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Portratit by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
Essays on MARTIN AMIS in
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
The Desperado Age: British Literature at
the Start of the Third Millennium,
Bucharest University Press, 2004
© Lidia Vianu
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999
Money. A Suicide Note (1984) is a talked novel, in the first person. Very much like Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine , Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and also in the style of Bellow and Updike. The novel is depressing and too rarely rewarding. John Self (the symbolism of the name is more than obvious) begins as a rich drunk (to say the least of it, since his list of vices is long), and ends up as a poor nobody with a dry-cleaned soul. As the novel progresses, he loses his money to an American aborted movie, his mistress (Selina Street, another obviously suggestive name) to an American businessman, his father (Barry Self confesses with animosity that John is not his son; John’s real father is Fat Vince, so we could jokingly say that he even loses his ‘self’), and his youth. He is unmoved by all these. Obsessed with pornography and drink, life is to him a tale of woe, made up mainly of four-letter words (which are sometimes longer, but just as vile). Martin Amis writes a novel about inner emptiness. We wriggle out of it with delight.
To begin with, it seems that there is no plot whatsoever. We listen to John Self talking to himself or begging us to sympathize with him. His ‘suicide note’ is signed ‘M. A.’ We are soon to find out that Martin Amis himself is a character in this novel. Unfortunately, the characters are all blurred and unconvincing. Fowles saw himself as a momentary character boarding a train in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Martin Amis boards this story as a writer and leaves it before we actually manage to learn anything about him.
The flux of events goes from London to New York and back. Every now and then, a remarkable sentence crosses Self’s mind. Such is,
‘Fear walks tall on this planet.’
John Self is a very frightened man while he has his money, and suddenly feels liberated once he is conned out of it. He is fat, he drinks, he chain smokes, he even uses drugs, he has an uncommonly dirty mind and sex life, he talks dirty, too. As a matter of fact, he is half American: his mother was American. She died when he was a child, and he was seven when he went to America, where he lived in New Jersey until he was fifteen. Now, in 1981, he is thirty-five, and dreaming of a ‘body transplant’ (his self is supposed to stay the same).
Fielding Goodney (another see-through name), his ‘money man,’ makes him sign papers which ruin him in the end. As a matter of fact, twenty-five-year-old Goodney turns out in the end to be forty and ‘a woman in bed,’ as well as a secret voice, which keeps following and menacing John Self. Fielding puts up an incredible scaffolding to steal Self’s money, and ends up in psychiatric correction. No character, actually, can be said to be in his right mind.
John Self keeps repeating, ‘My head is a city,’ ‘Memory’s a funny thing,’ but he can only make us feel that
‘my life is getting less memorable all the time.’
He very often addresses the reader directly:
‘you, the unknown Earthling, unknown to me.’
Do we enjoy sharing his fantasies? ‘I am a pornographic addict,’ he confesses. Just like Gray’s hero in 1982 Janine. For some reason, this addiction rules feeling out. The hero realizes he must ‘grow up,’ because (good old Eliot again) ‘It’s time.’ Time for what, we are not told. Not for suicide, anyway, because at the end of the book, John Self is very much alive and kicking (and poorer).
When Self first meets Amis, he muses:
‘The writer’s name, they tell me, is Martin Amis. Never heard of him. Do you know his stuff at all?’
But we must not blame Self, as he has not heard of Orwell, either. His friend, Martina Twain (wife of Ossie, who steals Self’s mistress, Selina Street) makes him read Animal Farm and 1984 for the first time. He works for an ‘advertising agency which produces its own television commercials.’ He wants to make more money, so he heads back for America to ‘earn lots more,’ and loses it all.
When Self first talks to Martin Amis, he goes straight to the point:
‘ ‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Your dad, he’s a writer too, isn’t he? Bet that made it easier.’
‘Oh, sure. It’s just like taking over the family pub.’ ‘
The author would like to have a sense of humour. He tries so hard that the reader feels awkward to pose as Queen Elizabeth and declare, We are not amused. All the more so as this is a book about our decade, with heroes who confess, like Self,
‘I am addicted to the twentieth century.’
Self’s uninterrupted interior monologue builds up into a kind of novel-vérité. Orality dispels the charm of fiction, it debunks suspense, it makes details unimportant and easily forgotten.
‘Time has me dangling,’ Self complains. We do not feel the same. Here and there we manage to smile, as when we read the description of Los Angeles:
‘This restaurant serves no drink, this one serves no meat, this one serves no heterosexuals. You can get your chimp shampooed, you can get your dick tattooed, twenty-four hours, but can you get lunch? And should you see a sign on the far side of the street flashing BEEF-BOOZE-NO STRINGS, then you can forget it. The only way to get across the road is to be born there. All the ped-xing signs say DON’T WALK, all of them, all the time. That is the message, the content of Los Angeles: don’t walk. Stay inside. Don’t walk. Drive. Don’t walk. Run! I tried the cabs. No use. The cabbies are all Saturnians who aren’t even sure whether this is a right planet or a left planet. The first thing you have to do, every trip, is teach them how to drive.’
