but often, despite the carefully built-in tone of self-aware absurdity, heavy-handed and even downright bad:
Up and down his body there were whispered rumours of pain. In fact, physically, at all times, he felt epiphanically tragic.
And what about this?—
From a distance the grass had a layer of silver or pewter in it: the promise of the memory of dew.
Time passed. There was a transitionary period during which, no doubt, the women subliminally and approvingly assumed that Gwyn had set himself the stark and universal challenge of defecation.
The sniff he gave was complicated, orchestral. And when he sighed you could hear the distant seagulls falling through his lungs.
Since The Information is the story of two novelists, one a failure, the other a success, and of the deadly rivalry between them, quality of writing is the subject at its very heart, and it is impossible not to notice how clumsily much of the story is told.
Richard Tull, an unpublishable modernist of perhaps some originality (this is never made quite clear), makes a thin livelihood from reviewing fat biographies of mediocre writers, with titles like The Soul's Dark Cottage: A Life of Edmund Waller and The House of Fame: A Life of Thomas Tyrrwhit. (The ghosts of Eng Lit's Beazer Homes League float comically through the book.) He loves his seven-year-old twin sons, but not his wife Gina, although their sex life seems to remain active, despite his impotence (that, too).
They live in ungentrified North Kensington, and the dystopia of London Fields—dogshit, carbon monoxide, cowboy builders, hired teenage killers in smelly old vans—grumbles on.
Gwyn Barry, Richard's smuggest college chum, becomes a worldwide best-seller with a postmodern utopian novella that slips down easily in all languages; he dumps his long-time girl-friend (who goes mad in Swansea) and marries Lady Demeter, a distant cousin of the Queen. From their very grand house in Holland Park they make a TV programme praising the virtues of uxoriousness.
Demeter is pitied for her dimness, but Gwyn is a conceited and deceitful shit, and Richard—whose most recent manuscript, titled Untitled, variously induces migraine, double vision and suspected meningitis in those who attempt to read it—sets out to destroy him. First, his reputation as a writer, then perhaps the man himself. North Ken offers a Dickensian coven of willing intruders and assassins—useful to know that for the price of eight lead book reviews you can get anyone polished off—but most of their attempts collapse like Ealing comedy. Meanwhile, the rivalry continues over tennis, snooker and chess.
The Information is self-laceratingly autobiographical. That it is also in any way a roman à clef is vigorously denied by the novelist, who claims that Richard and Gwyn are simply the two halves of his own self. But it is, and they aren't. If they were really the two halves of Amis himself, then we should not only see Gwyn through Richard's eyes but also Richard through Gwyn's (which would have made a much more interesting novel). Instead, Gwyn is drawn with the wit, incisiveness and unforgiving hatred of Angus Wilson's early stories, while Richard, for all his awfulness ('I quite agree, what an asshole'), is given the benefit of the doubt as firmly as Lucky Jim was by Amis, K.
But where Dad has always made novel-writing look easy (and so, by inference, perhaps not very important), Martin Amis always strikes me as a novelist who struggles much too hard to be seen to be 'writing well' and to make novel-writing seem very important indeed. As a novel, The Information is all over the place. Rarely using one simile where two or three are to hand, never proceeding swiftly with a scene when the opportunity for decorative diversion presents itself, Amis blunts his comedy with poor timing and sententiousness.
Some of the diversions—a flight, a storm, a break-in, a circus, a country-house trip—provide great pleasure, but the best scenes by far are those between Richard and his small sons, for they are written without attitudinising or sentimentality, and come straight from the heart.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1337
SOURCE: "The Inflammation," in The New York Times Book Review, April 23, 1995, p. 3.
[In the following review, Buckley discusses The Information and how Amis has evolved as a writer.]
There's been a whole lot of keening in the British press lately about, Martin Amis's new novel, and some in our own. The cause of all this fuss and feathers is that—brace yourself—he fired one agent (the wife of his close friend, the novelist Julian Barnes), and hired another, Andrew Wylie, an American now referred to in the British papers as "the Jackal" and "the Robert Maxwell of agenting," who got him a juicy advance for the British edition, rumored to be close to $800,000. To a novelist like, say, Jeffrey Archer, $800,000 is a mere rounding error; but to a literary novelist like Mr. Amis it is giant clams indeed. Skeptics are already predicting that HarperCollins, the book's British publisher, will never earn that money back. At any rate, the result of all this has been an unseemly, indecorous and envious caterwauling such as has not been heard since William Golding won the Nobel Prize in 1983. As Gore Vidal famously put it, "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little." Every now and then you're reminded what a teensy little sceptered isle Britain is. Maybe it's just a case of Amis envy. Still, you wonder: Don't they have anything better to worry about?
You have to hand it to Mr. Amis on a couple of counts. First, the tempest in this particular teapot perfectly befits the subject of the book, literary envy. Second—Americans will grasp this point without difficulty—if you can get $800,000 for your novel, buddy, go for it. Since he arrived on the scene in the 70's Mr. Amis has been the bad boy (English for enfant terrible) of the lit scene. All power to him if he can continue to pull it off at the age of 45. He's a novelist with a plan. There is arc and design to his career. He's said as much in interviews. Off to a frisky start with The Rachel Papers and Dead Babies, then a nice, steady build with Money and Success; turned a bit heavy in London Fields and the horologically challenged Time's Arrow. Now we have the midlife crisis novel. "Five years in the making," the jacket announces with a clash of cymbals, with kettle drumming by Saul Bellow, informing us that Mr. Amis is the new Flaubert, the new Joyce. Who's to argue? However you feel about it, you can't avoid it: Mr. Amis is his generation's top literary dog.
He comes highly pedigreed, but his terrain is the junkyard of the human psyche—in this case, the London literary scene. The main character is Richard Tull, 40-year-old book reviewer, editor and failed novelist, Salieri to Gwyn Barry's Mozart. Gwyn's latest novel has made him so hot that Richard, ostensibly his best friend, is positively melting within. He has a lovely wife, two swell young boys, one of whom he smacks when Gwyn hits the best-seller list. (Probably the only hilarious instance of child abuse in literature.) He has a job as editor of a small literary rag and also works at a vanity press. He has written a number of increasingly obscure novels. He smokes, does drugs, drinks, copes and cries himself to sleep at night. He is also impotent, which never helps. His latest novel, entitled Untitled, is so impenetrable that everyone who tries to read the manuscript is stricken with fearsome neurological problems before reaching page 10.
Gwyn—who, according to a recent exhaustive article in The New Yorker on the whole Amis fracas, is not, repeat not, modeled on Julian Barnes—has been Richard's closest friend since they roomed together at Oxford. He is Welsh. He is also "rich and Labor." The New Yorker article was at pains to establish that Mr. Amis, though rich, still votes Labor, apparently a dinosaur-sized bone of contention among his fraught British brethren. Clearly, the Barings bank scandal has provided diversion from l'affaire Amis in the very nick of time.
Except for saddling him with a weak bladder, the gods have smiled on Gwyn. He is as successful as Richard is not. Money is pouring in from his novels. Hollywood is holding on line two; he is a finalist for a prize called—Mr. Amis has perfect pitch—the Profundity Requital, a sort of mini-Nobel-cummoney-for-life. To top it off, he is married to the Lady Demeter de Rougemount, a rich and milky blonde with whom he appears to have frequent, sweaty sex. By now you're on Richard's side. Vidal was so right.
Richard's only consolation, in fact, is that Gwyn's writing is—well, put it this way: Gwyn's writing stinks. Which of course is why he is so rich and famous. Poor Richard finally can take no more. He resolves to inflict damage on Gwyn.
He starts out by searching all over London for a Sunday issue of The Los Angeles Times, and dumps it anonymously on Gwyn's doorstep with a note saying: "Something to interest you here. The price of fame! Yours ever, John," knowing that the vain Gwyn will spend hours—days—searching through the tonnage of newsprint for his mention.
This escalates to crunchier means of revenge, involving the usual Amis menagerie of dangerous proles, grimly amusing London netherworlders with names like Scozzy, Darko, Crash, RoosterBooster and 13. The law of unintended consequences kicks in with a bloody heel. One of the thugs gets things confused and goes after Richard instead of Gwyn. The game gets dicier, larger, more unpredictable. It becomes a game of chess—one of Martin Amis's passions.
Is an envious writer enough to sustain a whole novel? Surprisingly, yes. Mr. Amis is quite dazzling here, more so than he has been since Money, his delectable disemboweling of the movie business. The Information drags a bit around the middle, but you're never out of reach of a sparkly phrase, stiletto metaphor or drop-dead insight into the human condition. And there is the humor; Mr. Amis goes where other humorists fear to tread. Who but Martin Amis could make you laugh at someone with a cerebellum-busting, cocaine-and-plum-cherry-apricot-liqueur hangover sitting in Labrador retriever afterbirth?
Richard's indignation and resentments, his hatred, plotting, defeats ("Not even in his sweatiest … beriberis of facetious loathing had Richard ever seriously considered that he would one day be asked to face the prospect of a Gwyn Barry movie sale") and his determination to redress the cosmic imbalance make for gorgeous, dark inventions, such as his retyping Gwyn's novel so that he can—but I mustn't give it away.
Mr. Amis has chosen some grim venues before for his novels. Time's Arrow was about a Nazi death camp doctor. And the inside of the head of an impotent, failed writer isn't an alpine meadow in the sunshine. Reflecting on the suicide of a lover, Richard wonders "why so many writers' women killed themselves, or went insane. And he concluded: because writers are nightmares. Writers are nightmares from which you cannot awake. Most alive when alone, they make living hard to do for those around them." This brutal honesty seems at odds with Mr. Amis's strenuous hipness. He's the crown prince of literary hipness, the stud Beau Brummell of the blasé. But eventually hipness becomes tiresome. It becomes hollow, and nihilistic. Left to run its smug, self-referential course, hipness ends up turning the Ten Commandments into a David Letterman top 10 list.
Mr. Amis is one step ahead of this criticism. Richard muses that "women did all this feeling, and seemed to need guidance from the theater. Still, men were theatrical too, insomuch as they needed to be, feeling less…. Men attended only one school of acting (the method), that of the cool. That's men. That's men for you: hams of cool." It's a perfect, brilliant line, and self-knowing. It's these moments, aside from the cool prose, that make watching Mr. Amis evolve—look out, Flaubert! Look out, Joyce!—so interesting.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1278
SOURCE: "Pen Envy: The Baroque Obsessions of an Unpublishable Writer Character," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 30, 1995, pp. 3, 13.
[In the following review, Eder lauds Amis as "dark, satirical and gifted with irascibility." However, he does find fault with Amis's lack of "inventiveness" and the aim of the author's satire.]
The best-known male writers of Britain's postwar period wrote of a zero-sum island where rancor was the leading literary theme. The women writers, meanwhile, were beginning to find ways to move on: Iris Murdoch through pagan myth, Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald through different kinds of humor with a similar root in sadness.
In retrospect, perhaps "angry young men" was not quite the right term for John Osborne, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and their contemporaries. Anger carries the implication that it will change something; in their case it was more a matter of chained resentment. The chains were rattled wonderfully well, sometimes; and the result was a stagy vitality that found its strongest expression, in fact, with the renaissance of British theater in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
Murdoch, Spark and Fitzgerald kept on writing, and some of their freest and finest work has come in the past dozen years. Most of those male writers have died or fallen silent; only Amis, at a rate of a novel every couple of years, keeps on rattling his chain. Chains, of course, have two ends. Amis, moving to the right, has long since done his rattling from the proprietor's end while complaining about the help.
In the case of Kingsley's son, Martin Amis, the complaining has been passed right along, as well as the chain end. His writing is fancier, with an assortment of surreal and post-modern touches, and it is better paid—the size of the advance for his latest book set off a literary firestorm in London—but the family resemblance is overwhelming.
Both father and son write of intellectual phonies and pretenders, assorted degenerates and a rotted-out youth in an England of depraved popular culture and not the slightest social or moral structure. Martin portrays them more monstrously, but the outlook is remarkably similar.
Like his father, Martin Amis is dark, satirical and gifted with irascibility. But what we get under the satire is not a sense of protest but of contempt. It aims not so much to denounce the world in order to uplift it, as to exclude the world in order to uplift the writer and the circle he thinks he is addressing. With the Amises it has become less and less evident whom that circle includes. It is like standing with someone at a party and being talked above, or perhaps below, or perhaps the talker is talking to himself, more and more wordily.
Accumulating prolixity enfolds and deadens the witty turns and phrases that both writers are capable of producing. What has dwindled is an author's curiosity about his characters. In Kingsley's early work—Lucky Jim, Take a Girl Like You—this curiosity was exhilarating; with Martin it has never seemed very strong. He can create striking figures, but they emerge full-blown from their author's head, and begin to stiffen from that moment on.
They are stiff as straws, for the most part, in The Information. Like his last big novel, London Fields, it is a satirical jeremiad, a distant descendant of Trollope's very dark How We Live Now. Jeremiah operates on a smaller scale than in Fields panorama of a London in moral and material flames and ashes. Here the sprawling desolation of the times is strung onto a tiny ingrown framework.
The Information is powered by envy, a theme as specific to Britain's postwar writers—the male ones—as fatal passion was to Italian opera. It takes place in that well-worn fictional milieu where authors, critics, publishers, broadcasters and assorted intelligentsia talk, drink, fornicate, gossip and watch, for biting purposes, each other's backs.
Richard Tull, the narrator, is the author of two mildly praised avant-garde novels, followed by four unpublished ones of which the last, titled Untitled, is so painfully dense that by Page 10 or 11, any agent or editor who reads it comes down with migraine, double vision or worse. He earns a grubby living reviewing books and editing for a vanity press that takes on such projects as a dissertation claiming that the Nazi concentration camps were run by Jews.
He shares household and child-minding chores with his wife, Gina, who threatens to work full time—thus making him a full-time househusband—if he can't get his books to sell. Gina is admirable—or so it seems—and he lusts after her, but he is, of course, impotent.
Tull is burnt-out and obsessed. His buddy, Gwyn Barry, who had long been even more of a failure—worse manuscripts, grubbier hack jobs, uglier women—has suddenly become a literary celebrity, fabulously praised, richly rewarded, in demand all over the world, married to a beautiful earl's daughter, desired by other beautiful women, constantly interviewed. Tull let out an unearthly howl when Barry's utopian New Age novel, Amelior, first crept into the bestseller list; a devoted father, he hit one of his two sons. Now he lives to destroy the other man.
He thinks up schemes to prejudice the judges of a forthcoming literary prize that Barry is slated to win. He makes a feeble attempt to seduce his wife. He sends a depraved, AIDS-infected teen-age female punk to work on him. He researches feverishly a tell-all newspaper profile that will damn him. He engages in an elaborate scheme to make it appear that Amelior has been plagiarized. He negotiates with a degenerate drug-dealer who specializes in maiming and "frightenings" to disable him.
At the same time, he keeps Barry constant company (in his role of devoted old friend); takes every opportunity to put him down verbally (honest old friend); beats him regularly at tennis, pool and chess. He accompanies him on an author's tour of the United States. He nurtures, cherishes, warms his rage and prospective revenge. Since he is such an evident loser all along, it gives nothing away to say that here too, he loses.
The Information has its bright spots; mainly in the verbal energy and inventiveness with which Amis, through Tull, discharges upon his day and age. For much of the time, though, the inventiveness goes out. A whole section devoted to the U.S. tour is a tired rehash of what a great many satirical English writers—including Amis Sr. and Martin himself, in Money—have previously served up.