We even feel closer to John Self flying in and out of New York, meditating:
‘Time is travelling. Night and day are moving past me in the wrong direction. I am falling behind.’
When Martin Amis the character discusses contemporaneity, we share his opinion:
‘...we’re pretty much agreed that the twentieth century is an ironic age – downward looking. Even realism, rockbottom realism, is considered a bit grand for the twentieth century.’
Yet this novel is supposed to be realistic. Amis the hero even talks about the ‘blackness of modern writing.’ He tries to create a hilarious version of realism. Self’s account of an opera he sees is edifying for his whole attitude:
‘Luckily I must have seen the film or the TV spin-off of Othello, for despite its dropped aitch the musical version stuck pretty faithfully to a plot I knew well. The language problem remained a problem but the action I could follow without that much effort. The flash spade general arrives to take up a position on some island, in the olden days there, bringing with him the Lady-Di figure as his bride. Then she starts diddling one of his lieutenants, a funloving kind of guy whom I took to immediately. Same old story. Now she tries one of these double-subtle numbers on her husband – you know, always rooting for the boyfriend and singing his praises. But Othello’s sidekick is on to them, and, hoping to do himself some good, tells all to the guvnor. This big spade, though, he can’t or won’t believe it. A classic situation. Well, love is blind, I thought, and shifted in my seat.’
Empty of substance, the characters run the risk of turning into mere masks. The plot is not exactly appealing and its directness amazes. Self cries out to the reader:
‘Identify. Sympathize. Lend me your time.’
The more he suffers, the less we feel, because nobody takes anything seriously in this book. Amis meditates:
‘Towards the end of a novel you get a floppy feeling...’
In that case, this novel ends on every page. Before committing suicide, Self lets us know:
‘My life was a joke. My death will be serious.’
But he does not die. The suicide note is a fake. The whole novel is a huge fake. An interminable monologue.
Martin Amis may have tried to be entertaining and heart-rending at the same time. He writes a long novel, which gratified neither our need to be diverted, nor our ability to sympathize. We feel downright moralistic when we finish reading this novel, and we hate ourselves for that. The writer makes us linger uncomfortably within our own minds. We feel like running away to the nearest life and renting it. He writes in a renting manner – if we can call it that – from everybody’s point of view. The text has no privacy. The reader is constantly caught naked and refuses the mirror in the end. Money is the rejected suicide note of a writer in search of his own deeper voice.
The Information (1995) rents the novel and finds the rent too high, so it drops the place altogether. We are confronted with Huxley’s Point Counter Point technique, combined with a touch of Joyce (like a touch of flu), which makes the language too encoded for the comforts of a plot. Meaning is a maze of unfinished sentences and hidden pieces of information. Nobody does anything, nobody goes anywhere, we all drown with the characters – who are more names than beings, with the author himself, in an ocean of incomprehensibility. Beware of the Ides of March, Caesar was warned. Beware of the words of Amis, before it is too late and you have reached the end of the adventure without having been enlightened in the least. Here is its end:
„The Man in the Moon is getting younger every year. Your watch knows exactly what time is doing to you: tsk, tsk, it says, every second of every day. Every morning we leave more in the bed, more of ourselves, as our bodies make their own preparations for reunion with the cosmos. Beware the aged critic with his hair of winebar sawdust. Beware the nun and the witchy buckles of her shoes. Beware the man at the callbox, with the suitcase: this man is you. The planesaw whines, whining for its planesaw mummy. And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night.’
The novel begins with the same ‘nothing’, and we may well wonder if there is anything in between:
‘Cities at night, I feel contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that…’
The names of the characters hardly matter. There is the successful writer and his wife, plus his best friend – and worst enemy at the same time – and his own wife, two twins added. Three enigmatic characters belong to the low world of violence, as a memento of A Clockwork Orange. The main names are Gwyn Barry and his wife Demeter, Richard Tull and his wife Gina, plus Marius and Marco. All that brings them together is endless hatred. Hatred for the sake of hatred. Dry, sterile thunder, in Eliot’s words, without rain…
Not much is happening. Both novelists turn forty. They go on a tour to America – the new obsession of British writers, then come back to their respective universes, one of success, the other of envy. Gwyn is overpraised, Richard is impotent. Gwyn hates Richard because he wins at tennis, chess and all games – but literature, Richard is on the point of writing a profile of the famous Gwyn Barry, and even framing him with plagiarism, when he finds him having sex with Gina, formerly his own sexual obsession, presently his wife. Gwyn is not in love with Gina. He is not in love with anyone, although he acts as if Demi were his only true love. He just wants to spite Richard. The only thing this novel does is to achieve suspense by showing us that Richard is not alone in his hatred. He hates Gwyn beyond any reasonable limit, but Gwyn hates him just as much. With this precious revelation that balances the plot, we hurry out of Martin Amis’s (amo? amiss?) loveless world with an immense burden of bitterness.