Tull's plotting is active but lifeless. None of the schemes is advanced or developed with any real conviction. It is not that we need necessarily to believe in a story of this kind, but the story has to believe itself. Far-fetched can be a fictional virtue, but we expect someone to do the fetching. Amis will take up a character or situation and then lose interest. The sadistic drug dealer, set up to be an effetely chilling figure, soon turns tepid. Gina, who shows signs of standing for some kind of human reality in the face of Tull's obsessions, is let to fall apart. Barry's wife, Demeter, has a faint starting mystery to her that goes flat.
Barry is a relentless caricature, a writer whose image has been created by publicity and is nothing but image. Battling this cartoon, Tull becomes little more than his own obsession. As most of the others do, he declines from being a character to being the author's remarks. Like an artist who possesses only crayon stubs, Amis quickly colors them down, and his book turns largely into his own fingerprints.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1208
SOURCE: "Raging Midlife Crisis as Contemporary Ethos," in The New York Times, May 2, 1995, p. C17.
[In the following review, Kakutani favorably discusses The Information as "ambitious" and "uncompromising," and predicts that the book will be favorably received.]
Once in a while in some artists' careers, there comes along a work that sums up all their preoccupations, all their technical innovations to date. Sometimes, as in the case of Philip Roth's novel Operation Shylock, the work is simply a playful but solipsistic dictionary of familiar riffs and routines, a self-referential game of mirrors. Other times, as in the case of Ingmar Bergman's film Fanny and Alexander, the work is a wonderful synthesis of all that has gone before, a synthesis that not only serves as a kind of Rosetta stone to an oeuvre, but also transcends the sum of its parts.
While Martin Amis's new novel, The Information, is no Fanny and Alexander, it happily belongs to that second category of work. By turns satirical and tender, funny and disturbing, The Information marks a giant leap forward in Mr. Amis's career. Here, in a tale of middle-aged angst and literary desperation, all the themes and stylistic experiments of Mr. Amis's earlier fiction come together in a symphonic whole.
Like his first novel, The Rachel Papers, The Information features a horribly hapless hero, who's obsessed with bodily functions. Like Dead Babies and Other People, it purveys a willfully cynical view of modern life, a fascination with the seamy world of drugs and illicit sex. Like Success, it pits two old friends against each another in a competition for women and recognition. Like Money, it chronicles the spectacular fall of a not particularly likable hero. And like Time's Arrow and London Fields, it boasts a highly complex narrative that attempts to use the latest post-modern hydraulics to articulate an ambitious social vision.
In the past, Mr. Amis's narrative high jinks have often seemed awkward or merely gratuitous: Time's Arrow clumsily used a reverse-time sequence to relate the story of a former Nazi doctor, and Money featured silly cameo appearances by the author himself. In The Information, however, Nabokovian devices are not only employed to frame the story of a failed novelist, Richard Tull, but are also cunningly used to open out his hilarious tale of envy and revenge into a glittering meditation on the nervous interface between the real world and the world of art. At the same time, they transform his comical midlife crisis into a hard-edged satire of contemporary life.
The vision of society delineated in these pages darkly (and presumably deliberately) presages the grim, futuristic one presented in London Fields. In that 1990 novel, London stood perched on the rim of millennial disaster, a victim of urban chaos theory and its own denizens' uncontrollable greed and lust. In The Information, which takes place in the present, racial and class tensions have already begun to escalate to a screeching new decibel level, and violence on the streets is dangerously random. There are burning mattresses on the sidewalks, sinister vans on the side streets, and menacing strangers watching the children play in the parks. Innocent-seeming old ladies turn out to be hit-and-run scam artists or telephone sex-line experts, and the "nasal insect drill of need and neurosis" fills the air at night.
For Richard, Mr. Amis's hero, the world has become a grim mirror of his own preoccupation with death, middle age and—last but not least—his rapidly unraveling career. Once upon a time, it seems, Richard was a promising young novelist with a bright future, a beautiful wife and lots of ambitious plans. He was happy feeling superior to his best friend and old schoolmate, Gwyn Barry, whom he even routinely beat at chess, snooker and tennis.
Recently, however, the two men have stepped onto escalators headed in opposite directions. Gwyn's progress is ever onward and upward: he has written a politically correct utopian novel that has become an international best seller; he has married a fabulously beautiful and wealthy woman who's related to the Queen, and he has become the No. 1 favorite to win a prestigious literary prize called the Profundity Requital, which would guarantee him a cushy income for life. All this success has turned Gwyn into an insufferable boor who spends the better part of his time preening for photographers and searching for his own name in the papers.
Richard, in the meantime, has fallen into an awful slump and appears headed for even further frustrations. His last few novels have gone unpublished, and his latest, unpromisingly titled Untitled, is now making the rounds of ever smaller and drearier publishers. His willfully difficult and allusion-filled work just isn't the sort of thing anyone wants to read. Richard's marriage has also hit an impasse (thanks, in part, to his impotence), and he finds himself increasingly baffled by his twin sons' noisy demands.
Even the two jobs that are supposed to help him eke out a literary living (reviewing obscure biographies and editing trashy manuscripts for a vanity press) are depressing him more than usual, and his former skills at chess, snooker and tennis are threatening to let him down. If people were planets, Richard thinks, he would be Pluto: the smallest and most pathetic, far away from the sun.
So what's Richard to do? He decides to ruin Gwyn's career—or failing that, his life. Some of Richard's strategies are purely literary: trying to ruin Gwyn's chances of winning the Profundity award by bad-mouthing him to the judges; scheming to write a nasty profile of Gwyn that would depict him as an untalented phony, and plotting to accuse Gwyn of plagiarism and manufacturing the evidence that would indict him.
These outrageous schemes are expertly rendered by Mr. Amis with the sort of light, high-spirited comic brio that distinguished Lucky Jim, the classic novel by his father, Kingsley, but Richard's plans soon take a darker—and more ominous—turn. Having decided that the literary world affords few truly satisfying opportunities for revenge, Richard turns to the real world, the world of sex and violence, to try to get even with Gwyn. He tries to seduce Gwyn's childless wife, Demeter, while sending a punked-out young woman to try to seduce Gwyn. He also retains the services of one Steve Cousins, a street hustler, hit man and drug dealer to the aerobically fit. Once summoned, however, Steve (or Scozzy, as he's known to his friends) will prove difficult to control; indeed he will drag Richard and Gwyn out of their prim, self-absorbed world of books and introduce them to the mean streets of the London underworld.
Martin Amis's work has always reverberated with literary echoes, and in the case of The Information. It's easy to find dozens of allusions, debts and hidden homages to other books: from Lucky Jim to Richard Price's Clockers, from Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift to Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. Such references, however, are thoroughly subsumed here by Mr. Amis's own idiosyncratic vision and his ability to articulate that vision in wonderfully edgy, street-smart prose. He has written just the sort of novel his bumbling hero dreams in vain of writing: an uncompromising and highly ambitious novel that should also be a big popular hit.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2793
SOURCE: "Satisfaction," in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 9, May 11, 1995, pp. 9-10.
[In the following review, Loose discusses the themes, strengths, and weaknesses of Amis's novel The Information.]
Clearly, for Martin Amis, enough is nothing like enough. To read him is to discover an author as voracious as his characters: like Terry in Success, who specifies that 'I want all that and I want all that. And I want all that and I want all that. And I want all that and I want all that.' Or like the fast-food, fast-sex junkie John Self of Money, who always gets less than he bargains for, yet keeps going back for more: 'I would cheerfully go into the alchemy business, if it existed and made lots of money.' Amis goes to any length to remind us of our whole-hearted addiction to the unwholesome—to alcohol, say, or nuclear weapons. The central character in his new novel, The Information, is so committed to smoking that he wants to start again before he's even given up: 'Not so much to fill the little gaps between cigarettes with cigarettes (there wouldn't be time, anyway) or to smoke two cigarettes at once. It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette.' Keith Talent in London Fields feels much the same way about pornography: 'He had it on all the time, and even that wasn't enough for him. He wanted it on when he was asleep. He wanted it on when he wasn't there.'
In The Information, a pitilessly professional literary agent explains that nowadays the public can only keep in mind one thing per writer. Authors need definition, 'like a signature. Drunk, young, mad, fat, sick: you know.' Amis's handle could well be: insatiable. And not just because he has become such a Post-Modern operation that, as we used to say of Madonna, even his publicity gets publicity. One of his favourite metaphors—for accumulating phone-calls, deals, anxieties—is of jets stacked in the sky above some fogbound airport (perhaps 'Manderley International Junk Novel Airport'), a consummate image for contemporary over-stimulation and over-supply, for what can barely be accommodated and yet won't nearly suffice. Amis once proposed 'never being satisfied' as Philip Roth's great theme, but it is the boundless nature of need that he, too, endlessly celebrates and satirises. And if Amis is the poet of profligacy, the expert on excess, it is because he is himself full of what he might call male need-to-tell, what John Updike has diagnosed as an urge 'to cover the world in fiction'. Money may have been the definitive portrait of Eighties materialism, but Amis has a sly suspicion that we haven't yet tired of reading about the things we cannot get too much of—like fame and money, sex and information.
Amis's latest anti-hero suffers from too much information, and not nearly enough fame, money or sex. Richard Tull, a 'charisma bypass', lives on the obscure margins of the literary world. The author of a clutch of difficult novels with hopeless titles like Aforethought and Untitled, he works as a shamefaced employee of a vanity publisher, edits the aptly named Little Magazine, and reviews ever-fatter biographies of ever-more second-rate writers (but at least 'when he reviewed a book, it stayed reviewed'). Richard's lot goes beyond the common unhappiness of the mediocre. The morning post brings demands from his publishers for the return of advances on unwritten books, and a solicitor's letter from his own solicitor; he is acutely impotent, and—plagued by intimations of his own mortality (having just hit 40)—cries to himself in the middle of the night. What twists failure's stiletto ever deeper is the corresponding success of his only friend, Gwyn Barry. Gwyn has written a blandly accessible novel about a New-Age utopia and, inexplicably, become an international bestseller. Richard is more than bitter: he is consumed beyond all reason, 'exhaustingly ever-hostile'. And so, in the best tradition of Amis characters, he formulates a plan, a mission: 'to fuck Gwyn up'.
Of course, Richard proves no better at revenge than at anything else. The over-laboured joke of the book is the comprehensiveness with which he fails, and the rashness with which he ever assumes 'this is the worst.' Richard doesn't just get charged with drunken driving, he drives his car head-on into a police station. His latest novel doesn't just prove unreadable, it gives people splitting headaches, double vision, lands them in hospital with vasomotor rhinitis. He sends Gwyn a random copy of the enormously fat Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times, with an anonymous note pretending that it mentions him—and it does. He swallows his Larkinesque pride at never having been to America, and accompanies Gwyn on a publishing tour of the States, but his cunning attempts to sway the judges of the 'Profundity Prize' only ensure that Gwyn wins. He hires a professional thug to do Gwyn some serious damage, but the professional turns out to be a psychopath, and it is Richard who gets beaten up, and his own family who are placed at risk.
As Richard's strategies variously fizzle out or detonate in his face, the narrative takes the form of one of the many books he's failed to write: 'The History of Increasing Humiliation'. We soon realise that all plot lines, all other characters exist only in so far as they serve to detain Richard in a never-ending 'Mahabharata of pain'. If Gwyn never quite seems a worthy subject of Richard's outsize fury, it is because he never carries much conviction as a subject. Similarly, the women in the novel remain mere objects of desire and disappointment. They may know all about tears (a woman crying is 'make-up in melt-down'), but they don't get to read Proust, write books or take any decisions: Amis frankly gives up on the attempt to make them more than two-dimensional, acknowledging 'difficulties of representation'. He also reminds us more than once that literary genres are in a muddle, now that 'decorum is no longer observed', but perhaps another decline is unintentionally mapped in this novel, a descent from black comedy to mechanical farce. For despite the ever-entertaining wit, the only twist is that there is no twist, and a terrible predictability sets in, as though Richard's chronic habit of failure had consumed the novel itself.
The Information makes much of rivalry and hatred between authors, but to describe the book's subject as literary rivalry seems a category mistake, of the kind Richard's son Marco repeatedly makes ('If you told Marco why the chicken crossed the road, Marco would ask you what the chicken did next'). Rather, The Information is a study of envy and egomania that happens to play itself out in the world of publishing. Nicholson Baker in U and I probed the devastating realisation that Updike 'writes better than I do and is smarter than I am'. Here, though, there is no sense of one writer warding off another's potentially crushing influence, or of the fragile accommodations made between near-equals. It has long been a tenet of Amis's writing that rivalry (like success) is something that American authors are particularly good at; he has written about the enmity of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, and now cites Berryman's unease at Lowell's pre-eminence ('Who's number one? Who's number one?'). But how does this relate to The Information? Richard writes Joycean novels on a scale of difficulty that would make even Gilbert Sorrentino blanch (his latest involving no less than 16 unreliable narrators). Gwyn's work, by contrast, is so politically correct and user-friendly that, as Richard outrageously comments, it would only be remarkable if he'd written it with his foot. If The Information has anything to say about literary rivalry it is because, for Amis, writing is an activity as inherently confrontational as tennis, or tag wrestling. Authors 'are competing for something there is only one of: the universal. They should want to go the mat.' There may seem something ludicrous about the notion of an exclusive 'universal', as though truths (like publishers' advances) are in limited supply. But then the author, according to Amis, is the one who wants it all, who cannot be satisfied: 'like all writers, Richard wanted, and expected, the reverence due, say, to the Warrior Christ an hour before Armageddon.'
If The Information fails to induce apocalyptic awe, it may be because, apart from the droll sketches of literary circles, this new novel is a very familiar Amiscellany. There's too much of the same: male envy, not least between authors and near twins; furious games of tennis ('you haven't got a backhand. It's just a wound in your side'); alcohol-fuelled trips to America, empire of trex; sad men staring disgustedly in bathroom mirrors at faces blasted with age and ridden with 'big boys'; villains who speak a post-Yardie patois and believe in getting their retaliation in first; talk of 'batch' and 'spinst', and orthodontic descriptions of urban decay ('the sound of fiercely propelled metal as it ground against stone … the whole city taking it deep in the root canal'). The cosmological interludes of London Fields return with a vengeance: 'The quasars are so far away and getting further away so fast. This is to put Richard's difficulties in context.' This is also to risk a sense of fatigue, for over-use can make such astronomic comparisons seem all too dull and sublunary, perhaps prompting us to recall the Total Perspective Vortex featured in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that exquisite torture which does nothing more than show you your ultimate significance in relation to the rest of the universe.
Yet the loss of all sense of proportion is, of course, why Amis is so enjoyable to read. As the narrator of his first book, The Rachel Papers, at once laments and demonstrates, 'one of the troubles with being over-articulate, with having a vocabulary more refined than your emotions, is that every turn in the conversation, every switch of posture, opens up an estate of verbal avenues with a myriad of side-turnings and cul-de-sacs.' An improviser's sense of the possible is both a strength and a flaw: we may feel that with The Information Amis has ended up down a cul-de-sac, but his writing is still fantastically rich. There is no better place to find the spot-on perception: Americans call everybody 'sir', but manage to make the word sound like 'mac or bub or scumbag'; people's mouths 'nuzzle the necks' of cellular telephones, and bike messengers wear 'city scuba gear'; a flock of birds rears up 'like a join-the-dots puzzle of a human face or fist'; in prenatal classes, adults sit around on the floor and gaze up at teacher 'like the children they would shortly bear'.