Language, linguistical puzzles, rather, are the major focus of the book. The sadness of the author – who is trying his more than best to be funny – erupts from place to place. Richard Tull cries at night, then wakes up:
‘He was in a terrible state – that of consciousness.’
In Yeats’ tonality, he muses, ‘the young sleep in another country’. The author makes us share his creation, he makes us writers, he takes us as accomplices, and this is the hidden reason why we feel we cannot leave the book unfinished. He treats us as his equals, who know whatever he knows, we are prompted to produce word after word out of our own hats.
Richard’s latest novel is called Untitled, Gwyn’s great hit is Amelior. The author takes neither seriously, but the two novelists are ready to kill, each for his own masterpiece. Born within one day from each other, Richard and Gwyn could not feel more different in everything, and yet so disgustingly close that they would give their right hand (and write no more?) to hurt each other, fatally wound, erase forever. The author favours Richard, probably, because most insights reveal his dark impulses. Gwyn is soiled with soot only at the end of the book, after three hundred pages of angelic innocence. Or so it seems.
Pushing Gwyn to the brink of imagination with each of his thoughts, Richard feels ‘some of us are slaves in our own lives.’ Gwyn, he muses, is ‘a writer, in England, at the end of the twentieth century.’ What is left for himself? Books never published, hard work rewarded by failure, novels that send their readers to hospital with horrible (and real) brain damage. Amis could hardly get bitterer than that.
The title of the book applies to everything that goes on, but has one specific meaning: the information that Gwyn Barry is guilty of plagiarism. Richard Tull feeds this news to Rory Plantagenet, former school fellow, whom he has been selling literary gossip for years now. We are told that
‘Rory paid for the information.’
Unfortunately this juicy bit turns against Richard (who manufactured the alleged original by typing Gwyn’s novel and changing it here and there himself), whose own wife seems to belong to Gwyn. In the meantime, though, we have found out from inside sources – care of the author – that Gwyn himself is not that happy a soul. He has his own envy, emptiness and bitterness to fight. But Richard does not know it. The whole novel is a long interval of wait: will Gwyn lose what he has? Well, Gwyn does not have so very much, and the author finally mocks at his two novelist-heroes. He mocks at literature, at his own book, at the genre of the novel as such:
‘We keep waiting for something to go wrong with the seasons. But has already gone wrong with the genres. They have all bled into one another. Decorum is no longer observed.’
Considering that ‘all writing is infidelity;’ we might also say that only two incidents take place in this rather too long novel: Richard goes to bed with Anstice, his secretary, who mistakes his impotence for arduous virility. Anstice tells Gina all about it, but Richard has no idea, and keeps talking to Anstice on the phone an hour daily, to prevent her from repairing what actually never happened. Gina needs revenge, so, second incident, she has a loveless affair with Gwyn. Conclusion? From the way Amis writes, nobody is in love with anyone, but they keep trying to get the others in bed. Why? Just for the envy, the rage, the heck of it.
As for the new feature of the novel, Richard tries to enlarge on that:
‘When we started out I think we both hoped to take the novel somewhere new. I thought the way forward was with style. And complexity. But you saw that it was all to do with subject.’
Gwyn listens with ‘dignified unsurprise.’ So do we. Which one is Amis trying to steal into? The decent guess might be ‘style’, but we cannot deny him a certain sense of plot, either. Considering the approaching end of the world, he may already have been forgotten:
‘… the oceans will be boiling. The human story, or at any rate the terrestrial story will be coming to an end. I don’t honestly expect you to be reading me by then.’
Richard knows he can only produce ‘fanatically difficult modern prose.’ Does Amis do that, too?
The author’s trips into description of ‘modernism’ are interesting as critical theory. Richard, for instance, is a ‘marooned modernist’, while Gwyn knows that the art lies in ‘pleasing the readers’:
‘Modernism was a brief divagation into difficulty; but Richard was still out there, in difficulty. He didn’t want to please the readers. He wanted to stretch them until they twanged.’
Richard seems to be trying ‘to write genius novels, like Joyce.’ He merely manages to be ‘unreadable.’ He longs to be read and successful, but it just does not happen. He despises Gwyn’s popularity and cannot explain it to himself. Amis does not explain it, either.
Martin Amis had rented the shape of the novel for a few long hundred pages, but he leaves it, driven away by an obvious powerlessness to settle. His characters are somewhat powerless to exist. Their author is powerless when it comes to winning our sympathy. We could conclude that Martin Amis is, in these two novels, a Desperado of powerless fiction.