The offbeam precision of the Martian poet is only one of Amis's modes, but it lends his writing such casual authority that frequent assumptions of the first person plural are unusually persuasive, even when 'we' would rather be included out: 'Bitter is manageable. Look how we all manage it.' 'We may think we are swearing at others, at traffic. But who is the traffic?' Hungry for the universal, and attentive to the vagaries of excess, Amis will go places other writers won't: 'If we think about it, we all know the sneak preview of schizophrenia, with the toilet paper, those strange occasions when there seems to be no good reason to stop wiping.' Often, though, Amis's imagined reader seems more specific, a product of what Richard's son calls 'male-pattern boldness': 'The sense of relief, of clarity and surety a man feels, at the prospect of temptation, when he knows he has washed his cock before leaving the house.'
In his earlier novels, a more-or-less-recognisable 'Martin Amis' might appear and make playful remarks, such as: 'I really don't want to join it, the whole money conspiracy.' Martin Amis's presence in those books modishly alluded to Heisenberg's principle (an observed system interacts with its observer) and dramatised the unequal, even sadistic relationship between author and creation. The Information features more of 'Martin Amis' but less of the playfulness. Richard can't seem to decide if our present ironic age ends up with stories about writers, or with stories about 'rabble, flotsam, vermin'. Certainly it is the latter which allowed Amis and 'Amis' to come into their own. Where in London Fields we learn that Keith Talent went through his mid-life crisis at the age of 19, or read that 'in common with Leo Tolstoy, Keith Talent thought of time as moving past him while he just stayed the same,' the gap between the protagonist's lowlife awareness and the author's cruelly superior understanding was the joke, the ironic motor for the fiction. But The Information is dominated by Richard Tull, a figure who (success and readability apart) is much like Martin Amis. Admittedly 'Martin Amis' tells us about the very specific perils of teenage dating when you stand only 5-feet-six ('or 5′ 6 1/2″, according to a passport I once had'), but he, too, takes his kids to Dogshit Park, shares many of Richard's thoughts, and would seem to know what it is to experience a mid-life crisis—or, rather more grandly, 'a crisis of the middle years'.
That crisis finds narrative expression in a kind of theatrical throwing-up of hands: 'how can I ever play the omniscient, the all-knowing, when I don't know anything?' Amis-the-narrator keeps reminding us that he doesn't control his own characters ('To be clear: I don't come at these people. They come at me. They come at me like information formed in the night.') Where the unstoppable John Self knew he had our sympathy (even if he wanted 'much, much more of it'), 'Amis' makes a show of interrupting himself, dismissing language and fiction as inadequate to the task, losing his patience like a harassed teacher: 'We are agreed—come on; we are agreed—about beauty in the flesh.' But this forsaking of authority is everywhere betrayed by flexes of authorial muscle ('I think we might switch for a moment to the point of view of Richard's twin sons'), and by the sheer virtuosity of the writing. No one since Sterne has described impotence with such relish, even summarising the theme in literature ('as for Casaubon and poor Dorothea: it must have been like trying to get a raw oyster into a parking meter'). Perhaps the one thing Amis cannot do, we realise, is communicate a Beckettian sense of exhaustion, or a feeling that he is no longer in control. When he declares that 'the information is telling me to stop saying hi and start saying bye,' we can't help but note that only Amis would say it that well, with that vernacular spin—and, of course, want to say it at such length.
Redundancy is integral to the Amis project. Richard Tull delights in the self-defeating way in which abbreviations—MW for microwave, FWD for Four Wheel Drive—contain more syllables than the words they represent. Similarly, Amis flourishes three dazzling similes when one would do, or conjures up the perfect image, only to take it one step further: 'If the eyes were the window to the soul, then the window is a windscreen, after a transcontinental drive; and his cough sounded like a wiper on the dry glass.' Amis likens the beer-sticky streets of Ladbroke Grove to the darkness and fire of Pandemonium, and indeed his similes are increasingly Miltonic, always threatening to detach themselves from the main narrative and strike out on their own. Thus Richard, about to enter Gwyn's large and lavish house:
Gwyn's set-up always flattened him. He was like the chinless cadet in the nuclear submarine, small-talking with one of the guys as he untwirled the bolt (routine check) on the torpedo bay: and was instantly floored by a frothing phallus of seawater. Deep down out there, with many atmospheres. The pressure of all that Gwyn had.
The primary pleasure of reading The Information is that of being regularly swept up in these epic, frothing digressions. The effect is like the description of an American interviewer Richard encounters, whose superficial 'warmth' and 'niceness' have been turned up on the dial 'as if these qualities, like the yield of a hydrogen bomb, had no upper limit—the range had no top to it—and just went on getting bigger and bigger and better as you lashed them towards infinity.' Such passages are so enjoyably overwhelming, so addictively all-consuming, that you feel you want to read a novel by Martin Amis even when you are reading a novel by Martin Amis.
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SOURCE: "The Information—An Unpleasant, Familiar-Sounding Book," in The Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 1995, p. 14.
[In the following review, Rubin examines The Information and states that despite the "unpleasant" nature of the story, Amis manages to contrive a "scathing satire of London literary life."]
The publication of Martin Amis's eighth novel, The Information, stirred up considerable controversy in London literary circles, not only over the size of the advance its author demanded, but also over what some deemed his mistreatment of his literary friends and associates. (Amis replaced his former agent, Pat Kavanagh, wife of his longtime crony and fellow novelist Julian Barnes, with the far more aggressive agent Andrew Wylie, while allegedly using his soon-to-be-former friends as fodder for his fiction.)
Ironically, The Information happens to be a scathing satire of London literary life as epitomized in the covertly rivalrous relationship between two writers: successful, respected novelist Gwyn Barry and his increasingly envious and embittered friend Richard Tull, who obsessively schemes to damage Barry, both professionally and personally, in any way that he can.
Tull and Barry both started out as promising young writers, with Tull slightly in the lead. Better spoken, coming from a superior social class, more skilled at tennis, chess, and billiards, and—most importantly—far more of an artist than his less sophisticated friend, Tull is driven to distraction by the spectacle of his former inferior's run-away success.
Barry's breakthrough book, the one that brought him bestsellerdom and critical esteem, was a novel called Amelior, which dealt with the seemingly unpromising subject of a Utopian society: "… twelve youngish human beings forgathered in an unnamed … hinterland…. No holocaust or meteorite … brought them there. They just showed up. To find a better way…. In the place called Amelior, where they had come to dwell, there was no beauty, no humor … no hate … no love. And that was all."
Tull simply cannot fathom why the world should have taken Amelior to heart. His own career, meanwhile, has been a disheartening chronicle of ever-diminishing returns, which, perhaps, is less surprising when one learns that his most recent manuscript, titled Untitled, has induced various ailments in those who have tried to read it, and contains scenes of the sort in which "… five unreliable narrators converse on crossed mobile-phone lines while stuck in the same revolving door."
The fortune-favored Barry is married to an earl's daughter, and the happy couple has been featured on a television program illustrating the joys of uxorious-ness. The Barrys have not, however, publicized one of the rifts in their picture-perfect marriage: She wants children, and he does not.
The father of twin boys, Tull has become impotent with the decline of his literary hopes. He ekes out his paltry earnings as a book reviewer with a job editing trash for vanity press. His pretty wife, Gina, who contributes more to the family income, has been urging him to give up his fruitless career as a novelist. Tull's response to his deep depression is to try to destroy his rival.
Much of The Information is taken up with various schemes Tull employs to damage Barry. Many of these schemes involve paying low-life criminals to harass and intimidate him. Others involve Tull himself in spreading vicious rumors (some false, some true) about his "friend." Tull's most ingenious scheme is a plan to frame Barry for the literary "crime" of plagiarism. Most of these schemes tend to backfire.
The Information is—and is meant to be—an unpleasant book: acrid, well-written, nastily clever.
It may also strike many readers as perhaps a little too familiar-sounding if they've read Mr. Amis's earlier books. The parts pertaining to the literary life are the liveliest. The lengthy excursions into the criminal world are even more of a bore than the play-by-play accounts of tennis, chess, and snooker games between the two rivalrous writers.
For the reader, there may be little to choose between the smug Barry and the rancorous Tull.
Once Amis has succeeded in delineating the tricky contours of their characters, the ugly details of plot—what does or doesn't happen to either or both of them—seem rather superfluous. Barry and Tull are like opposite halves of a single, narcissistic, self-hating person, a pair of bleak responses to the open-ended question: What do writers want?
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SOURCE: "Amis and Envy," in The Village Voice, Vol. XL, No. 21, May 23, 1995, p. 52.
[In the following review, Morales discusses briefly the plot, themes, and autobiographical elements of The Information, praising some aspects of Amis's writing and faulting others.]
With The Information, Martin Amis seems poised to make a profound comment on the nature of the writing business, the unnerving inevitability of aging, and, well, death itself. At least it appears that the information he refers to is Death; Death of the English Novel, Death of Western Civilization, Death of the White Guy. The word that's obviously missing from this title is Superhighway, but Amis, who still writes his novels in longhand, seems to want no part of postmodern debate about technology and media, opting instead to offer this tidbit of crucial information: "The history of astronomy is the history of increasing humiliation." The sun doesn't revolve around Martin Amis!
The plot—there really exists very little plot—revolves around Richard Tull, a miserable, failed novelist turned book reviewer approaching 40, filled with envy toward his old friend Gwyn Barry, whose vapid, talentless prose has produced international bestselling novels about a p.c. Shangri-la called Amelior. Tull's obsessed with destroying Barry, by exposing him as a plagiarist, by sleeping with his wife, the Lady Demeter, by having thugs of dubious color beat the living crap out of him. It doesn't matter that all of these plots fail, for Tull is the living embodiment of failure, for his "history of humiliation was long—was long and proud." So it's not so surprising that Amis, who believes that "failure is more interesting than success," has Tull spend almost 400 pages wallowing in great "Gobis and Saharas" of failure.
The Information, which fails as the grand roman à clef that Amis's dual talent as novelist and journalist has promised, comes to us under a storm of attendant publicity about its roots in real life. All over Britain the headlines screamed of the infamous DENTAL IMPLANT SURGERY, paid for by the 500,000-POUND ADVANCE secured for The Information when Amis, after LEAVING HIS WIFE, dumped his long-standing agent, Pat Kavanaugh, and signed on with the loathsome Andrew Wylie, THE JACKAL, THE ROBERT MAXWELL OF AGENTING. That Kavanaugh was married to Amis's longtime novelist-pal and tennis buddy Julian Barnes, who was widely regarded as the model for the insufferable Gwyn Barry character, only fueled the hysteria in and around the Groucho Club.
Barnes and Amis are old friends and share games of snooker much as Richard and Gwyn do in The Information, but their real-life relationship is the inverse of the one in the novel. Gwyn, the alleged model for Barnes, has Amis's fame and wealth, while Barnes's work, although not as obscure as the hopeless Tull's, is certainly less surrounded by publicity circuses than Amis's. Amis insists in the Guardian that "both Richard and Gwyn are me," but it's hardly necessary to consult the overseas press to come to the same conclusion: Dividing oneself into any number of characters is a time-tested literary ploy, and Amis's meditation on the capacity for great success and dismal failure that coexists in most writers is one of The Information's strong points—it's a kind of "There but for the grace of Kingsley go I" gambit, a bit of humility that is a clear victory for a writer whose most consistent and recognizable voice is that of a pissy crank with delusions of grandeur. The Richard/Gwyn dynamic also parallels the tortured dichotomy of the envier and the envied that functions as a motif in his earlier work, that is, John Self and Fielding in Money, Samson Young and Mark Asprey in London Fields, and even the bifurcated narrator of Time's Arrow.
Just as the Nazi doctor central to Time's Arrow seems to be afflicted with a schizophrenia that produces a detached self who narrates against the flow of time, Amis seems to be detached from some unfashionable resentment that results from the current path of history. Having grown up liberal in the '60s—he reminds us early on that in England, "All writers, all book people, were Labour …"—as he enters middle age, he seems annoyed and frightened by the way the racial landscape is changing. There is an Oxford Posse paranoia going on here, apparently giving voice to his speculated frustration about not winning the Booker Prize, which of late, has gone mostly to the writers of color (Ben Okri, etc.,) who constitute a minimovement that's referred to as The Empire Strikes Back.
Hence Richard Tull's voluminous nervous titters over Lady Demeter's "distinct liking for—our colored bretheren"; whining sarcasm such as "How did people ever get the idea that white skin was any good at all, let alone the best?"; and Letterman-esque bombs like "I myself have a bro in my head—Yo!—who, after much ritual handslapping, takes over when I'm tired or can't come…." While some might find this a self-deprecating reference to Tull's sexual impotence—and writers of color like Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi are his friends—it's still pretty thinly disguised nastiness. And what am I to make of the assertion that one of the greatest of all of Tull's humiliations was to have his latest tome, Untitled ("with its octuple time scheme and its rotating crew of sixteen unreliable narrators"), picked up by the treacly multicultural Bold Agenda press, located on Avenue B, in my neighborhood? The big joke is that the other writers on board at Bold Agenda are named—trés p.c.—John Two Moons (nudge, nudge, a bloody American Indian) and Shanana Ormolu Davis (another colored lady). Poor Richard.
To be fair, the Tull saga is not the only focus of Amis's narrative—just before Tull's halting masochism gets old, Amis switches gears and goes with Barry for a while, which saves The Information from kissing the pavement like a 5 a.m. drunk. An impudent Welshman with no insight or talent, but a prodigious gift for seduction, Gwyn Barry represents the unabashed greed that Amis, being a proper Englishman, feels squeamish about claiming as his own—a squeamishness that might explain the British press's obsession with his cosmetic dentistry and his rich American girlfriend, the writer Isobel Fonseca. Carrying on an affair in his own house, right in front of Lady Demeter, and also providing the climactic shock of infidelity that allows The Information to lurch into its denouement, Barry, the winner, ties up all the loose ends, whereas Tull is about unraveling.
Still it's Tull who in the end provides the book's giddiest moment, literally stuttering as his battered intellect attempts to spit out the final humiliation: his assignment to do a magazine feature on Barry. "Although Barry was no…. He had a reputation as a. He made no secret of his love of. To him, the fairer," blurts Tull, on his information deathbed. And it's through Tull that we are treated to Amis's signature loping, polyrhythmic repetition, to his romps through the satire of Dogshit Park, to his incredible dexterity with language, all the while never forsaking the class struggle:
Richard sat in Coach…. Hundreds of yards and hundreds of passengers away, Gwyn Barry, practically horizontal on his crimson barge, shod in prestige stockings and celebrity slippers, assenting with a smile to the coaxing refills of Alpine creekwater and sanguinary burgundy with which his various young hostesses strove to enhance his caviar tartlet, his smoked-salmon pinwheel and asparagus barguette, his prime fillet tournedos served on a timbale of tomato and a tampenade of Castillian olives—Gwyn was in First.
That's entertainment all right. So it would be nit-picking to mention the business about the "street kids" to whom Amis turns his ear in the goes-nowhere subplot—more nasty business about Tull having to resort to the "Other" to carry out one of his fiendish plots to "fuck Gwyn up"—and the shallow characterization of all the major female players: Tull's long-suffering wife, Gina; Tull and Barry's American-born literary agent, Gal Aplanalp; Tull's suicidal mistress, Anstice; and of course, Lady Demeter. Even when Amis spouts a lot of rot about nothing, he's worth waiting 20 pages for another mind-blowing, style-laden passage, and after slogging through to the bitter end, it was abundantly clear to me that Amis is not confused about whether he is the successful novelist or a failed reviewer. Still Amis should take more of a cue from his own journalism and provide a little more of the kind of information that gets us to read novels: stuff like plot and a character's transcendence.
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SOURCE: "The Content of His Characters," in National Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 10, May 29, 1995, pp. 61-63.
[In the following review, Bowman asserts that Amis's work is often lacking in plot but strong in prose.]
Writers of fiction in the twentieth century can be divided into the champions of big texture and the champions of big content, and there can be no question that the texturalists have had the better of the conflict. The reassuringly Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end, which used to be thought a minimum requirement for a novel, have given way among the adepts of literary culture to what Ezra Pound called (and called for): "Beginning, Whoop! and then any sort of tail-off." Since Joyce at least, it has become a mark of the cognoscenti to admire prose fiction for its prose, rather than its fiction.
Martin Amis has become the star of his literary generation in Britain by leaving behind the fuddy-duddy Englishness of his father, Kingsley Amis, to adopt with enthusiasm the Hiberno-Continental view of the supreme literary virtue of a learned and coruscating prose style. He has worked very hard on his prose in The Information, as he has also done in his earlier books, and there has been little time left over for content. Plot has never been Amis's strong suit. Nor has characterization. Nor have ideas. They are still not. As for politics, he was recently quoted in the British press as saying that "every writer in England votes Labour;… there is nothing else to be."
But if you want muscular verbs and striking adjectives, piercingly original images and highly wrought metaphors that make you laugh out loud, if you want to browse through a miscellany of information about astronomy—which, by the way, is not the even more metaphysically portentous "information" of the title—Amis is your man. His subject is the male mid-life crisis, blown up, in his distinctive style, to epic and indeed cosmic proportions.
Actually, that style is in some ways more American, partaking of the Yankee fondness for hyperbole, than British. Dour understatement in the British fashion is no more to Martin Amis's liking than simple storytelling—or than American intellectual life, to judge by the long passage in this novel given over to an American journey by his two British writers, Gwyn Barry, who is fabulously successful, and Richard Tull, who is fabulously unsuccessful.
Like the lady who was of course still there between the mortarboard and the prosthetic legs (and what a moving acceptance speech she gave), like the laughing athlete who, after that mishap in the carpark, awoke to find himself running a network of charities from his padded rack, Richard had to see whether the experience of disappointment was going to make him bitter or better. And it made him bitter. He was sorry: there was nothing he could do about it. He wasn't up to better. Richard continued to review books. He was very good at book reviewing. When he reviewed a book, it stayed reviewed. Otherwise he was an ex-novelist (or not ex so much as void or phantom), the Literary Editor of The Little Magazine, and a Special Director of the Tantalus [vanity] Press.
Naturally, it is Richard with whom Amis, who has always had a penchant for the portrayal of failure on a heroic scale, identifies himself. But Richard and Gwyn are obviously literary and spiritual twins, whose convergence in the hurried final pages of the novel constitutes—insofar as it could be said to possess such a thing—its moral.
Actually, there is a shadowy Martin Amis figure who also appears here and there in the novel when it comes time for morals. It is he who explains all about astronomy and about "The Information"—the news of mortality and the middleaged man's dawning realization of it. The information is: You will die. It is this Amis figure, rather than Richard, who tells us that "The information is telling me to stop saying hi and to start saying bye." There is meant to be an obscure connection between this sad awareness of death and Richard's obsessive envy and hatred of Gwyn, but Amis does not have the patience to spell out what it is. Instead, he frames deep thoughts in, more or less, his own voice, as when he reflects on how people read a certain kind of thin-textured, big-content novel in airports:
Whatever junk novels were, however they worked, they were close to therapy, and airports were close to therapy. They both belonged to the culture of the waiting room. Piped music, the language of calming suasion. Come this way—yes, the flight attendant will see you now. Airports, junk novels: they were taking your mind off mortal fear.
Meanwhile, Richard is conspiring, for no very good reason, to get his friend beaten up, rejected, divorced, accused of plagiarism, or harried by petty worries—though all his plans, like his novels, fail and only serve to strengthen Gwyn further. Be he never so textural a writer, however, Amis cannot quite disregard the demands of character and of drama. And when we look for the Eliotic "objective correlative" we cannot help noticing that "mid-life crisis" is a pretty thin and a pretty glib explanation for the characteristically exaggerated hatred Richard feels for Gwyn. What is it he envies him for, anyway? Only money and celebrity, so far as we can see—an appropriately vulgar counterpart to the cheap pop-psychology of the "mid-life crisis."
It is not as if we cannot believe in the titanic proportions of Richard's envy so much as that it is inspired by trivialities. It is not Gwyn's literary success but all its tawdry trappings—the army of worshipful fans, the rock video, the teenaged groupies at Gwyn's book signings who ask him to autograph the insides of their thighs. Oh man! Can life get any better than this? Well, yes it can, actually. And Richard knows that too, for he would really rather destroy Gwyn, bring him down to his own level, than enjoy the life that Gwyn enjoys. You begin to see why his authorial alter ego is convinced that "there is nothing else to be" politically but a socialist.
It is also richly ironic that Martin Amis has himself become such a self-conscious celebrity in Britain because of this book and his divorce and his expensive dental work and the controversy about his publisher's advance of some three-quarters of a million dollars. Clearly, Amis is more Gwyn than Richard.
There is another convergence here—a convergence of art and life—that is also present in the novel. After Richard's return from America, when all his remaining hopes for his own success are dashed, and all his plans to ruin Gwyn have come to nothing, he suffers a kind of terminal resignation which is reflected in the perfunctoriness of the novel's efforts to tie up its loose ends. Richard engages in one last scheme to ruin Gwyn by contriving, with infinite trouble, to have him accused of plagiarism, but he abandons it at the point of success in the last few pages—just as there is a shocking revelation about his wife and an even more shocking incident involving his son, Marco.
None of this potentially dramatic stuff is developed at all. It is as if Amis himself partook of the spiritual lassitude of his hero:
It seemed to him that all the time he used to spend writing he now spent dying. His mind was free now…. This was the truth. And it shocked him. It shocked him to see it, naked. Literature wasn't about living. Literature was about not dying.
Suddenly he knew that writing was about denial.
Suddenly he knew that denial was great. Denial was so great. Denial was the best thing. Denial was even better than smoking.
Well, denial that takes the form of writing like this is certainly exhilarating. It excites us in the odd metaphor (the "dole quaffing fruit machines" in a sleazy pub), in the sensational simile (he imagines intercourse between old Casaubon and Dorothea in Middlemarch as "like trying to get a raw oyster into a parking meter"), in unexpected reversals (Gwyn's hotel suite in New York contains "bouquets and bowls of fruit, presumably real but impressively fake-looking"), and in plain funny jokes (Richard finds it strange that he feels dizzy because he "was very good at the party and carefully counted his drinks: he'd had 17").
Sometimes this kind of brilliance is sustained over a whole paragraph, as when he tells of Richard's first reaction on meeting Gina, his wife-to-be, when she was a cashier in a museum:
The world had not found out about her. How come? Because Richard knew it couldn't just be him. This was genetic celebrity, which had an audience and an essential value. In other times and climes her family would have kept her in a locked room and held an auction on her 16th birthday. Leaning forward at her desk, counting money, and sighing without weariness, she was ten years further on into womanhood—and the word, the phone calls and faxes, still had time to go out to the planet's playboys, all of them, from the pub spiv with his white-lipped salacities, up past the jodhpurred joke in his jeep, and right the way through to the kind of OPEC kleptocrat who blew half his GNP on his own Johnson. Richard felt the ignoble excitement of a Sotheby's smoothieboy buying a Titian from a tinker.
But, at the risk of proclaiming a philistine attachment to mere content, how much better the novel would have been if Amis had made some effort to create a character who could—as poor Gina, neglected as much by her creator as by her husband, never comes close to doing—live up to that description.
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SOURCE: "Discussions of Recent Books: A Black Comedy of Manners," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 72, No. 3, Summer, 1996, pp. 561-64.
[In the following negative review, Ward faults The Information, saying it "does not have a plot, it has predicaments and events." He also declares that "none of the characters in The Information comes close to being sympathetic."]
On its publication Martin Amis's The Information threatened to be avalanched by the various English literary and celebrity controversies of which its author was the lightning rod. Amis having his teeth fixed; Amis changing his agent thereby losing his friendship with author Julian Barnes who is the husband of Amis's now ex-agent; Amis hiring an American agent (nicknamed "The Jackal"!) and getting too much money for his next book(s); Amis divorcing; Amis generally getting too big for his britches; etc., etc. All this extra-literary brouhaha, which brawled over into the always decorous British tabloids, actually helped make people feel comfortable. It facilitated slotting The Information into easy categories: it was an expression of the author's "mid-life crisis" or a wicked literary roman a clef or Amis had "gone American." Since the subjects that Amis remorselessly anatomizes are so painful, displacement could be achieved by reducing literature to autobiography: "Boy, his teeth must have really hurt when he wrote this bit!"
But when A.S. Byatt castigated Amis for being money hungry, it is likely that her subtext, conscious or not, was her awareness that Amis was dynamiting not just the supposed gentility of the literary life but the very possibility of thought (including novels) and action. Byatt's Possession, after all, was a self-conscious homage to the novel, relying on a shared community of readers who could decode her lovingly recreated literary styles, solve the "puzzles," and resolve the narrative. Richard Tull, The Information's main character, has written a novel, Untitled, which not only has no audience but which physically strikes down those who do attempt it with bizarre and paralyzing medical conditions! No one gets past page nine without going to hospital. So the news from The Information is much worse and therefore much better: Amis has written a perfectly pitched expression of our late 20th-century dystopia.
Although it takes place during the 40th year of its two protagonists, The Information does not have a plot, it has predicaments and events. The narrative drive is provided by Amis's coruscating style, and no one is better than he at eviscerating modern life. In British law, the "information" is the bill of particulars, the charge, the indictment and Amis indicts. Richard Tull and Gwynn Barry are writers. After a promising start, Tull is unsuccessful, eking out a living with literary odd jobs—reviewing, working at a vanity press, and a little magazine whose name is The Little Magazine—while writing and not publishing novels. Gwynn Barry, Tull's college chum, started out untalented, unsuccessful, and through some kind of cosmic accident has become not only fantastically best selling but critically well-received. His writes soppy novels about a utopian community or commune—Amelior (from amelioration)—whose optimistic perfectability is counterpoint to society's increasing awfulness and presumably the reason for their international popularity. Barry is married to a minor royal, short-listed for the "Profundity Requital," a fabulously endowed new literary prize, and gives interviews in which he discusses his writing's relationship to carpentry.
At its basic level The Information is a black comedy of literary manners (anyone who reviews books has to cringe at the progression of slab-like lives that Tull grinds through: Love in a Maze: A Life of James Shirley or The Soul's Dark Cottage: A Life of Edmund Waller) and literary jealousy. There is a fabulously rendered American book tour which no one who hopes ever to give a reading should read. Inevitably, Barry's success drives Tull wild and he concocts various plots of escalating violence against his rival. None of them work, most of them backfire, and just when you think things can't get any worse, they do. In farce, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim for example, the denouement is a boulversement which sets things right so that every one goes home happy; Jim does turn out, against the odds, to indeed be lucky. Here, Martin Amis sets things even more horribly wrong. Tull gets a final stamp to his cliff-hanging fingernails. Barry is revealed as not quite the benignly self-satisfied chump he appears to be. His shredding of Tull's illusions and hopes is shattering both to Tull and—however unlikable Tull is—the reader. The failure of Tull's escalating plots is skeined around by Amis's larger purpose to show the breakdown not just of a friendship but of all connection, including cause and effect. When Tull hires the autodidactic hard-man Steve Cousins (who is Richard's only reader and fan!) to beat up Barry things go haywire and Tull himself gets thumped by the confused thugs. Inevitably, Tull is impotent, promiscuously impotent.
"The Knowledge" is London cabbie slang for the ability, a prerequisite for a hack license, to find any address in the city by a route from any other address in the city. "The Knowledge" is learned by tireless application, the aspirant cab driver tracing city streets so that the pattern becomes wholly known and comprehended to the point of being synaptically imprinted. In this process, "The Knowledge" is reified, becomes a noun. The chaotic and bewildering arrangement of streets is ordered through an act of reason. "The Knowledge," then, is a paradigm of an almost 18th-century rationalism: a subject which is wholly known and comprehended by cognitive (and physical) application. The cabbie is Diderot in a car mapping the world for the Encyclopedia, like early doctors tracing veins.
Amis only mentions "The Knowledge" in a quick passage but it is key as the antithesis of "The Information." Instead of a body of knowledge which can be known and mastered, "The Information" is something inflicted on and endured by helpless men. It is not the workings of the conscious, rational mind (the cabbie on his bike learning every mews) but of sub- or even unconsciousness: "And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night." In the scientific field of Information Theory, information has nothing to do with communication, rather it is synonymous with entropy. About the only scene we hear of in Richard Tull's Untitled is of "five unreliable narrators conversing on crossed mobile phone lines while stuck in the same revolving door," a tour de force image of cacophonous, incoherent entropy. Or as Amis writes in a perfectly balanced sentence of blockage: "The five lanes going out of the city were all blocked and the five lanes coming into the city were all blocked." So much for the efficient, rational progress implicit in "The Knowledge."
For Amis's fiction the paradox is that the obverse of Enlightenment ("The Knowledge") is not just the deconstructions of post-modernism but paralysis and collapse. We've built the enlightened city on the hill, lived in it for a while, and are now sliding inexorably off its dark side in terror. As Goya famously captioned capricho #43: "The sleep of reason produces monsters." One of The Information's comic riffs showing irrationality triumphing over rationality is a driving school which teaches not just bad but anarchically irresponsible driving. Instead of following rules, the student is taught to "To impress your personality on the road." A not so comic riff is an anonymous driver who blasts at random intervals through Richard Tull's residential streets, scattering walkers and enraging him. In one of his bleaker poems, "The Life with the Hole in It," Philip Larkin defined life as "The unbeatable slow machine/Which brings what you'll get." Well, Amis says, here's unbeatable life and here's the hole: try and tell them apart. Instead of the possibility of mastery, one can only submit to the inexorable. The speeding car will show up again and run over someone, probably you.
Amis's London Fields covered the destruction of civil society. Now he surveys the wreckage of the individual. There are Amis's now-familiar turns about the decrepitude and betrayal of the body, especially the bodies of fortyish men. Tull's bodily ills chart the progress of his failures to the point that he develops a phobia that he constantly smells of shit. More than this—if that's possible!—is a larger breakdown of feeling. None of the characters in The Information comes close to being sympathetic. Tull's self-regarding relief at an ex-lover's suicide ices the page. Barely able to conceive of the existence of others, let alone feel for or link with them, the characters have no clue about their own lives, work or emotions. We never actually hear what either's novel is about because neither can talk about them! Barry is at least sensible enough to come up with the hackneyed analogy with carpentry to "explain" his books to his public. Poor Richard Tull, attempting to uphold high art, is reduced to gibbering that the book is about what it is about and if he could talk about it he wouldn't have written it! In the end, Barry survives because his accidental success strokes his narcissism and cast-iron ego. For Tull, overloaded, all circuits fried, the only response is incoherence and a battered whimpering. The "information" leads men (this is a novel from which women are excluded both as characters and—perhaps—as readers) to "cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It's nothing. Just sad dreams." Men cry at night "because they don't know how to do it when they're awake."
The only redemption in The Information comes from Tull's children, and its a peculiar kind of redemption. First, Amis cutely draws the twins Marco and Marius so they are irresistable. They are unconditional in their love, no matter what Tull does or thinks, and Tull is weepingly grateful. But Marco has a learning disability—blockage again—so he has to read his children's stories with Tull helping him spell them out letter by letter. The scene where Marco and Richard laboriously decode "And the good boy and the bad boy went into the forest" is affecting but the point is that language devolving into fragmented symbols makes meaning impossible. And that Tull gives up trying to help his boy before they get to the word "forest." "Only connect?" Not bloody likely.
Words cannot express Martin Amis's achievement in The Information. I hate him.